1,000-Year-Old Psychedelic Drug Kit Discovered By Archaeologists

By Kelly Burch 05/15/19

The "ritual bundle" contained ayahuasca ingredients and traces of cocaine.

1,000-Year-Old Psychedelic Drug Kit
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An ancient ritual bundle recovered in Bolivia shows that people having been using psychoactive drugs for millennia. 

The bundle contained harmine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the two primary ingredients of ayahuasca, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ayahuasca, which causes people to hallucinate and vomit, has become a popular drug with spiritual adventurers who extol its supposed health benefits. 

"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,” said archaeologist Melanie Miller, of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the team of researchers who analyzed the bundle. 

"This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca," Miller said. 

In addition to the ingredients in ayahuasca, the bundle also contained traces of cocaine. The bundle, which was made from three fox snouts sewn together, contained spatulas and spoons for snorting drugs. Miller said that it was likely used by a shaman or someone who worked with medicinal plants. The team believes the pouch is from the Tiwanaku, a pre-Inca civilization that “dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 A.D.”

Miller said the pouch was "the most amazing artifact I've had the privilege to work with.”

She said, “A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous, so, whoever owned this bundle would need to have had great knowledge and skills about how to use these plants, and how and where to procure them.”

Miller said that the properties that make ayahuasca popular today likely made it important to the ancients. 

"The tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self," she said.

The bundle was initially found in a cave site by archeologists from Bolivia and Pennsylvania State University. Those archeologists contacted Miller to help identify the contents of the bundle and to assist with the final excavation. Because of the altitude where the bundle was found it was in good condition. 

"We were amazed to see the incredible preservation of these compounds in this ritual bundle," said Miller. "I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.