Inca priests used natural antidepressants for nefarious purposes

Inca priests used natural antidepressants for nefarious purposes
By Nilsf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A recent toxicology analysis of the 500-year-old remains of two small children sacrificed in a ritual atop southern Peru’s Ampato volcano showed that the children’s hair and fingernails contained traces of cocaine, as well as two chemical compounds from a flowering vine that’s a key ingredient in the psychedelic beverage ayahuasca.

The compounds in question, harmine and harmaline, are both part of a group of antidepressants called MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). The only possible place the Inca could have found these compounds is the flowering vine known to modern science as Banisteriopsis caapi—and to the Indigenous Quechua people as “liana of the dead.” Famously, the liana is one of the two main ingredients in a ritual drink called ayahuasca, which can induce hallucinations or an altered state of mind.

But the analysis found no trace of the compound DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), which makes ayahuasca such a powerful hallucinogenic. That compound comes from the other main ingredient in ayahuasca, a shrub called chacruna (which, incidentally, is a relative of the plant that gives us coffee).

Its absence could just be a quirk of chemistry. Toxicology studies of at least one sacrifice victim from another site also found no DMT but did find a chemical compound that’s produced when the body metabolizes DMT. That supports the idea that DMT may not be one of the chemicals preserved in keratin, which means University of Warsaw archaeologist Dagmara Socha and her colleagues can’t rule out ayahuasca being given to the kids at Ampato.

Still, the lack of DMT in the Ampato victims’ hair and nails could mean that they drank something that contained the liana of the dead but not chacruna. And if that’s the case, it seems very likely that the goal wasn’t to give them religious hallucinations but to keep the children calm on the long procession toward their deaths.

“If so, this would be the first example of the conscious use of the antidepression properties of ayahuasca beverage consisting primarily, if not totally, of Banisteriopsis caapi,” wrote Socha and her colleagues in a recent paper.

They saw it coming

The two children, both between 6 and 7 years old, died as victims in an Inca ritual called capacocha. Throughout the Inca Empire, priests sacrificed young women and children as young as 3 years old to local deities called huacas.

For weeks before the sacrifice, the victims knew exactly what was going to happen to them. Victims chosen from the far-flung corners of the Inca Empire had to gather in the capital, Cusco, before setting out on long processions to the places where they would die. Sometimes that meant a long journey back home, and sometimes it meant traveling to some other province of the empire.

That experience must have been overwhelming for young children, even without the terror of the sacrifice hanging over their heads. And it simply wouldn’t do to have the intended victim, who was meant to be pure and beautiful, crying about it. Spanish colonizers, who described the rituals they witnessed, wrote that the victim’s mood was as important as their appearance; sacrifices were supposed to go happily to the huacas.

The solution? Sedate the victims with drugs and booze. According to the Spaniards, Inca priests kept their doomed victims happy and calm with a steady diet of an alcoholic drink called chicha.

Toxicology studies on the mummified remains of several capacocha victims from around Peru found evidence that they had also chewed coca leaves for weeks before their deaths, and some died with their last dose still in their mouths. Often, it seems that the children were chewing more and more coca as the ritual drew closer. In the hair of one victim at another site, archaeologists found a compound called cocaethylene, which forms when cocaine combines with alcohol in a person’s body.

In other words, Inca priests spent several weeks drugging small children into cheerful compliance until it was time to ritually murder them. The horror of that scenario isn’t offset by the fact that there was evidently a fairly advanced level of pharmacological knowledge behind the choice of drugs.

Cocaine, but no underage drinking

The two children buried at Ampato are the first capacocha victims ever tested for drugs other than cocaine. Both tested positive for cocaine, as well as harmine and harmaline. But Socha and her colleagues found no sign of mescaline (another common hallucinogenic), DMT, or cocaethylene.

Because neither sample contained cocaethylene, the archaeologists say it’s likely that the children weren’t given alcohol during their procession to Ampato—or at least not until the last minute.

“If they did, it must have been during the last stage of the ritual, when the substance would not have had time to be introduced into the keratin of the hair and nails,” they wrote.

Socha and her colleagues sampled hair from one child and fingernails from the other; both are made of a protein called keratin, and both often contain traces of the chemicals that were in a person’s bloodstream while their hair and nails were growing. Over the last few weeks, if you’ve done certain drugs, suffered from lead poisoning, or even been really stressed, your hair and nails probably contain evidence of it.

What became of the victims?

After death, capacocha victims were said to become mediators between the people and the gods, and in some places, people worshipped the mummified remains of the victims and consulted them as oracles. The young children who died at Ampato were buried on a snowy plateau near the top of the mountain with gold and silver figurines, elaborate tunics, wood and ceramic vessels, and even weaving tools.

Sometime in the last 500 years, lightning struck the burial site, burning away most of the soft tissue from one of the bodies. The other had been naturally mummified by the dry, cold environment.

Archaeologists found their graves in 1995, shortly after the eruption of nearby Sabancaya volcano melted the snow from the upper reaches of Ampato and other nearby mountains. Ironically, Sabancaya volcano may have been one of the natural hazards the sacrifices were supposed to help protect local people against, according to Socha and her colleagues.

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2022 DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103415  (About DOIs).

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