Scientists Find 1,000-Year-Old Shaman’s Bag in Bolivia

An international team of anthropologists and bioarchaeologists has found the primary ingredients of ayahuasca — a plant-based drink that is reported to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness — in a 1,000-year-old leather bundle from a rock shelter in the Bolivian Andes.

Two of the artifacts from the 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from Cueva del Chileno, southwestern Bolivia: the impressive pouch constructed of three fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) snouts stitched together (foreground), and the colorful textile headband (background). Image credit: Jose Capriles / Penn State.

Two of the artifacts from the 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from Cueva del Chileno, southwestern Bolivia: the impressive pouch constructed of three fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) snouts stitched together (foreground), and the colorful textile headband (background). Image credit: Jose Capriles / Penn State.

“We already knew that psychotropics were important in the spiritual and religious activities of the societies of the south-central Andes, but we did not know that these people were using so many different compounds and possibly combining them together,” said Dr. Jose Capriles, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

Dr. Capriles and colleagues were searching for ancient occupations in the dry rock shelters of the dry Sora River valley in the Lipez Altiplano region of southwestern Bolivia when they found a ritual bundle as part of a human burial.

The bundle contained a large leather bag with a pair of carved wooden snuffing tablets, a snuffing tube, a pair of llama-bone spatulas, a colorful textile headband, fragments of dried plant stems held together by wool and fiber strings and a pouch stitched from three fox snouts.

Radiocarbon dating traced the bundle to 905-1170 CE.

The 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from Cueva del Chileno, southwestern Bolivia: (A) outer leather bag, (B and C) expertly carved and decorated wooden snuffing tablets with anthropomorphic figurines, (D) intricate anthropomorphic snuffing tube with two human hair braids attached to it, (E) animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts stitched together, (F) two camelid (Lama glama) bone spatulas, (G) two small pieces of dried plant material attached to wool and fiber strings, and (H) a polychrome woven textile headband. Image credit: Miller et al, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1902174116.

The 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from Cueva del Chileno, southwestern Bolivia: (A) outer leather bag, (B and C) expertly carved and decorated wooden snuffing tablets with anthropomorphic figurines, (D) intricate anthropomorphic snuffing tube with two human hair braids attached to it, (E) animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts stitched together, (F) two camelid (Lama glama) bone spatulas, (G) two small pieces of dried plant material attached to wool and fiber strings, and (H) a polychrome woven textile headband. Image credit: Miller et al, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1902174116.

“This period in this location is associated with the disintegration of the Tiwanaku state and the emergence of regional polities,” Dr. Capriles noted.

The scientists obtained a tiny scraping from the interior of the fox-snout pouch, which likely belonged to a shaman, and analyzed the material using liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.

They identified the presence of multiple psychoactive compounds: cocaine, benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine), harmine, bufotenin, dimethyltryptamine and possibly psilocin (a compound found in some mushrooms).

These compounds came from at least three different plant species — likely Erythroxylum coca, a species of Anadenanthera, and Banisteriopsis caapi.

“The bundle was likely used by local ritual specialists, or shamans, who acted as intermediaries between natural and supernatural worlds, entering into altered states to connect living people with deities and ancestors thought to exist in other worlds,” said Dr. Melanie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

“Shamans were ritual specialists who had knowledge of plants and how to use them as mechanisms to engage with supernatural beings, including venerated ancestors who were thought to exist in other realms,” Dr. Capriles added.

“It is possible that the shaman who owned this pouch consumed multiple different plants simultaneously to produce different effects or extend his or her hallucinations.”

Two of the identified compounds — harmine and dimethyltryptamine — are the primary ingredients of modern ayahuasca preparations.

“This chemical evidence suggests the possibility of an early form of ayahuasca-type preparation combining plants containing harmine and tryptamines such as dimethyltryptamine and/or bufotenine,” Dr. Miller said.

“Scholars believe that ayahuasca has relatively recent origins, while others argue that it may have been used for centuries, or even millennia,” Dr. Capriles said.

“Given the presence of harmine and dimethyltryptamine together in the pouch we found, it is likely that this shaman ingested these simultaneously to achieve a hallucinogenic state, either through a beverage, such as ayahuasca, or through a composite snuff that contained these plants in a single mixture. This finding suggests that ayahuasca may have been used up to 1,000 years ago.”

“The presence of these compounds indicates the owner of this kit had access to at least three plants with psychoactive compounds, but potentially even four or five,” Dr. Miller said.

“None of the psychoactive compounds we found come from plants that grow in this area of the Andes, indicating either the presence of elaborate exchange networks or the movement of this individual across diverse environments to procure these special plants.”

“This discovery reminds us that people in the past had extensive knowledge of these powerful plants and their potential uses, and they sought them out for their medicinal and psychoactive properties.”

The discovery is reported in a paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Melanie J. Miller et al. Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America. PNAS, published online May 6, 2019; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1902174116

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