Archaeology Magazine Archive

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from the trenches
Inhaling History Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Samir S. Patel


(Octavio Flores Lagos)

Historically, hallucinogenic drugs were used for more than seeing nifty colors. In ancient Latin America, for example, inhaling psychedelic herbs was an important cultural practice, with roles in ritual healing and initiation rites.

Experts have long suspected that the pre-Columbian Tiwanaku people of South America used these herbs; decorated snuff kits have been found in burials, and skeletons often show nasal damage thought to have been caused by their use. Now there is proof from the hair of two 1,200-year-old naturally mummified bodies. In an adult male and a one-year-old child, researcher Juan Pablo Ogalde of the University of Tarapacá in Chile and his colleagues found traces of harmine, a psychoactive alkaloid that can help the body absorb hallucinogens.

Psychedelic drugs had a special place in the Caribbean as well. Scott Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University dated ceramic inhaling bowls—used for ingesting hallucinogens—from the island of Carriacou and found they were made between 400 and 100 B.C., well before the island's first inhabitants arrived in A.D. 400. The bowls appear to have been passed down through the generations and came with the colonists when they arrived on the island from South America. It seems heirlooms aren't always brooches and tomatoes.