Depictions of Anadenanthera colubrina use in the Middle Horizon: (l.) the Ponce Stele at Tiahuanaco portrays an elite individual holding a drinking cup and snuff tablet (photograph courtesy A. Roddick); (r.) a vessel from the Wari site of Conchopata features the tree and its tell-tale seed pods sprouting from the head of the Staff God (illustration courtesy J. Ochatoma Paravicino) (images by A. Roddick and J. Ochatoma, provided by Cambridge University Press)

It’s easy to imagine that dosing followers with hallucinogens is a practice invented by contemporary cult leaders like Charles Manson (or the United States government), but recent archeological findings indicate at least one example that dates back more than a thousand years.

Excavation at a site in the southern Peruvian town of Quilcapampa (a place where the Wari people settled in the Sihuas Valley) uncovered artifacts related to hallucinogenic beverages, in an area with buildings that were likely used for feasting. The findings included 16 vilca seeds and remains of a fermented fruit drink referred to as “chicha de molle.” As the team of researchers wrote in a paper published by the journal Antiquity, the drink would have created a strong psychotropic effect, and: “The resulting psychotropic experience reinforced the power of the Wari state.”

The hallucinogenic powers of the vilca seeds, amplified by delivery within chicha de molle, would have been taken as a spiritual experience by the consumer. Researchers label this discover as particularly significant, because it helps contextualize the social practices of the Wari with respect to the use of hallucinogens during the Formative period (900–300 BCE) — associated with political strategies defined as “exclusionary” — versus during the Late Horizon (approximately 1450–1532 CE), when Inca leaders implemented “corporate” strategies via the mass consumption of alcohol. The paper’s authors argue that findings from Quilcapampa locate the shift between these two practices during the Middle Horizon (600–1000 CE), when beer made from Schinus molle was combined with the hallucinogen Anadenanthera colubrina, and represent an intermediate step between exclusionary and corporate political strategies.

“Almost certainly, it would have been a spiritual experience,” wrote study co-author Justin Jennings, a curator of new world archaeology at the Royal Ontario Museum, as quoted in Live Science. Since vilca seeds were not naturally proximate to Quilcapampa, a certain amount of effort must have been expended to gather them, indicating their importance to the social fabric.

“These vilca seeds would have been collected from tropical woodlands on or near the eastern flanks of the Andes,” according to the research paper, which posits that long-distance trade networks would have been required to bring them to Quilcapampa. The team theorizes that Wari leaders would have used vilca seeds and their attendant hallucinogenic qualities to win loyalty from community members, and also valued guests.

Overview of the Quilcapampa site showing excavated units, vilca was found in the red units, while molle was found in all units (figure by J. Jennings).
Quilcapampa’s location with respect to South America

“It was an important part of creating social bonds between Wari hosts and local guests. The locals would have been invited to the Wari feasts and would become indebted to the hosts,” wrote study co-author Matthew Biwer. Wari people did not use written language, but images depicting vilca have been found at other Wari sites — however this discovery marks the first time that actual vilca seeds have been found at a Wari site. Further research at the site will continue, but these discoveries have already made the excavation efforts quite a trip.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....