Leaders of a historic South American empire used a beer mixed with a psychedelic drug to maintain political control over their society and surrounding communities, according to research published on Wednesday.
In a study published by the journal Antiquity, archaeologists revealed that leaders of the Wari people served a beer-like beverage made from the fruits of the molle tree combined with the seeds of the vilca tree and served the mixture to guests at communal feasts.
“The resulting psychotropic experience reinforced the power of the Wari state, and represents an intermediate step between exclusionary and corporate political strategies,” the researchers wrote in an abstract of the study published online by Cambridge University Press. “This Andean example adds to the global catalog documenting the close relationship between hallucinogens and social power.”
The Wari built their empire in the highlands of the Andes mountains in current-day Peru, ruling the area from about 600-1000 A.D. and predating the Inca empire by four centuries. Archeologists excavating at Quilcapampa in Southern Peru from 2013 through 2017 discovered the first evidence of psychedelic vilca seeds found at a Wari site.
Matthew Biwer, a visiting assistant professor of archaeology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and the lead author of the study, said that the discovery sheds light on how South American indigenous civilizations made use of psychoactive substances.
“This was a turning point in the Andes in terms of politics and use of hallucinogens,” Biwer said, as reported by CNN. “We see this kind of use of hallucinogens as different use context than in prior civilizations, who seem to have closely guarded the use of hallucinogens to a select few, or the latter Inca Empire who emphasized the mass-consumption of beer but did not use psychotropic substances such as vilca at feasts.”
Pre-Columbian civilizations used vilca, often inhaled as snuff, as long as 4,000 years years ago. The seeds contain the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine, as well as bufotenine, a substance similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
“What I’ve read from ethnographic sources is that you get a very strong sensation of flying,” Biwer told Inverse.
Party Hosts Rule the Empire
Previous research has revealed that the Wari used feasting and beer as a way to exercise political control over guests from surrounding communities. Researchers at the Quilcapampa site discovered evidence that the Wari were making molle beer, called chicha, in substantial quantities. Botanical remnants of molle and vilca were found and ceramics were discovered at the center of the site, an indication of where feasts were held, according to the study’s authors.
“The Wari added the vilca to the chicha beer in order to impress guests to their feasts who could not return the experience,” Biwer said. “This created an indebted relationship between Wari hosts and guests, likely from the surrounding region.”
“We argue that the feasting, beer, and vilca thus served to create and cement social connections between Wari affiliated peoples and locals as the Empire expanded,” Biwer continued. “It also was a way for Wari leaders to demonstrate and maintain social, economic, and political power.”
Biwer explained that the guests would experience social pressure to recognize the power of their Wari hosts and feel an obligation to reciprocate the favor in the future.
“There’s political power in being able to acquire and use these hallucinogenic substances and providing these experiences,” Biwer said. “I think it provides a really good example of the connection between politics, drug use, intoxication and the social bonds.”
Researchers have not yet discovered why the Wari civilization eventually failed. But as they continue to study sites inhabited by the pre-Columbian civilization, they are learning more about how the early inhabitants of Peru lived.
“The Wari Empire stretched from northern Peru to the far south near the Chilean border, and from the coast to the mountainous areas of the Andes,” Biwer explained. “It is the first example of an empire in South America, having collapsed around 400 years prior to the rise of the Inca Empire.”