Washington, Oct 30 : The first direct archaeological evidence of the consumption of hallucinogens in pre-Hispanic Andean populations has emerged in the form of Andean mummy hair.
Indirect evidence for psychoactive drug use in South America's ancient populations abound, ranging from the discovery of drug equipment to the identification of hallucinogenic herb residuals in snuffing kits.
However, there wasn't direct evidence that the ancient Andean people actually consumed mind-altering drugs.
According to a report in Discovery News, to find a direct link, chemical archaeologist Juan Pablo Ogalde and colleagues at the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile, analyzed 32 mummies from the Azapa Valley in northern Chile.
Naturally mummified in the Acatama desert, the bodies belonged to the Tiwanaku, the ancestors of the Incas.
The little known Tiwanaku established a civilization around 1200 B.C. that prevailed for almost three millennia, becoming one of history's longest-running empires.
At the peak of their power, between 700 and 1100 A.D., they dominated the Andes, controlling large areas of Bolivia and Peru and parts of Argentina and Chile.
Their burials often contain elaborately decorated snuffing trays and panpipes.
"At least in view of the grave goods, the Tiwanaku people were using hallucinogenic drugs," Ogalde and colleagues said.
Analysis of the chemical composition of hairs from an adult male and a one-year-old baby, both dating between 800 and 1200 A.D., revealed the presence of the hallucinogenic alkaloid harmine.
While it is unlikely that the infant, buried with a snuffing tablet and a four points Tiwanaku hat, was a drug addict, the Tiwanaku man was most probably a regular sniffer.
The adult male appeared to have suffered sniffing lesions near the nose and was buried with an elaborate snuffing kit.
"Our identification of harmine in the hair of these two Azapa Valley mummies is a very important finding. The only plant in South America that contain harmine is the jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi, also known as ayahuasca. But this plant does not grow in the Azapa valley," Ogalde said.
The presence of harmine suggests the Tiwanaku travelled in search of exotic hallucinogens, and brought the Banisteriopsis vine from as far as the Amazon rainforest, some 300 miles away.
"We think that Banisteriopsiswas not necessarily used as a hallucinogenic mixture, and perhaps was used in therapeutic practices. It is also possible that its consumption with snuffing kits was used as element of social differentiation," Ogalde said.