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Drugs Found in Hair of Ancient Andean Mummies

Charles Q. Choi
for National Geographic News
October 22, 2008
 
The first hard evidence of psychoactive drug use in the ancient Andes has been discovered in mummies' hair, a new study says.

The finding confirms that predecessors of the Inca known as the Tiwanaku used mind-altering substances, and hints that the civilization relied on far-reaching trade networks to obtain the drugs.

Scientists recently analyzed 32 naturally mummified Tiwanaku bodies discovered in northern Chile's Azapa Valley, which lies in the Atacama Desert.

The researchers discovered a compound called harmine in hairs from an adult male and a one-year-old baby, who both date to sometime between A.D. 800 and 1200. Harmine can help humans absorb hallucinogens and may be a powerful antidepressant.

"These individuals probably ingested harmine in therapeutic or medicinal practices, some maybe related to pregnancy and childbirth," said study co-author Juan Pablo Ogalde, a chemical archaeologist at the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile.

"However, it is possible also that consumption of harmine was involved in religious rituals, said Ogalde, whose research appeared online October 14 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

X-rays showed that the adult male—who was buried with items of social prestige such as panpipes, a four-pointed hat, and a snuffing tray—had damage near the nose, perhaps from sniffing.

As for the baby, Ogalde speculated that the mother had consumed the drug and passed it on to her offspring during pregnancy or breast-feeding.

"The fact this mind-altering substance was found even with a one-year-old shows how much a part of their life it was," said archaeologist Alexei Vranich of the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study.

Habitual Users

The empire of the Tiwanaku once ranged from what is now northern Chile to southern Peru. (See a map of South America.) Between roughly A.D. 500 and 1000, they expanded from their origins on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca via religious control and military might.

Elaborately decorated snuffing kits have been found in hundreds of Tiwanaku tombs. Archaeologists think these trays and tubes were used to inhale herbs, perhaps ceremonially.

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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