Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America
Humans have a long history of using natural resources, especially plants, to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. Imbibing substances derived from plants have been linked to ancient and elaborate knowledge systems and rituals. While archaeological evidence of the consumption of psychotropics, such as alcohol or caffeine, dates back thousands of years, evidence of the use of other psychoactive substances has been more difficult to document. This article presents the results of chemical analyses of organic residues found in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle recovered from the highland Andes. The analyses provide evidence of the use of multiple psychoactive plants associated with a sophisticated botanical knowledge system among ritual specialists (shamans) during pre-Columbian times.
Over several millennia, various native plant species in South America have been used for their healing and psychoactive properties. Chemical analysis of archaeological artifacts provides an opportunity to study the use of psychoactive plants in the past and to better understand ancient botanical knowledge systems. Liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) was used to analyze organic residues from a ritual bundle, radiocarbon dated to approximately 1,000 C.E., recovered from archaeological excavations in a rock shelter located in the Lípez Altiplano of southwestern Bolivia. The site is located at an elevation of ∼3,900 m above sea level and contains evidence of intermittent human occupations during the last 4,000 years. Chemical traces of bufotenine, dimethyltryptamine, harmine, and cocaine, including its degradation product benzoylecgonine, were identified, suggesting that at least three plants containing these compounds were part of the shamanic paraphernalia dating back 1,000 years ago, the largest number of compounds recovered from a single artifact from this area of the world, to date. This is also a documented case of a ritual bundle containing both harmine and dimethyl-tryptamine, the two primary ingredients of ayahuasca. The presence of multiple plants that come from disparate and distant ecological areas in South America suggests that hallucinogenic plants moved across significant distances and that an intricate botanical knowledge was intrinsic to pre-Columbian ritual practices.
Keywords : archaeometry | liquid chromatography mass spectrometry | hallucinogen |
exchange | shamanism
Throughout history and across diverse cultures, humans have sought out and utilized various substances to alter perception and ordinary conscious experiences (1–3). Entheogens are a group of substances with known psychoactive effects that are used within spiritual and religious ritual contexts, often with a goal of awakening, transcendence, and/or personal development (4). Many Native American cultures, both past and present, have drawn on their botanical knowledge and incorporated particular species into ritual, social, and medicinal practices (5–14). There are numerous plant species native to South America that contain psychoactive compounds, and their use by ancient specialists provides significant clues concerning past knowledge systems and the importance of certain species for cultural practices (5, 11, 15). Hallucinogenic plants, in particular, have been used in numerous American contexts to establish a bridge between society and supernatural forces (6, 7, 9, 16, 17). In South America, the ethnographic documentation of the consumption of some critical plants has been linked with a deeper history of their use by means of archaeological research (18). Archaeometric studies have demonstrated the consumption of a few plant species such as coca (Erythroxylum coca) (19–22), vilca or cebil (Anadenanthera spp.) (17, 23, 24), tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) (12, 25), and yage/ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) (15). This paper adds to those previous studies by demonstrating the consumption of many of
these resources together. Using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), we tested for the presence of psychoactive compounds in the materials that composed a 1,000- year-old ritual bundle excavated in a dry rock shelter from southwestern Bolivia.