An ancient people used psychoactive and stimulant plants before sacrificing people

''In modern medicine, the properties of harmine have led to its use in anti-depression and anti-addiction treatment.''
Nergis Firtina

A team of researchers from the University of Warsaw, Nicolaus Copernicus University's Collegium Medicum, and the Centro Italiano Studi e Ricerche Archeologiche Precolombiane di Brescia discovered evidence of early Nazca people using psychotropic and stimulant plants in southern Peru.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science as part of the Nazca Project.

As stated in, earlier studies show the Inca provided the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca to those who were going to be sacrificed, probably to keep them quiet.

The researchers examined the Nazca people's remains that were interred near Peru's southern coast between 3500 BC and 476 AD.

18 mummies and four trophy heads

The task required gathering hair samples from 18 mummies and four trophy heads in order to search for signs of any chemicals that may have been used to soothe victims.

The study also indicates that Nazca people discovered methods for conserving some people's heads for use in rites or celebrations. In addition, the Nazca people developed methods to preserve the entire bodies of some deceased individuals, resulting in mummified corpses.

The discovery of San Pedro cactus compounds in a child's trophy head's hair was significant since it was the first time that proof of the administration of stimulants to Nazca sacrificial victims had been discovered. In some of the other samples, they also discovered traces of cocaine and Banisteriopsis caapi, a key component of ayahuasca.

"It was quite interesting to see how many people had access to [these plants]," said Dogmara Socha, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Andean Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland to LiveScience.

"We also wanted to discover the route of the trade of some of these ancient plants. For instance, the coca leaves were not cultivated on Peru's southern coast, so they had to be brought there from either northern Peru or the Amazonian region."

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What is ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic and entheogenic brewed drink from South America that has long been used both socially and as a ceremonial or shamanic spiritual medicine among the Amazon basin's indigenous peoples. The tea leads to "psychedelic experiences," which can be specified as visual hallucinations and changes in the perception of reality.

A bundle found in a cave in southwest Bolivia in 2010 that included the remnants of ayahuasca components and numerous other preserved shamanic medicines proved that ayahuasca use went back 1,000 years.

Christian missionaries from Spain first discovered indigenous western Amazonian basin South Americans taking ayahuasca in the 16th century; their initial accounts classified it as "the work of the devil."


The preservation of naturally mummified bodies in the Nazca drainage and Yauca Valley provided an opportunity to analyse for the first time which of the psychoactive plants were used on the southern Peruvian coast. Toxicological analysis allows us to better understand the ancient medicine, trade network and religiosity of the region of interest. Hair samples of 22 individuals (including four trophy heads) were examined using LC-MS/MS for the presence of coca alkaloids and metabolites (cocaine, benzoylecgonine, cocaethylene), mescaline, tryptamine, harmaline, and harmine. LC–MS/MS was performed using electrospray ionization (ESI) in the positive mode, multiple reaction monitoring, and a deuterated internal standard (Diazepam-D5). The limits of quantification achieved for analytes were from 1 to 5 ng/g. Recoveries ranged from 91,6 to 113,7%. The method demonstrated an intraday and interday precision CV of <15%.

The results of the study show that coca leaves were present on the southern Peruvian coast since the Early Nazca Period (100 BCE - 450 CE). The Nazca inhabitants were also positive tested for the presence of harmine and harmaline coming probably form Banisteriopsis caapi (the main compound of the hallucinogenic ayahuasca beverage), and the San Pedro cactus, a source of mescaline. This is the oldest archaeological evidence of the consumption of these two plants. In modern medicine, the properties of harmine have led to its use in anti-depression and anti-addiction treatment. Banisteriopsis caapi is native to the Amazonian rainforest and had to be the object of long-distance trade, which showed its important role in ancient medicine and rituals. San Pedro cactus is taken for its strong hallucinogenic properties and was detected in hair belonging to a child victim whose head was transformed into a trophy head. This is the first proof that some of the victims transformed into trophy heads were given stimulants prior to their death.

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