Hallucinogenic Plant Unearthed Beneath an Ancient Maya Ball Court

Researchers have found evidence of a nearly 2,000-year-old ceremonial offering at the site in present-day Mexico

The Maya played games like pok-a-tok, in which players hit a rubber ball through a stone circle such as this one in the ancient city of Chichen Itza. University of Cincinnati / LanaCanada

At the site of an ancient Maya ball court, researchers have identified a bundle of ceremonial mind-altering plants—which may have been used as an offering to higher powers during the court’s construction.

Archaeologists were examining an elevated plaza in Yaxnohcah, an ancient Maya city in what is now southeastern Mexico, when they found “a dark, organic rich stain” at the base of the platform, according to a study recently published in the journal PLOS One. After conducting a DNA analysis of soil samples from the patch, researchers identified several plants: a hallucinogenic flower known as xtabentunlancewoodchile peppers and jool leaves.

When the court was constructed around 80 C.E., its Maya builders likely placed the plants there as a ceremonial offering, according to a statement from the University of Cincinnati. Lead author David Lentz, a biologist at the University of Cincinnati, likens the ancient ritual to “christening a new ship” today.

David Lentz and his collaborators analyzed environmental DNA to identify the remains of ceremonial plants at an ancient Maya ball court in Mexico. Andrew Higley / University of Cincinatti

“When they erected a new building, they asked the goodwill of the gods to protect the people inhabiting it,” he says. “Some people call it an ‘ensouling ritual,’ to get a blessing from and appease the gods.”

The Maya invented and played several ball games, such as pok-a-tok, a “mix of soccer and basketball” in which players try to hit a ball through a stone ring attached to the wall, per Popular Science’s Laura Baisas. As Lentz says in the statement, ball courts “occupied prime real estate” in Maya cities’ ceremonial centers.

“Today, we think of ball courts as a place for recreation, but the Maya also saw them as sacred,” he tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “They would have placed the bundle [of plants] while they were building the ball court as an offering to the gods to let them know that they were changing the landscape and to please bless it.”

The bundle’s four plants “have a known cultural importance to the Maya,” which supports the hypothesis that they were used as an offering, says co-author Eric Tepe, a botanist at the University of Cincinnati, in the statement.

A ball court at Chichen Itza, one of the largest Maya centers in Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. Jeff Hart via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Xtabentun is a type of morning glory known for producing hallucinations when ingested. As Lentz tells Live Science, it has “similar physiological effects as LSD.” Chili peppers were used to treat illness in the Maya world and may have been placed at the site to ward off disease. Lancewood’s oily leaves are known for pain-relieving and antibiotic properties. The bundle was probably wrapped in leaves from the jool plant, which the Maya often used to prepare food for ceremonial purposes.

While historians have long known about the Maya’s organic offerings, finding evidence of one in a tropical climate is unusual. Now, new techniques are allowing researchers to analyze environmental DNA (eDNA) from plants that lived nearly 2,000 years ago.

“We have known for years from ethnohistorical sources that the Maya also used perishable materials in these offerings,” says co-author Nicholas Dunning, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Cincinnati, in the statement. “But it is almost impossible to find them archaeologically, which is what makes this discovery using eDNA so extraordinary.”

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