1,000-Year-Old Pouch From Bolivia Contains Traces of Five Mind-Altering Drugs

The ingredients include coca leaves and two compounds used in modern ayahuasca rituals

Drug Bundle
Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles

Archaeologists have found a pouch in a burial site at the Cueva del Chilano rock shelter in Bolivia that contains traces of five psychoactive substances.

The 1,000-year-old pouch was originally unearthed in 2008 and found to be stitched together from the snouts of three foxes. It was made by the pre-Hispanic Tiwanuku culture and has been almost perfectly preserved thanks to the site’s dry mountain conditions. The contents of the pouch include ancient drug paraphernalia, bone spatulas for crushing seeds, a gem-inlaid crushing pad and a decorated bone snuffer.

When researchers looked at the debris inside the bag using modern drug detecting techniques, they found traces of five chemicals including cocaine, benzoylecgonine, bufotenine as well as harmine, and dimethyltryptamine, psychoactive botanical substances found today in the trendy South American hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca.

The find suggests that the same key ingredients in ayahuasca today were in use centuries ago, though they may have been snorted instead of brewed into a beverage. “Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity,” Melanie Miller of UC Berkeley and the University of Otago in New Zealand, lead author of the study in the journal PNAS, says in a press release.

While the site where it was found appeared to be a grave, researchers did not uncover any human remains, though they suspect it may have been previously looted. Miller says it’s likely the owner of the bag was a shaman or someone else skilled in preparing and using the hallucinogens, since administering them improperly could have fatal consequences.

Most of the plants that contain the substances found in the bag come from areas much lower and distant from the ecosystem where they were uncovered. “Whoever had this bag of amazing goodies … would have had to travel great distances to acquire those plants,” Miller tells Michael Price at Science. “[Either that], or they had really extensive exchange networks.”

Kristina Killgrove at Forbes reports that while coca leaves are routinely found in archaeological sites in the area, this exact combination of drugs hasn’t been seen before. “This direct archaeological evidence of the plant recipes and associated paraphernalia—not just trace evidence of consumption from human hair—is unique,” says archaeologist Di Hu of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, not involved in the study.

The find adds a little more data to what researchers know about modern ayahuasca. While traditional shamans in the Amazon, where the beverage originates, say it is an ancient substance, until now there was not much archaeological evidence of its history. “People have been arguing that [ayahuasca] was mostly a recent thing,” archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick of the University of Oregon, not involved in the study, tells Erin Blakemore at National Geographic. “The ayahuasca ritual has a deep time perspective now.”

The Tiwanuku and later South American cultures are not the only ones to dabble in psychedelic drugs. Cultures including the ancient Greeks, ancient Hindus and early Native Americans in North America all had rituals associated with hallucinatory substances.

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