Did hallucinogenic booze fuel politics in ancient Peru?

A discovery in a 1,100-year-old Wari outpost suggests that powerful, communal intoxicants may have helped foster alliances.

The peaceful, easy feeling derived from a mix of hallucinogenic drugs and alcoholic drink may have been a key to political power in coastal Peru a millennium ago, according to a study published today in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists have long recognized the role that chicha, a beer-like beverage still consumed today, played in the culture of the Wari who ruled much of the Peruvian coast and southern Andes between around A.D. 600 and 1000. Wari elites would host elaborate parties for their neighbors, and copious amounts of chicha would help foster political and economic ties.

Now, the discovery of psychotropic plant remains in a Wari “brewery” is leading researchers to suggest that the Wari may have also combined the two intoxicants for a brew with an even bigger political punch.

Read more on how alcohol has fueled the development of arts, language, and religion.

The discovery was made at the site of Quilcapampa, a Wari village in southern Peru, where the extremely arid environment preserved the remains of what the residents ate and drank just before abandoning the site in the late ninth century A.D. Here, archaeologists found 1,100-year-old traces of potatoes, quinoa, and peanuts, as well as a staggering number of berry-like fruits from the molle (Schinus mole) tree, which the Wari often used to make chicha with an alcohol content of roughly 5 percent.

Among the soaked or boiled fruits left over from making chicha were psychotropic vilca seeds from the Anadenanthera colubrina tree. Archaeological evidence shows vilca was used as a hallucinogen in ancient South America, but usually only by political and religious elites, says National Geographic Explorer Justin Jennings, an archaeologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the lead author of the study, which was funded in part by National Geographic.

Quilcapampa was settled late in the ninth century by a handful of migrant families from the Wari heartlands farther north along the coast and mountains, and they may have introduced the practice of combining vilca and chicha to strengthen their new alliances with non-Wari groups in the region. And if mixing vilca and chicha helped the villagers of Quilcapampa make friends in a strange land, it might also be the secret to the political ascent of the Wari.

See the reconstructed face of an ancient Wari queen.

“What the Wari did was say, ‘We’re going to combine these… and when we put them together, we’re going to have this shared experience,’” Jennings adds.

'Going somewhere'

Like the Amazonian drug ayahuasca, vilca results in an intense out-of-body experience. Its psychoactive effects are drastically weakened when it’s ingested, and so its seeds were usually smoked or ground into snuff. But there is a chemical reason for thinking that adding ground vilca seeds to chicha made from molle retains more of their hallucinogenic effect, Jennings explains.

“You were able to have a trip, an out-of-body experience to a degree, but it was a longer, smoother, and less violent experience,” he said. “You were able to have that sense of going somewhere, of tripping out, but with friends.”

While the molle tree used for chicha grew nearby Quilcapampa, the vilca seeds would have had to be imported from the eastern flanks of the Andes and carried over the mountains by Wari-controlled llama caravans. That meant the Wari village at Quilcapampa might have been popular gathering center in the region, boasting a chicha with a punch like no other.

The idea might explain a political secret of the Wari, whose painted drinking vessels sometimes portray the vilca tree with its distinctive seed pods.

Véronique Bélisle is an anthropological archaeologist at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, who was not involved in the Quilcapampa study but has researched the use of hallucinogens in ancient Peru. She said it was long suspected that the Wari consumed vilca by adding it to chicha, but there had been no archaeological evidence until now.

“This research makes an important contribution to Andean archaeology by showing that Wari colonists organized feasts during which they served chicha mixed with vilca to their guests,” Bélisle writes in an email.

But not all archaeologists are convinced. Curator Ryan Williams of the Field Museum in Chicago, who has excavated the ruins of a Wari ceremonial center at Cerro Baúl, about 100 miles to the southeast, finds the hypothesis “intriguing” but says the evidence for consumption of vilca and chica together is currently lacking. Williams gives an example of finding cotton seeds in an ancient molle brewery at Cerro Baúl. “But we didn’t assert the Wari were drinking cotton [chica],” he notes in an email.

Jennings admits there is no direct evidence that vilca was mixed with molle chicha at Quilcapampa, only that both were found in the same archaeological deposits. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the smoking gun,” he said. Further studies will look for evidence of vilca in chicha residues in the remains of Wari cups and serving vessels. “That’s something that we’d love to do, in order to make a stronger case that vilca and molle were added into the same vessel,” Jennings says.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Justin Jennings’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.

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