Leaders of an ancient South American empire used psychedelic beer to maintain political control over their society and surrounding communities, according to research published in January.
In a study published by the journal Antiquityarchaeologists have revealed that the leaders of the Wari people served a beer-like drink made from the fruits of the false pepper plant, a small tree, combined with the seeds of the vilca tree and served the mixture to guests during communal feasts.
“The resulting psychotropic experience reinforced the power of the Wari state, and represents an intermediate step between exclusionary and corporate political strategies,” the researchers write in a summary of the study published online by Cambridge University Press. “This Andean example adds to the global catalog documenting the close relationship between hallucinogens and social power.”
Power and psychotropics
The Wari built their empire on the high plateaus of the Andes Cordillera, in present-day Peru. They ruled the region from 600 to 1000 AD and predated the Inca Empire by four centuries. Archaeologists who carried out excavations in Quilcapampa, southern Peru, from 2013 to 2017, discovered the first traces of psychedelic vilca seeds at a Wari site.
Matthew Biwer, visiting assistant professor of archeology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and lead author of the study, said the discovery sheds light on how indigenous civilizations in South America used psychoactive substances.
“It was a turning point in the Andes in terms of politics and the use of hallucinogens,” Biwer said.
“We consider this type of hallucinogen use to be a different context of use than earlier civilizations, which seem to have closely guarded the use of hallucinogens for a privileged few, or the later Inca Empire which emphasized on the mass consumption of beer but did not use mind-altering substances like vilca at parties. »
Pre-Columbian civilizations used vilca, often inhaled in the form of snuff, as early as 4,000 years ago. The seeds contain the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, as well as bufotenin, a substance similar to serotonin.
“What I’ve read from ethnographic sources is that you have a very strong feeling of flying,” Biwer told Inverse.
Party people rule the empire
Previous research has found that the Wari used partying and beer as a means of exerting political control over guests from surrounding communities. Researchers at the Quilcapampa site have found evidence that the Wari made “soft beer”, called chicha, in large quantities. Botanical remains of molle and vilca were found and ceramics were discovered in the center of the site, an indication of where feasts were held, according to the study authors.
“The Wari would add vilca to shisha beer in order to impress guests at their feasts who couldn’t return the experience,” Biwer said. “This created a debt relationship between the Wari hosts and the guests, probably from the surrounding area.”
“We believe that the feasts, beer and vilca served to create and cement the social bonds between the peoples affiliated with the Wari and the local populations as the Empire expanded,” continues Biwer. “It was also a way for Wari leaders to demonstrate and maintain their social, economic and political power. »
Biwer explains that guests were under social pressure to recognize the power of their Wari hosts and felt compelled to reciprocate in the future.
“There is political power in being able to acquire and use these hallucinogenic substances and to provide these experiences,” Biwer said. “I think this provides a very good example of the connection between politics, drug use, intoxication and social connections. »
Researchers have yet to discover why the Wari civilization eventually died out. But by continuing to study the sites inhabited by the pre-Columbian civilization, they learn more about how the first inhabitants of Peru lived.
“The Wari empire stretched from northern Peru to the far south, near the Chilean border, and from the coast to the mountainous areas of the Andes,” explains Biwer. “It is the first example of an empire in South America, which collapsed about 400 years before the rise of the Inca Empire”.