Ancient hallucinogens found in 1,000-year-old shamanic pouch

The ritual container, made of three fox snouts, contains the earliest known evidence of ayahuasca preparation.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 7 May 2019, 16:28 BST
Photograph by Lunae Parracho, Reuters

A small pouch, made from three fox snouts neatly sewn together, may contain the world’s earliest archaeological evidence for the consumption of ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant preparation indigenous to peoples of the Amazon basin that produces potent hallucinations.

The pouch likely belonged to a shaman in what is now southwestern Bolivia around a thousand years ago, according to José Capriles, an anthropologist at Penn State University and an author of a paper published on the discovery today in the journal PNAS.

Capriles found the pouch—and evidence of its trip-inducing contents—during a 2010 archaeological dig in Cueva del Chileno, a rock shelter that shows signs of human activity going back 4,000 years.

The cave was once used as a tomb, and although later looters took the bodies, they left behind what they considered to be garbage—beads, braids of human hair, and what Capriles first thought was a leather shoe.

That “shoe” turned out to be an archaeological treasure—actually a leather ritual bag or bundle containing the fox-snout pouch, a decorated headband, tiny spatulas made from llama bone, and a carved tube and small wooden platforms for inhaling substances. Radiocarbon dating of the leather bag surface indictaed it was used sometime between around 900 to 1170 A.D.

Plenty of psychoactive substances

While the bundle contained some dried plant remains, Capriles and his international research team weren’t able to determine their identity with certainty. Still, wondering what other plants the shaman once stored in his bag, the researchers tested the chemical signature from the inside of the fox-snout pouch against those of a variety of plants.

It turns out the pouch once contained a number of psychoactive substances. The analysis revealed traces of bufotenine, benzoylecgonine (BZE) and cocaine (likely from coca leaf), dimethyltryptamine (DMT), harmine, and possibly psilocin, a chemical component of psychedelic mushrooms.

The pouch’s owner was either well-travelled or connected to a vast trade network, as not all of the plants once present in the pouch are native to southwestern Bolivia. Harmine is abundant in the yage plant, which comes from tropical parts of northern South America, hundreds of miles away. And the team thinks the DMT may have been from chacruna, a plant from the Amazonian lowlands. “This person was moving very large distances or had access to people who were,” says Capriles.

A healer offers ayahuasca during a ritual healing ceremony in Colombia. The Bolivian cave discovery is now the earliest archaeological evidence for ayahuasca consumption.
Photograph by Eitan Abramovich, AFP, Getty

The suspected shaman also had access to powerful psychedelic experiences, likely thanks to a combination of harmine and DMT. Harmine-containing yage is the primary ingredient in modern-day ayahuasca, and is often combined with DMT-containing chacruna. Together, the substances interact to cause powerful hallucinations – along with nausea and vomiting.

A deep time perspective

Though ayahuasca is touted today as an “ancient” preparation, the actual age of the brew and ritual are contested. Capriles’s find can be considered the world’s earliest archaeological evidence of ayahuasca consumption, although there’s no way to prove that the shaman at Cueva del Chileno actually brewed or administered ayahuasca from the ingredients detected in the pouch.

Modern ayahuasca preparations “are idiosyncratic,” says Dennis McKenna, an ethnopharmacologist who specializes in plant hallucinogens and leads modern-day ayahuasca retreats. “Every shaman practically has his own brew.” But he agrees that the substances found in the Cueva del Chileno shaman’s pouch could have been used to prepare ayahuasca.

“People have been arguing that [ayahuasca] was mostly a recent thing,” says Scott Fitzpatrick, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon who was not involved with the research. “The ayahuasca ritual has a deep time perspective now.”

Today, ayahuasca is enjoying newfound popularity. Its psychedelic effects—and its potential psychiatric benefits for people with mood disorders and illnesses—fuel demand both in South America and the United States, where shamans offer ayahuasca ceremonies for curious practitioners.

'Astonishing' experiences

Capriles concedes that the discovery could well be used to advertise modern ayahuasca rituals aimed at tourists, but he emphasizes the sacred nature of the shaman’s work. “These people were not just tripping because of entertainment,” he says.

Nor was the ritual bundle left in the cave by accident. “We believe that it was left intentionally,” he adds. “This is a typical behavior that you see in ritually charged places.”

Modern users don’t necessarily try the drug for spiritual reasons, says McKenna. “It’s used very differently these days—not necessarily in a worse way, but a different way.”

But McKenna, who has spent years studying and sampling ayahuasca, sees common ground between ancient healers and those seeking powerful psychedelic experiences today. “When I use these substances, I am usually astonished by what I experience,” he says. “They must have been astonished, too.”


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