Between 500 and 1100 C.E., the highlands of Peru were home to a far-reaching empire known as the Wari. Like the Inca after them, the Wari managed to spread their culture over the vast distances and rugged terrain of the Andes Mountains. Now, new finds from a small site in Peru suggest the Wari may have forged political alliances by serving drug-laced beer to local elites at periodic parties, extending their empire one trippy feast at a time.
The idea that the Wari used hallucinogens for political maneuvering and not solitary religious rituals “makes a lot of sense,” says University of North Carolina, Greensboro, archaeologist and Wari expert Donna Nash, who was not involved in the research.
Between 2013 and 2017, archaeologists excavating near Arequipa in southern Peru found evidence of a small Wari outpost, some 800 kilometers south of the capital at Huari. Called Quilcapampa today, the site was probably home to only 100 Wari at its peak—perhaps three extended families and a few others, plunked down in a remote, arid valley more than 200 kilometers from the nearest large Wari settlement.
Artifacts suggest the surrounding area was populated by locals who maintained their lifestyle after the Wari arrived in the middle of the ninth century. And though their outpost boasts typical Wari architectural styles and houses objects such as elaborately decorated drinking vessels, feathered ceremonial clothing, and stone tablets, it lacks any weapons that might signal a military presence. How could a small group of foreigners so far from home, researchers wondered, get locals to accept them and perhaps even recognize their authority?
Clues came from Quilcapampa’s dry soil, which yielded hundreds of thousands of dried plant remains. After spending months sorting them, Dickinson College archaeobotanist Matthew Biwer found 16 seeds from a hallucinogenic jungle plant called vilca.
Vilca seeds, which some Amazonian tribes still consume today, produce intense, incapacitating hallucinations akin to the psychedelic ayahuasca when pulverized and snorted. Archaeologists have documented thousands of years of vilca use as part of South American religious rituals, and vilca seed pods have been depicted on Wari drinking vessels. But the tree doesn’t naturally grow near Quilcapampa, Biwer says. That fact—and the fact that the seeds were found only in the Wari compounds—suggests the vilca was imported by the Wari.
Why they brought the drug was another question. Consumed alone, vilca brings on intense, private hallucinations. However, when added to alcohol—particularly the fermented fruits of the molle tree—the seed’s hallucinogenic compounds are diluted but remain active. “Instead of an abrupt out-of-body experience, you would have a more elongated high [that] you would be able to enjoy with other people,” says Royal Ontario Museum archaeologist Justin Jennings, who led the excavation. “[The Wari] take something that is an antisocial drug and make it a social one.”
Sure enough, the vilca at Quilcapampa was found near pits full of desiccated seeds from the berries of the molle tree, which had been soaked and fermented, presumably to make a strong beer known as chicha. That suggests vilca was a controlled substance, Jennings says. He and his colleagues also think it may have been used to make friends with the locals and influence regional elites, likely during exclusive feasts or parties. “The Wari are telling the locals, ‘Bring the molle, and we’re going to add the special sauce.’”
Rather than organizing grand public ceremonies or military invasions, the Wari may have built their empire one party at a time, the researchers theorize today in Antiquity. Artifacts from other Wari sites suggest they had a heady party culture: Much of their pottery is dedicated to beer brewing or serving. “Wari statecraft is happening on a smaller scale,” Jennings says. “I see these as boozy family dinners, building social relationships one [feast] at a time.” And because vilca was an exotic substance in Quilcapampa, a vilca-fueled party there would have been special, cementing the new arrivals’ prestige.
The Quilcapampa finds could help reveal how Wari politics worked on a larger level, Nash says. “To find vilca at a smaller provincial site is interesting–and demonstrates not only that the high priest was using the drug, but that the use might have been more pervasive than we thought,” she says.
Around 900 C.E., after just a few decades, the Quilcapampa settlement was abandoned. Breakdowns in long-distance trade meant the Wari there were cut off from their supply chains, and Jennings thinks their efforts to win over the locals eventually failed. The goodbye party was a rager, though. In one last, massive blowout, residents of the compounds spread smashed pottery, burned food, and left offerings on the clean floors of their houses. Then they blocked off doorways and abandoned the site, in a signature Wari farewell.