How beer and drugs strengthened an ancient Andean empire

Andean Empire

Image: J. Ochatoma Paravicino/ME Biwer et al., 2022/Antiquity/Reproduction

Archaeological evidence from Peru suggests that elite members of the Huari Empire mixed a hallucinogenic drug with a beer-like beverage to cultivate and preserve political control.

During festivals, the Huari elites added vilca, a powerful hallucinogen, to chicha, a beer-like drink made from fruit. The concoction resulted in a potent party drug, which scientists believe helped those in power with their guests and cement relationships. The vilca could only be produced by the elites, and because of this, this party psychedelic served to heighten political and social importance. The study was published this Tuesday (11) in the scientific journal antiquity.

The vibrant pre-Columbian state of Huari ruled the Peruvian Andes between AD 600 and AD 1,000, before the rise of the Inca Empire. Evidence of the blending of vilva and chica has been found at the Quilcapampa site in Peru – a short-lived Huari outpost built during the 9th century AD Archaeologists from the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada helped with the fieldwork, while Matthew Biwer, an archaeologist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, United States, contributed to the analyses.

Quilcapampa, located on a road in south-central Peru, is important because it is “one of the few Huari sites investigated in the Peruvian province of Arequipa, which is currently understudied in terms of Huari,” as Biwer, who led the study, explained. by email. In particular, this site has “provided relevant evidence on how the Huari people operated in the region,” as well as information on “the relationships that the Huari people developed with locals during their unusually short occupancy of space,” he added.

One of the few vilca seeds found at the site. Image: M. Biwer/Reproduction

Vilca, as a drug, dates back thousands of years, but it was unclear whether Huari individuals participated. Members of the contemporary state of Tiwanaku, on the other hand, appear to have ingested the hallucinogen as snuff. The chemical bufotenine DMT is what gives the drug its potent psychotropic qualities. But as the new study suggests, the Huari people used vilca to get high, but instead of consuming it as snuff, they added it to chicha — in this case, the chicha produced by berries. shinus mole, an evergreen tree native to Peru.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first discovery of vilca at a Huari site where we can get a glimpse of its use,” Biwer said. “Vilca seeds or their residues have been found in tombs before, but we can only guess how it was used. These findings point to a more nuanced understanding of Huari festivities and politics, and how the vilca was related to these practices.”

The excavation at Quilcapampa provides evidence for both substances. More than a million pea-sized fruits or molle residues were found at the site, as well as some seeds of the vile tree, which were used to produce the potent hallucinogenic drug. As Biwer explained, it was the archaeological context that allowed his team to conclude that the two substances were mixed together.

Charred molle waste used to make chicha. Image: M. Biwer/Reproduction

“Vilca is not common at the site – we only recovered a few seeds,” he said. “This is important because we know that its use was not widespread – but rather limited to certain contexts.”

In fact, the vilca has only been recovered in a few areas of the archaeological site, one of which was a central rubbish heap located next to a pit with molle lees used in chicha.

According to Biwer, the close association between vilca and chicha lees, the absence of snuff-related paraphernalia, and evidence pointing to large parties point to the use of the mixture used in a celebration held in Quilcapampa.

These community parties offered by the elite cemented social relationships while showing hospitality on the part of the state. In a way, it was beer and drugs that allowed the Huari empire to maintain political control, as Biewer argued in an email to Gizmodo:

“The ability to provide a feast for guests has powerful social, economic and political connotations. Organizing a feast involves giving food and other resources to the guests. This can provide a lot of social and political clout for a host, whose guests testify to their economic abilities (remember, there is no grocery store to buy food). Who is invited, what is served, who eats what and how much, and many other aspects of parties create a politically charged atmosphere. It is also political as party guests can be indebted to a host who has given them food and drink – not everyone has the means to pay. That way, they would be socially obligated to repay the host in some way, which translates into real power for the host. Using feasts and leftovers, you can create relationships whereby some people become indebted to others – there is real power in such situations.”

It seems likely that the elites had exclusive control over the Vilcan drug. The tree does not grow in the valley where Quilcapampa is located – the nearest source is 400 kilometers away. Clearly, not everyone had the means to obtain these hallucinogenic seeds, but not only that, it was in the interests of Huari leaders to control their access and use, according to the study.

The new research shows that the Huari had access to vilca, which was not clear before, and that they added it to chicha, rather than using it as snuff. According to Biwer, this is significant because “snuff creates a mind-altering experience for a single individual,” while “the addition of vilca to chicha can provide that experience to multiple people.” And in doing so, “Huari began using the feast and the ability to provide a mind-altering experience… to create social and power relationships with the locals and other groups they encountered,” he added.

Prehistoric South Americans had access to a range of drugs. 2019 surveys revealed a package used in rituals 1,000 years ago containing five different psychoactive substances, including ayahuasca and cocaine. The package, found in a cave in Bolivia at an altitude of nearly 4,000 meters, appeared to belong to a shaman, who had considerable knowledge about certain plants and where to acquire them.

About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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