Thousands of years ago, a child in Peru was sacrificed as part of an ancient ritual, his head severed at the neck and made into something of a trophy. A new analysis of a single hair plucked from the mummy’s skull reveals that the child consumed a psychoactive cactus before the execution, as part of the ceremony.
The child’s preserved head was one of 22 human remains associated with ancient Nazca society examined in a new study; all of these individuals lived during the pre-Hispanic era (3500 BCE to 476 CE) and were buried near the southern coast of Peru, where they were excavated during the Nazca Project, a long-running archaeological program that started in 1982.
While scientists are unsure of the sex and age of the child victim at the time of death, they reported that the child had ingested San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), a thorny plant taken for its “strong hallucinogenic properties” and used by indigenous civilizations of the Americas in traditional medicines and in rituals.
“The trophy head is the first instance of San Pedro consumption by an individual living on the southern coast of Peru,” lead study author Dagmara Socha, a doctoral student at the Center for Andean Studies in Peru, told Live. the University of Warsaw in Poland. Science.
“It’s also the first evidence that some of the victims who were turned into trophy heads were given stimulants before they died.”
For the study, Socha and his team collected individual hair samples from four trophy heads, three of which belonged to adults, and 18 mummies. adults and children. Toxicological examinations revealed that many of the deceased had consumed some type of psychoactive or stimulant plant before their deaths.
These ingested items included coca leaves, known as a source of cocaine, a psychoactive substance, as well as San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline, a psychedelic drug.
The researchers also detected traces of Banisteriopsis caapi, the main compound in ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink that contains harmine and harmaline (two compounds used in modern antidepressants).
Related: 76 Heartbroken Child Sacrifice Victims Discovered in Peru Excavation
“It was quite interesting to see how many people had access to [these plants]“, said Socha.
“We also wanted to find out the trade route of some of these ancient plants. For example, coca leaves were not grown on the southern coast of Peru, so they had to be brought from northern Peru or the Amazon region” .
Drug use dated from 100 BCE to 450 CE, the researchers found.
“We can see that this factory transition was starting early and we can actually trace the business network,” Socha said.
“Our research shows that these plants were extremely important to different cultures for medical or visionary effect. Especially since there is no [written record] from this period, so what we know about Nazca and other neighboring cultures comes from archaeological research. »
Sixteen years before this study, Rainer Bussmann, a professor in the Department of Ethnobiology at the Institute of Botany at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Head of Botany at the State History Museum of Stuttgart in Germany, published a study in the Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine review of the use of medicinal plants by indigenous communities in northern Peru.
Like Socha, he examined the trade routes of the various plants grown in this part of the world.
“There has always been some trade in this area, with plants being sold from the Amazon through the [Peruvian] coast,” Bussmann, who was not involved in the new study, told Live Science.
“These plants were traditionally used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, and [were] sometimes combined. I have never seen any reports of recreational use. For these cultures, there was always a specific purpose.”
But while evidence suggests these plants were consumed as medicine and for ceremonies, scientists still have questions about the extent of consumption within the Nazca culture, Socha said.
“In fact, we don’t know how often these [plants] were being used,” she said. “In the case of San Pedro it is not well preserved in an archaeological context, and in the case of the coca leaves and Banisteriopsis caapithey never grew in that area during that time.”
In addition to human remains, Socha and his team also found a variety of grave goods at the burial sites, including textiles, ceramic pots, weaving tools and a chuspa – a type of bag used to carry objects. coca leaves.
The results will be published in the December 2022 issue of Journal of Archaeological Sciences.
This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.