Ancient drug stash reveals 1000 years ago people still loved cocaine, psychedelics just like today
The shaman of yesteryear were bringing the party
In 2010, when Jose Capriles and his partner Juan Albarracin were digging through llama and sheep manure in a remote Bolivian cave, known as la Cuevo del Chileno, they had no idea that they were about to uncover one of most psychedelic ancient discoveries ever made.
It had taken these anthropological archaeologists several days of flying, driving and trekking to get to this isolated “rock shelter”, in southeast Bolivia. Which, was pretty unremarkable: nestled at the base of a hill, deep in the high desert, the cave is only about 10 square meters (or the size of a large office cubicle) and was totally covered in animal dung.
They did not have very high expectations when they began to dig.
Cueva del Chileo, in Bolivia, where the ritual bundle was discovered. Photo Credit: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles
“As you can imagine, excavating this was pretty stinky, but at the same time that manure actually preserved the stratigraphy of these sites pretty well,” Jose Capriles, the anthropologist from Penn State University who made the discovery, says. “I was excavating with my trowel and I scraped this leather thing and I thought, ‘oh man this looks like a shoe.’”
However, as he pulled the item out of the muck, he quickly realized that it wasn’t a shoe at all. It was an ancient ritual bundle, filled with a number of ritual artifacts. Contents that would make just about any D.A.R.E. counselor shudder in fear and loathing.
“It was really exciting,” Capriles says.
Inside the leather bag they found two, pointed llama bone spatulas, two snuffing tablets with hand carved human figures for handles, a snuffing tube also carved with an anthropomorphic figure, a tassle of human hair, a textile headband and, most interestingly, a pouch sewn out of three fox snouts, which contained a variety of very interesting, very distinct substances.
The contents of the ritual bundle. Photo Credit: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles
They sent that pouch off to a lab for testing to find out for sure what had been kept inside it.
“[The lab] did some really rigorous and detailed chemical analysis that allowed us to identify specifically which compounds were present as residue from the fox snout pouch,” Capriles explains.
That analysis revealed traces of the following chemical substances:
- Bufotenine (from the hallucinogenic South American anadanathera, or “yopo” plant)
- Benzoylecgonine (BZE) and cocaine (from the coca plant)
- Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)
- Harmine (which, when brewed with ayahuasca root activates the DMT molecule)
- Possibly some psilocin (from magic mushrooms)
Radio carbon dating of the items suggests that they were used sometime around 900 to 1170 A.D. — about 1000 years ago. Which would make this the largest ancient drug stash ever discovered on the planet Earth. And it suggests that the tendency to push a serious drug collection as far as you can, isn’t unique to the modern era. People have been hoarding this stuff for millennia.
But even the age/size of this drug collection is not it’s most intriguing quality. The origins of these drugs indicate something profound about their original owner and the world they lived in: none of these substances are (or ever were) indigenous to the Andes region where the pouch was discovered.
“These plants all grow in different environments even within the tropics; it’s not the same place where coca grows and where anadanathera and where ayahuasca plants grow there, and all of them are quite far away from the Andes,” Capriles says. “It shows that this individual, this shaman, had access to tropical lowlands where many of these plants grow.”
Which is to say, that this shaman was one of either two things: they were either a very well-traveled ancient citizen, who spent their days wandering the South American continent seeking out strange and psychedelic substances. OR, they were very well-connected within a complex and wide-spread system of trade that made non-native plants available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them.
Capriles couldn’t say which was the case for sure. But, regardless, it tells us that the society this shaman lived in was an advanced one, capable of inter-community trade and travel.
“We know that the callawalla were these medicine specialists from northeast Bolivia and they were itinerant so they would travel to get plants, but they would also travel as medicine men,” he says. “So they would travel to different villages and they would heal people, so maybe this is a possibility.”
But, Capriles adds, this was also at a time when caravan trade was at its peak in the region. The entire South American continent was crisscrossed with trade routes filled with llama trains, moving all kinds of goods all over the land, from the Pacific coast to the Atacama Desert, to the Andean Highlands, to the Pampas lowlands.
“These networks of movement existed,” says Capriles. So it's hard to say with certainty whether this shaman was a traveler or a tradesman or both.
While Capriles is still unsure of how these geographically disparate drugs all ended up in the same fox snout pouch, he’s pretty sure he knows how the pouch ended up inside Cuevo del Chileo. He believes that the ritual bundle and all its contents were originally buried with their owner inside the cave, which, at the time of the burial was likely a sacred tomb.
But, when inter-cultural conflicts erupted in the region, the body of this shaman was likely removed and either taken hostage or outright destroyed. The bag, left behind inside the cave, was probably thought to be garbage and tossed on the floor, where it was buried under animal crap and lost to the ages.
Until, 1000 years later, when Capriles and Albarracin came a’trowling through the llama poo of yore.
“The evidence does suggest that there’s a long-term history of humans in the Americas interacting with some of these medicinal, ritual plants,” Capriles says. “So within their cultural and ritual contexts, there’s an interesting history of use and story that these plants have and that we can learn from.”
All photos credit: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles