In a rock shelter in the highlands of southwest Bolivia amid the rubble of an area once set aside for funerary rituals, archaeologists found a leather-wrapped bundle of tools for preparing and inhaling snuff. They radiocarbon-dated the bundle to between 905 and 1170 CE, which is when the Tiwanaku Empire (a predecessor of the Inca and rival of the nearby Wari) was crumbling into smaller regional states.
Chemical analysis reveals that the bundle once contained a small assortment of psychoactive plants, including coca leaves and ayahuasca.
Unwrapping a shaman’s bundle
Archaeologists Melanie Miller, José Capriles, and their colleagues used mass spectrometry to identify traces of cocaine, along with four other compounds, inside a hide pouch sewn from the skins of three fox snouts.
One compound, harmine, points to a plant called ayahuasca. Amazonian people brew it into a mind-altering tea, which also has traditional medicinal uses. Mixed with a plant called chacruna, the brew can produce vivid hallucinations. Small amounts of a compound called DMT could come from chacruna or from the seeds of a tree called vilca (whose name means “sacred” in the Quechua language of Peru). So it’s hard to say whether this was a ritual blend or a medicinal one. There’s not much archaeological evidence for ayahuasca, aside from traces of harmine in the hair of two Tiwanaku mummies from northern Chile who date from between 400 and 900 CE. So anthropologists still don’t agree on how long ago people started using it.
The cocaine, of course, came from coca leaves, which modern indigenous people in South America chew or brew into tea—sometimes for social or ritual purposes but also to treat pain, altitude sickness, or digestive problems. Traces of cocaine have turned up in several mummies from Chile and Peru, but archaeologists aren’t sure if those traces came from rituals, medicine, or both.
Another molecule (bufotenine) probably came from the vilca seed. Modern indigenous people in the region grind the seeds and inhale them as snuff or mix them into drinks like chicha. The resulting drug can be a stimulant or induce hallucinations, depending on how it’s taken. So far, it has turned up in a few Tiwanaku snuff tubes and two mummies.
The end of an empire
If the plants in the bundle were used as hallucinogens, they weren’t recreational. Their purpose would have been to help shamans fulfill their role as intermediaries between the realm of the living and the realm of gods and spirits. But cocaine and ayahuasca, in particular, could also have been used for medicinal purposes, so we can’t be sure whether the Tiwanaku shaman kept them on hand for rituals or as a first-aid kit.
Either way, the find suggests that even in the declining days of the Tiwanaku Empire, shamans knew how to use a variety of plants (probably for both ritual and medicine) and how to obtain them from far afield. Ayahuasca and chacruna are both native to the Amazon Basin lowlands, and vilca also grows at altitudes well below those of the Bolivian highlands. The Tiwanaku shaman would have had to trade or travel to get his hands on the right ingredients.
The intricately carved bone spatulas, wooden trays, and tubes wrapped up in the leather bundle look just like the accoutrements of the shamanic religion that once flourished in the empire’s heartland. As such, it offers a hint that the religion continued to thrive, even at the edge of the former empire.