How Inca Mummies Helped a Soccer Player Who Was Banned from the World Cup

Paolo Guerrero failed a drug test, but insists he never took cocaine. Three ancient mummies are lending credence to his case

Paolo Guerrero was initially banned from the World Cup for drug use, but has been temporarily reinstated thanks to some Inca mummies. AP/Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON

In 1999, the mummified bodies of three Inca children were found atop the Llullaillaco volcano that sits on the border of Argentina and Chile. Archaeologists believe the children were sacrificed as part of an ancient ritual called Capacocha. The cold temperatures kept the bodies remarkably well preserved. Now, some 500 years after they were killed, the Llullaillaco mummies have become unexpected but important figures in a Peruvian soccer player’s efforts to play in the 2018 World Cup.

As Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic explains, Paolo Guerrero, who plays on Peru’s national soccer team, tested positive for small quantities of benzoylecgonine last October. Benzoylecgonine is produced in the liver when our bodies metabolize cocaine, so it's what drug tests aiming to detect cocaine use look for. FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, swiftly slapped Guerrero with a 14-month ban for failing a drug test, which meant that he would not be able to play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

But Guerrero insisted that he had not taken cocaine. He suggested that he may have unwittingly consumed tea containing coca leaves, which were chewed and brewed for centuries among the indigenous people of the Andes, and are still used today in South America. Cocaine, the main active ingredient in coca leaves, was isolated in the 19th century. But in its raw form, the coca plant acts only as a “mild stimulant,” according to the Transnational Institute. Coca leaves can suppress hunger, pain and fatigue, and alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Guerrero told FIFA that he had been given two cups of tea while feeling under the weather, Patrick Jennings of the BBC reports. Guerrero said he thought he was drinking anise tea and black tea with lemon and honey, but posited that he may have been given coca tea instead, which is legal in Peru. But FIFA kept its ban in place.

Guerrero decided to fight the organization’s decision, and during a hearing in December, a surprising witness testified on the soccer player’s behalf: Charles Stanish, an archaeologist and the executive director of the University of South Florida’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture and the Environment. Stanish knew well that a person could test positive for benzoylecgonine without having consumed cocaine—he had seen it in the Llullaillaco mummies.

In 2013, researchers announced that they had found the metabolite benzoylecgonine in the hair of all three Inca children. Their analysis revealed that the 13-year-old girl known as the Llullaillaco Maiden had been consistently consuming coca (and alcohol) during the last year of her life. She was, in fact, found with a lump of coca between her teeth. The two younger children, a boy and girl, showed lower levels of coca use.

Researchers theorized that the children had been given coca as part of a ritual, and also perhaps to sedate them as they ascended the mountain before they were killed. In Guerrero’s case, the 2013 analysis proved that benzoylecgonine can be found in a person’s system even without illegal drug abuse.

Guerrero has not been formally cleared of doping, and Switzerland’s supreme court is undertaking a full consideration of his case. But while the case is pending, a Swiss judge temporarily lifted the ban against Guerrero so he could play in the World Cup.

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