New study sheds light on drug culture in Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Unlike modern Man, ancient inhabitants of the Andes did not use mind-altering substances simply for their hedonistic pleasure. The use of alcohol and plant drugs was highly regulated and went hand-in-hand with their belief system and sacred rituals. A new study published in the journal Antiquity and reported in Discovery News has sought to shed light on these traditions once held by the people of Tiwanaku, an ancient city-state located near Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
A team of archaeologists from the Fundación Bartolomé de Las Casas in La Paz, Bolivia, analyzed artifacts associated with ingestion of hallucinogens, which were unearthed during excavations at Cueva del Chileno. The objects, which date back around 1,500 years, were found in a ritual bundle and include snuffing tablets, a wooden snuffing tube, spatulas, fox-snout leather container, and polychrome textile headband
“Snuffing tablets in the Andes were primarily used by ritual specialists, such as shamans,” lead author Juan Albarracin-Jordan told Discovery News. “Psychotropic substances, once extracted from plants, were spread and mixed on the tablets. Inhalation tubes were then used to introduce the substances through the nose into the system.”
Artifacts recovered from the ritual bundle: a) wooden snuffing tube; b) fox-snout leather container; and c) polychrome textile headband. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd.
Ritual bundle recovered from Cueva del Chileno: a) leather bag or atado; b) large snuffing tablet; c) small snuffing tablet; d) camelid-bone spatulas; and e) vegetable and camelid fiber fragments. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd.
The researchers believe that elite members of the Tiwanaku society held tight control over the access and circulation of mind-altering substances, although other members of their society may have been given permission to use the psychedelic substances at special occasions such as public events and celebrations or at private healing ceremonies.
Albarracin-Jordan explained that the people of Tiwanaku believed that consumption of the plant-based hallucinogens enabled them to cross “between the natural and the supernatural” and “between the living and the dead”.
In addition to evidence of drug-taking, the research team also found items, including drinking cups known as ‘kerus’, which are related to the consumption of chicha, an alcoholic brew made from fermented corn. Chicha has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout in the Andes for millennia. It is known that the Inca used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals.
Cueva del Chileno, where the artifacts were found. Credit: Antiquity Publications Ltd.
Tiwanaku is recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most important civilizations prior to the Inca Empire; it was the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately five hundred years, up until its decline in 1,000 AD. At this time a dramatic shift in climate occurred and many of the cities furthest away from Lake Titicaca began to produce fewer crops to give to the elites. As the surplus of food dropped, the elites' power began to fall. With continued drought, people died or moved elsewhere.
One of the study authors, Jose ́Capriles, said that the drug culture declined after the disintegration of the Tiwanaku state. However, consumption of chicha continued and is now considered Bolivia’s national drink.
Featured image: Ancient relief carving depicting drug use. Photo source .