Archaeology: Ancient Andean leaders may have mixed hallucinogen with their beer

A concoction of vilca seeds and fermented alcohol may have provided a mild hallucinogenic experience, enabling Wari leaders in South America to bond with their people


12 January 2022

Anadenanthera colubrina is the one tree species common to nearly all regions of South American seasonally dry tropical forests and woodlands (SDTFs). Its abundant fruits each of which is laterally flat and which bear many lenticular seeds, trunk and main stems with a tuberculate cortex, and extra floral nectaries positioned near the base of the leaf rachis distinguish this species.

Anadenanthera colubrina, a tree species common to nearly all regions of South American

Matt Lavin/Flickr

Get high, make friends. Members of the Wari society, who lived in the Peruvian Andes more than 1000 years ago, may have mixed hallucinogenic seeds into their beer. Such a mind-bending drink might have offered a way for society leaders to create bonds with ordinary people.

“Being able to provide that experience would create heightened social status among Wari leaders,” says Matthew Biwer at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The Wari culture flourished in what is now Peru between around AD 550 and 1000. Biwer calls them “the first example of an expansionary state in the Andes”, preceding the later Inca Empire. “There is no written record,” says Biwer, so we don’t know what they called themselves. But they left behind distinctive artefacts and structures including canals.

Since 2015, Biwer and his team have been excavating a Wari site called Quilcapampa. He calls it “a waystation along a road” and says it was only occupied for a generation, between about AD 800 and 850.

In the centre of the site, the team found a pit filled with about a million seeds of Schinus molle: a kind of fruit known as molle, or sometimes Peruvian pepper. The molle fruits were used to make a fermented alcoholic drink, a bit like beer, known as chicha.

A few steps away, in a garbage pit, the team found seeds from vilca trees (Anadenanthera colubrina). Vilca seeds contain hallucinogenic substances and have been widely used in Andean cultures. “I haven’t tried vilca myself,” says Biwer, but ethnographic accounts often describe it causing “a sensation of flying”.

If you eat vilca seeds, your stomach enzymes deactivate the active compounds within them – so the seeds are more normally ground up and taken up the nose as snuff, producing a strong effect. However, chicha suppresses those stomach enzymes, so the combination of the two would allow “a very mild and controlled hallucinogenic effect”, says Biwer.

As the Wari state expanded throughout the Andes, its leaders needed ways to impress local people and create bonds with them. They often did so by holding feasts, says Biwer. Providing a hallucinogenic experience would have been an added selling point – especially as vilca doesn’t grow in the Quilcapampa area and must have been imported.

Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2021.177

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