UC Berkeley archaeologist, colleagues discover evidence of ancient psychoactive substances

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UC Berkeley archaeologist Melanie Miller and her colleagues have discovered evidence that an ancient civilization in South America known as the Tiwanaku created plant-based psychoactive substances.

Miller and her colleagues Juan Albarracin-Jordan, Christine Moore, and José M. Capriles published a paper about their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 6.

By scraping and analyzing samples from a pouch made of fox heads and from an archaeological plant stem, the researchers found that the bundle containing the two items had traces of five different psychoactive compounds. According to the paper, some of the compounds found were associated with plants such as cocaine and yopo, as well as the compounds dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and harmine.

According to Thomas Carlson, a professor in the campus department of integrative biology, the presence of these compounds indicates that the Tiwanaku used plants like Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi. A mixture of these plants is often found in ayahuasca, which is defined in the paper as a hypernym for a range of psychotropic concoctions.

“DMT stimulates tryptamine receptors in the brain, which can cause hallucinations,” Carlson said. “The harmine … inhibits the enzyme that breaks down DMT, so by combining those two plants, it increases the effect of the DMT. So humans figured … out a long time ago how to put these two together.”

Shamans may have used the mixture of harmine and DMT to experience hallucinations, either through making ayahuasca or through making a snuff that has the same effects, the paper concludes.

According to Christine Hastorf, a professor of archaeology at UC Berkeley, artifacts such as trays and pestles that allude to drug use have been discovered in the past, but this is the first time that the drug use of this ancient civilization has been proven on a molecular level.

“What this tells us is that people were bringing Amazonian plants to the highlands,” Hastorf said. “We’ve had evidence for a thousand years before of tools that are used to process the substances, the plants, but we just didn’t have the chemical evidence.”

Whether the presence of these species of plants was a result of trade or of shamans specifically seeking out these plants is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Tiwanaku ritual specialists may have mixed different kinds of plants to create unique psychoactive substances.

According to Hastorf, who studied the Tiwanaku herself, this culture treated psychoactive experiences as spiritual experiences, and their ingestion was often life-threatening. Unlike Westerners, who often try ayahuasca in the name of recreation, the Tiwanaku and similar cultures in the region regarded these substances as medicinal and used it to contact the spirit world and powerful beings for guidance on what to do in specific circumstances.

“This is a long tradition. This is the piece of evidence we can now put into our database,” Hastorf said. “Now we have one little strong piece of evidence to prove the use of these substances.”

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.