Psychedelic Culture Tripped Circa 500 A.D.

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Sophisticated drug paraphernalia, complete with a hippy-looking headband, provide evidence that an elite, hallucinogen-using culture flourished at around 500 A.D. in the south-central Andes and lasted there for at least another 600 years.

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The items, described in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, shed light on the lifestyle and belief systems once held by the people of Tiwanaku, an ancient city-state located near Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.

The objects, which include “snuffing tablets,” a wooden snuffing tube, spatulas, a multi-colored textile headband and more, also provide clues to early usage of psychoactive substances.

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“Snuffing tablets in the Andes were primarily used by ritual specialists, such as shamans,” lead author Juan Albarracin-Jordan of the Fundación Bartolomé de Las Casas in La Paz, Bolivia, explained to Discovery News. “Psychotropic substances, once extracted from plants, were spread and mixed on the tablets. Inhalation tubes were then used to introduce the substances through the nose into the system.”

Albarracin-Jordan and colleagues Jose ́Capriles and Melanie Miller analyzed the items and related objects unearthed during excavations at the site, called Cueva del Chileno. They also found drinking cups known as “kerus,” used for drinking chicha, an alcoholic brew made from fermented corn.

Cueva del Chileno, viewed from the west.
Antiquity Publications Ltd.

It is now believed that famous surviving monoliths from the region, such as the Bennett monolith, show individuals holding a keru with the left hand and a snuffing tablet with the right.

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Clearly such individuals would have been higher than a kite, but this altered state of mind -- based on archaeological and ethnographic evidence -- had spiritual significance to the Tiwanaku.

The function of psychoactive substance users “was to be mediators between the natural and the supernatural,” Albarracin-Jordan said. “They were also conflict brokers between the living and the dead.”

“Patients” of the individuals might have received tobacco and stimulants meant to treat health conditions, according to the researchers. They added that since the Tiwanaku wore masks and hides depicting predators like pumas and condors, the drugs also could have been taken during ritual ceremonies involving these species. Evidence for both animal and human sacrifice has been found at the site.