An altered state of consciousness to rule an ancient empire? Not a plot of a television series or a fantasy novella, but a page out of the fascinating book that is human history. A new study published in Cambridge University Press’ Antiquity journal details how leaders of the Wari culture, and the Inca leadership (who came later), emphasized the mass use of hallucinogens and alcohol at different points in their history as “exclusionary and corporate political strategies” respectively.
Quilcapampa excavation site in Peru, where archaeologists have excavated evidence about the Wari culture. (Lisa Milosavljevic & Royal Ontario Museum / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Hallucinogens as a Wari Culture Political Strategy
In the recent the recent Antiquity study, the researchers, archaeologists, and scientists from Dickinson College (USA), Royal Ontario Museum (Canada) and the University of Rochester (USA) emphasize this point when they write that certain socially complex societies “attempt to bridge socioeconomic differences, often via the sponsorship of large feasts, rituals, and other communal events that foster greater social cohesion through shared activities.”
Their research focuses on two time periods in particular. The Formative Period (900 to 300 BC) associated with the extensive use of hallucinogens, and a lending of support to exclusionary political strategies by the leaders of the Wari culture , a prehistoric culture who ruled the highlands between 600 and 1000 AD in what is now modern-day Peru.
The other time period, called Late Horizon (1450 to 1532 AD), is associated with the mass consumption of alcohol, as a corporate political strategy, by the late Inca. The excavations were conducted from a site called Quilcapampa, which was a Wari culture outpost established during the 9th century AD, and occupied for over half a century.
Over a million botanical remains were recovered, including seeds from the hallucinogenicvilca tree. After studying these archaeobotanical remains, the authors posit that a shift occurred during the Middle Horizon (600 to 1000 AD), when chicha, a beer-like alcoholic beverage made from the molle tree, was brewed with the hallucinogen from the vilca tree (Anadenanthera colubrina) , to create a psychotropic experience that helps document the close relationship between hallucinogens and social power.
Vilca seed, from the hallucinogenic vilca tree, excavated at Quilcapampa, a Wari culture outpost in modern-day Peru. (M. Biwer / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Creating Community Through Psychoactive Substances
Historically, psychoactive substances have played a crucial role in representing altered states of consciousness. This is particularly true of alcoholic beverages, which are state-sanctioned, carry widespread cultural acceptance and consumption, and thereby sustain political economies through a shared collective experience. “Alcohol tends to intensify the shared euphoria of communal events, providing visceral reinforcement of the participating individual’s place in society,” they write.
In contrast, the specialized knowledge to procure, prepare, and consume hallucinogens is not massified, and requires “guides” or “ shamans”, along with specialist brewers. Hallucinogens are politically important for they create communities of users versus non-users, with the latter often seen as participants in this larger social performance, of which they are watchers and sharers. Their communal use, thereby, is different from the communal use that alcohol represents.
What becomes especially significant about this Wari culture study, therefore, is the addition of a hallucinogen to alcohol, which is the first such archaeobotanical evidence at any site in the world. Evidence of priests performing rituals in preparation for the consumption of the hallucinogen are found from the Formative Period. By the time of the Late Horizon, when the Inca were in power, there is evidence of feasts with copious amounts of chicha made with maize, but hallucinogens don’t seem to be used as popularly.
Fragments of face-necked jars discovered at Quilcapampa used to serve vilca beer consumed during feasts. After feasts these ceramic vessels were sometimes intentionally broken with a blow to the chest. (Luis Manuel González La Rosa and Justin Jennings & Royal Ontario Museum / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Communal Feasts and Social Control in the Wari Culture
During the intermediary period, meaning the Middle Horizon of the Wari culture, there is evidence of small-scale feasts with a mix of chicha and vilca. The latter is used popularly in the Andean region to this very day, though consumed without chicha, and has a 4,000-year-old history!
The palaeoethnobotanical evidence from the Wari culture outpost at Quilcapampa confirms the same, though the added caveat is that this was a corporate strategy of governance, with patron-client feasting relationships being fostered. This evidence has been gleaned from production and consumption of ceramics at Quilcapampa.
The transition from exclusionary use in the Formative Period, to communal use, incorporated by the Wari culture indicates a tactic by the elites to cement social relationships and highlight state hospitality. “These individuals were able to offer memorable, collective psychotropic feasts, but ensured that they could not be independently replicated,” the researchers wrote, noting that the difficulty in obtaining and preparing vilca would grant the Wari culture elites who provided it, special status.
The Inca continued the tradition of communal consumption and feasts, but the hallucinogens were slowly phased out in favor of chicha, meaning maize beer. Future studies will use this study as a springboard, and look at how exclusionary to inclusive drug use was important for political developments in many regions across human history.
Top image: Samples of Schinus mole discovered at Quilcapampa in Peru which were used by Wari culture to make an alcoholic drink. Source: Lisa Milosavljevic & Royal Ontario Museum / Antiquity Publications Ltd
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