Researchers have found evidence that hallucinogenic plants were used on children as part of sacrificial rituals in Peru hundreds of years ago.
Ritual ceremonies played an important role in the Inca empire, and one of the most prominent ceremonies was the Capacocha ritual, in which humans and material goods were sacrificed in the belief that this could help avert natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or droughts, or to coincide with political events.
In 1995, researchers came across sacrificed individuals on the Ampato volcano in southern Peru whilst on an expedition. They discovered the burials of two children, estimated to have been aged between 6 and 7 years old, as well as objects made of silver and gold. It is thought the children were killed more than 500 years ago.
This month, a team of scientists from Poland, Peru and the U.S. announced in a research paper they had conducted toxicology tests on two of the children, after they were subject to an examination in 2019. The researchers studied the hair of one of them, referred to as Ampato 2, and the fingernails of the other, referred to as Ampato 3.
The researchers were able to identify cocaine in both the samples they studied—something that has been investigated before in other studies of Capacocha rituals.
The individuals from Ampato were the first to be tested for the presence of other drugs. The tests came back positive for harmine and harmaline, and the only possible source for these two chemicals in the Andean region is Banisteriopsis caapi, a South American jungle vine that is used in the preparation of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink.
In their research paper, the scientists state that the consumption of ayahuasca could have been linked to a desire to communicate with the spiritual world. In addition, Banisteriopsis caapi may have been used alone for antidepressant effects.
“The interesting result was the composition of the ayahuasca decoction,” Dagmara Socha, a researcher at the University of Warsaw Center for Andean Studies and co-author of the paper, told Newsweek. “The present-day ayahuasca is a mix of lianas of Banisteriopsis caapi and other plants, primarily Psychotria viridis, a source of DMT.
“Harmine is necessary to orally activate DMT, which is hallucinogenic, and combinations of these two are one of the most potent hallucinogenic drugs. However, in our study, we discovered only harmine in hair. The harmine alone also causes lesser hallucinogenic states and is an antidepressant.
“This could mean that DMT incorporation into human hair is weak and this is why we did not find it. Another explanation is that Incas used only lianas without Psychotria viridis, because they were interested in the antidepressant properties of Banisteriopsis caapi. Spanish chroniclers mentioned that it was important for children to go happy to gods. So maybe the Incas used it to calm down the victims during the pilgrimage from Cuzco to the summit.”
The Inca empire existed in Peru between the 1400s and 1533, eventually growing to become the largest empire ever seen in the Americas according to World History Encyclopedia.
Ayahuasca has been used for centuries in sacred traditions throughout the Americas and is still used by some communities today, according to Healthline. It affects the central nervous system leading to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. People react to ayahuasca differently and experience both positive and negative effects. Negative effects can include severe anxiety.