Research into a Nazca ritual site in Peru has determined that a child sacrificed more than a thousand years ago as part of a religious ceremony had consumed the psychedelic drug mescaline prior to execution. Scientists made the discovery by analyzing a single hair from the head of a child whose head had been severed at the neck and fashioned into a ritual trophy.
The preserved head was one of 22 human remains from the ancient Nazca civilization, which inhabited southern Peru from about 100 B.C. to 800 A.D. The remains, which included 18 mummies and four trophy heads from a child and three adults, had been buried in southern coastal Peru more than a thousand years ago and were recovered as part of an archaeological program known as the Nazca Project.
Analysis of a single hair taken from the head of the child, whose sex and age at the time of death are unknown, revealed that the victim had ingested San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) at some time prior to death, perhaps as part of a religious ceremony. San Pedro cactus contains the natural psychedelic drug mescaline and is known to have been used by South American indigenous cultures for medicinal and religious purposes.
“The trophy head is the first case of the consumption of San Pedro by an individual living on the southern Peruvian coast,” study lead author Dagmara Socha, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Andean Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland, told Live Science. “It’s also the first evidence that some of the victims who were made into trophy heads were given stimulants before they died.”
Further analysis of hair samples taken from the other remains determined that many of the deceased individuals had taken psychedelics or stimulants prior to death. Through toxicological analysis, the researchers found that in addition to San Pedro cactus, the researchers discovered traces of Banisteriopsis caapi, the main compound of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, a component of the ritual ceremonies of some South American indigenous cultures. Additionally, many had ingested coca leaves, the source of the stimulant cocaine.
“It was quite interesting to see how many people had access to [these plants],” Socha said. “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.”
Archaeological Artifacts Discovered at Nazca Site
In addition to the human remains, the researchers discovered other items from the graves including ceramic pots, textiles, tools for weaving and a bag used for holding coca leaves known as a chuspa. The researchers determined that the drug use by the individuals found at the archaeological site occurred between 100 B.C. to A.D. 450.
“We can see this transition of the plants was beginning early and we can actually trace the trade network,” Socha said. “Our research shows that these plants were extremely important to different cultures for medical or visionary effect. Especially since there’s no [written record] from this time period, so what we know about Nazca and other nearby cultures is from archaeological investigations.”
Rainer Bussmann, a professor in the Department of Ethnobiology at the Institute of Botany at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the head of botany at the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart in Germany, published a study in 2006 that examined the usage of medicinal plants by indigenous communities in northern Peru. His research also explored the trade routes for different cultivated plants in the area.
“There was always a little trade going on in this region, with plants being traded from the Amazon up and down the [Peruvian] coast,” said Bussmann, who was not involved in the new study. “These plants were traditionally used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, and [were] sometimes combined. I’ve never seen any reports of recreational use. For these cultures, there was always a specific purpose.”
Although evidence indicates that the plants were used for medicinal and ceremonial reasons, Socha noted that the researchers have not determined the scope of their use among the Nazca culture.
“We actually don’t know how often these [plants] were being used,” she said. “In the case of San Pedro, it’s not well preserved in an archaeological context, and in the case of the coca leaves and Banisteriopsis caapi, they were never found to be growing in this region during that time period.”
The results of the study will be published in the December 2022 issue of the Journal of Archeological Science.