Ancient empire used psychedelic beer to win friends and influence people

New research published in the journal Antiquity suggests an ancient South American civilization spiked a beer-like drink with psychoactive drugs as a way of maintaining social cohesion and forging new bonds with surrounding communities.

The Wari civilization flourished in the Peruvian Andes from about 500 to 1000 CE. The new research arose from recent archeological findings at a Wari outpost known as Quilcapampa.

Excavations revealed evidence the Wari were brewing large quantities of a beer-like drink known as chicha. The alcoholic beverage is common to a number of ancient civilizations in the region, however, spiking it with a hallucinogenic substance is unusual.

Alongside traces of the plants used to brew chicha, the excavations revealed traces of vilca seeds. These seeds are known to contain a psychoactive substance called bufotenine.

Traditional uses of vilca generally involve either smoking or inhaling the powdered seed. But curiously, no smoking or snuffing paraphernalia was found at the Quilcapampa site. Instead, the traces of vilca were detected near signs of chicha brewing. There are anecdotal accounts of vilca being added to beverages but this is the first archeological evidence to indicate the hallucinogenic substance was consumed in an alcoholic drink.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the new study is the speculation surrounding why the Wari were using psychoactive drugs this way. Mathew Biwer, an author on the new study, said this use of a psychoactive is different from the way previous ancient civilizations used hallucinogenic drugs.

Many ancient uses of hallucinogenic substances were consumed by a select few in any given community. Drug use was often ceremonial with strong spiritual foundations. Here, the Wari were seen to be using the hallucinogenic beer as part of large social events.

The presence of the vilca-spiked beer, particularly at the Quilcapampa outpost, suggests it was used to forge strong social connections with outlying communities. Perhaps as a way to expand the Wari empire without military force, Biwer speculated.

“The Wari added the vilca to the chicha beer in order to impress guests to their feasts who could not return the experience,” Biwer said recently to CNN. “This created an indebted relationship between Wari hosts and guests, likely from the surrounding region. We argue that the feasting, beer, and vilca thus served to create and cement social connections between Wari-affiliated peoples and locals as the Empire expanded. It also was a way for Wari leaders to demonstrate and maintain social, economic, and political power.”

Biwer and colleagues further hypothesize in the new study that the knowledge of vilca was likely privileged to elite members of the Wari society. The plant is not found in the region surrounding Quilcapampa. In fact, it could only be harvested from locations hundreds of miles away, meaning any experience generated by these drug-fueled Wari feasts could not be easily replicated.

“By tying their esoteric knowledge of obtaining and using vilca as an additive to molle chicha, an intoxicant that stimulated communitas, Wari leaders were able to legitimize and maintain their heightened status,” the authors speculated in the new study. “These individuals were able to offer memorable, collective psychotropic feasts, but ensured that they could not be independently replicated.”

The idea that the Wari leaders were using a psychoactive drug as a way of maintaining social control is hugely speculative, and perhaps ultimately impossible to clearly prove. But it does present a compelling story of a society expanding its political reach by parcelling out psychoactive experiences.

Speaking to Gizmodo, Biwer said Wari feasts certainly had social, economic and political motivations. Providing neighboring communities with these kinds of psychedelic-charged experiences creates a powerful dynamic that can indebt guests to their host.

“… the guests of a feast may become indebted to a host who gave them food and drink – not everyone has the means to repay,” Biwer said. “They would thus be socially obligated to repay the host in some way, which translates to real power for the host. Using feasts and surplus you can create relationships through which some people become indebted to others – there is real power in such situations.”

The new study was published in the journal Antiquity.

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