Drugs Found in Hair of Ancient Andean Mummies

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Some snuff kits have been found bearing powder from the vilca tree, whose seeds are rich in hallucinogens. Also, X-rays of Tiwanaku skulls have in many cases revealed nasal damage that was likely caused by frequent sniffing.

The incorporation of snuffing imagery into Tiwanaku ceramics, woodwork, stonework, and textiles have been seen to suggest that snuffing rituals played an important role in Tiwanaku culture.

Still, no traces of hallucinogens had been found in Tiwanaku mummies until now, perhaps because the compounds broken down over time.

Drug Trade

The only plant in South America known to contain harmine is the jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which is used by modern-day Amazonian natives to help make an infusion known as ayahuasca for shamanic rituals. (Read more about ayahuasca.)

This rain forest plant does not grow along the Atacama coast, suggesting extensive trade networks that brought the vine from as far as the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is roughly 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the Azapa Valley, study co-author Ogalde said.

"A lot of people had suggested contact across the Amazon and the Atacama desert, and it's nice to have more hard data for that theory," said UCLA's Vranich.

The Tiwanaku may have actively searched for exotic hallucinogens to draw others to their culture, Vranich said.

"One of the sources of the mystique of the Tiwanaku—one of the reasons a lot of people may have subscribed to their religion—would have been such a mind-altering substance," he explained.

"It would have been a tremendous draw, especially when the rest of normal life in the rural Andes during that period would have been comparatively quite mundane and dull."

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