Humans love to do drugs. It's one of our absolute favorite things and we've become pretty good at it over the millennia. We know that Mesoamerican cultures used psychedelic mushrooms and cactus species, and cannabis has a long and storied history all over the world. That's a far cry from the menu of mind altering substances seemingly divined from a bowl of alphabet soup that today's wayward youth have at their disposal, but you'd be wrong to think ancient ingestion of psychotropic substances was confined only to that which can be picked from the ground and either eaten or smoked. A discovery in Bolivia seems to show that people were shoving weird mixtures of powdered drugs up their noses at least as far back as 1,000 years.
Researchers discovered the ancient burial site of Cueva del Chileno in 2008, high up in Bolivia's Andes mountains. Next to the burial mound they found a small leather bag containing ancient drug paraphernalia: bone spatulas to crush seeds, wooden tablets inlaid with gemstones on which to crush the seeds, a wooden tube with a carved figure used for inhaling the crushed seeds, and a small pouch made from three fox snouts stitched together. Basically the kit that every professional attendee of music festivals has on them at all times, except crafted with care and respect and most likely never used inside a plastic port-a-potty.
It wasn't until this year that scientists examined the contents of the pouch made from fox snouts. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand subjected the powder found in the pouch to a technique called liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry, and found that the pouch contained the most varied mixture of psychotropic substances ever found in South America. At least five different substances were identified: cocaine, benzoylecgonine, bufotenine, harmine, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Interestingly, some of the chemicals found within the pouch are not native to the region. Melanie Miller, lead author of the study, says:
“Whoever had this bag of amazing goodies … would have had to travel great distances to acquire those plants. [Either that], or they had really extensive exchange networks.”
Also intriguing is that harmine and DMT are two principal ingredients in Ayahuasca, the well-known magic potion of the South American rainforest. Finding these two ingredients in powdered form suggests that people may have crushed and insufflated these two chemicals before ever brewing them together in a tea.
According to Miller, this specific mixture may have been unique to this region, and perhaps even this shaman. She says it's possible this shaman may have been specifically selecting plants for not just their effects, but the way they interact with each other. Miller says:
“Maybe they were mixing multiple things together because they realized when they’re combined, they have a whole different set of experiences.”
Anyone who has ever been to a music festival can attest to the fact that, yes, this is something people do.
It's no surprise to find evidence of the use of these substances in South America, but what's interesting is how developed a relationship with psychotropics this discovery suggests ancient people had. But really, it's not so different than now—trade routes, personalized recipes, hand-carved accouterments—the only thing they were missing are a few sets of 5,000 watt speakers. But who knows? There's a lot of jungle still out there.