Ancient mummy hair suggests drug use

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Researchers have found evidence of psychoactive drug use in the hair of ancient mummies found in Chile's Azapa Valley. The scientists detected harmine, an ingredient used in the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, in hairs from an adult and baby who lived between 800 and 1200 years ago. From National Geographic:
"These individuals probably ingested harmine in therapeutic or medicinal practices, some maybe related to pregnancy and childbirth," said study co-author Juan Pablo Ogalde, a chemical archaeologist at the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile.

"However, it is possible also that consumption of harmine was involved in religious rituals, said Ogalde, whose research appeared online October 14 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

X-rays showed that the adult male–who was buried with items of social prestige such as panpipes, a four-pointed hat, and a snuffing tray–had damage near the nose, perhaps from sniffing.

As for the baby, Ogalde speculated that the mother had consumed the drug and passed it on to her offspring during pregnancy or breast-feeding.

"The fact this mind-altering substance was found even with a one-year-old shows how much a part of their life it was," said archaeologist Alexei Vranich of the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study.
Drugs Found In Hair of Ancient Andean Mummies



  1. I was wondering, though, how do you know whether or not they just used it for fun. You know, like people use psychedelics these days?

    I’m not disputing that it may have had medicinal or ritual purposes, but what evidence discounts the possibility they these people just liked to trip?

  2. I believe that in some cases, psychoactive drugs were used to help subdue/calm people who were destined for ritual sacrifice.

  3. @2 and 3:

    I’m sure you’re not suggesting nobody today uses psychedelics for spiritual purposes. But I think it’s worth noting that fun and spiritual purpose are not mutually exlusive. I’m not a practicing Christian, but on the odd occasion when I do go to church, I find shaking hands with my neighbours and wishing them peace to be really fun, which doesn’t rule out its spiritual and religious significance.

    Sure, many use psychedelics for fun with no spiritual purpose at all in mind, but even they often report spiritual revelation reaching out and finding them. And those who treat them as powerful spiritual/religious teachers sure tend to have plenty of fun at the same time.


    I’m not sure psychedelics would be the best thing to subdue people – unless the people to be sacrificed held an underlying belief that being sacrificed was a good thing for them, and the psychedelics helped them to focus on that and overcome their fears. Otherwise, it seems something more along the lines of a sedative would be better suited to sedating people…

  4. …hallucination led to imagination which led to invention, society, community…

    Are people still figuring this out?

  5. @7(2 + 3) If I understand my pop psychology, spirituality is suppose to generate optimism. That would make it fun (unless it wasn’t working then it would make it an obsessive disorder).

  6. Terrence McKenna, when he was alive and giving lectures and the like used to discuss often about the idea that early proto humans received their increase in brain size due to systemic use of mushrooms and other psychedelia.. its just a theory at this point still, but this lends a little bit of extra weight to the idea.

  7. According to the Wikipedia entry linked in the article, harmine is found in many plants, including passion fruit which is native to South America. Is it possible the harmine detected in the hair is from eating passion fruit or some other plant containing harmine?

  8. Busted! Buuuussssted!

    I just knew that the War on Drugs would work: we just have to stay the course long enough until we mummify the lot of them.


  9. No, Livemike. This is a thread about how humans have been enjoying the spiritual benefits of psychoactives for thousands of years. Please don’t offer any other explanations. :)

  10. I’m going with the “just for fun” theory of their drug use. And personally I also think all those cave drawings were done by kids as graffiti.

    In other words I don’t think things change much. Maybe we have a few less human sacrifices, or on second thought maybe we don’t.

  11. Humans seek altered consciousness. Film at 11.

    Seriously, though, I always find it funny how the immediate assumption is that ancient cultures used psychedelics and other substances as part of some spiritual/religious journey. As other have noted, I’m betting a good deal of the time, they tripped because it was great fun. Yeah, you can build a religion around the stuff, but it makes little sense to assume their motivations were any loftier than our own, when it comes to substance use, barring any solid evidence to the contrary.

  12. I’m more of the belief that spiritual purposes make much more sense. Mostly do to the fact that ancient people most likely had no idea that chemicals in certain plants are what was causing their visions. The hallucinations were most likely attributed as visions from some sort of higher power. Ayahuasca isn’t really something you do for fun. Its an extremely powerful experience, sometimes life altering. Most of the historical use of psychedelics link back to shamans and medicine men, that used them as part of religious ceremonies. Thats most likely why people automatically attribute the use as such.

  13. Never mind the drugs – this is the first ancient burial ~I’ve~ seen where a man was buried with his hamster.

  14. @16

    Personally I find the assumption funny that modern people don’t use psychedelics for spiritual purposes.

    One good reason to suppose that the ancient use was ritual and religious, is that the modern use is. When Ayahuasca was “discovered” by ethnobotanists, it was as a religious sacrament used by many South American tribes, including the descendants of the ancient Inca.

    So it’s not like they’re just jumping to some sort of “noble savage” stereotype. It’s not much of a stretch that the present traditions stretch back a long way. This just suggests that the modern Inca are continuing a religous practice that predates even the ancient Inca.

    Also, there is the fact that modern spiritual use of psychedelics is rather hampered by prohibition of those drugs. In the absence of prohibitionism, religious leaders would have to be pretty willfully blind to turn down a gift of revelation like that. The fact that it’s fun and uplifting (assuming Ayahuasca is fun – many psychedelics really aren’t) just means that the people will use it no matter what. So as a religious leader, you can either declare it a gift from the god(s), or you can choose a losing battle against it. I know which way I’d go.

  15. Ayahuasca was used strictly by medicine men. it gives the users a sense of community and shared vision. in large enough doses it “separates the veil between worlds (realities)”.

  16. Does harmine on it’s own have strong psychoactive effects? Isn’t it used in ayahuasca because it is an MAO inhibitor and thus allows DMT to be ingested orally?

    In the absence of any evidence of DMT (and I don’t know if DMT could be detected in the same way in such an old sample) does this really provide any strong evidence of hallucinogenic use? Not that I doubt the use of hallucinogenic, it just seems that the inferences being made here are outweighing the evidence.

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