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Ancient South American Empire Tripped On Psychedelic Beer

Research published Wednesday shows that leaders in a South American colony used a mixture of beer and a psychoactive drug to keep their political power over the surrounding community. 

A study was published in the journal AntiquityArchaeologists have revealed that Wari leaders served beer-like beverages made of the fruits and vilca trees. They served it to their guests during communal meals.

“The resulting psychotropic experience reinforced the power of the Wari state, and represents an intermediate step between exclusionary and corporate political strategies,” the researchers wrote in an abstract of the study published online by Cambridge University Press. “This Andean example adds to the global catalog documenting the close relationship between hallucinogens and social power.”

In the Andes Mountains of Peru today, the Wari established their kingdom in highlands. They ruled the region from 600 to 1000 A.D. and were four centuries ahead of the Inca Empire. From 2013 to 2017, archeologists discovered evidence that Wari sites had psychedelic-like vilca seeds. 

Matthew Biwer (visiting assistant professor of archaeology, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania) is the main author. The discovery sheds light into how South American indigenous cultures used psychoactive substances.

“This was a turning point in the Andes in terms of politics and use of hallucinogens,” Biwer said, as reported by CNN. “We see this kind of use of hallucinogens as different use context than in prior civilizations, who seem to have closely guarded the use of hallucinogens to a select few, or the latter Inca Empire who emphasized the mass-consumption of beer but did not use psychotropic substances such as vilca at feasts.”

Pre-Columbian people used vilca to inhale as snuff as many as 4,000 years ago. These seeds also contain dimethyltryptamine and bufotenine which are both psychedelic drugs similar to neurotransmitter Serotonin. 

“What I’ve read from ethnographic sources is that you get a very strong sensation of flying,” Biwer told Reverse.

The Empire is ruled by Party Hosts

Prior research revealed that Wari used beer and feasting to control guests from the surrounding villages. Research at Quilcapampa found evidence that Wari made large amounts of chicha, a molle beer. Botanical remnants of molle and vilca were found and ceramics were discovered at the center of the site, an indication of where feasts were held, according to the study’s authors.

“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. “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,” Biwer continued. “It also was a way for Wari leaders to demonstrate and maintain social, economic, and political power.”

Biwer said that Wari hosts would be able to make guests feel pressured to show their gratitude and to act in a reciprocal manner. 

“There’s political power in being able to acquire and use these hallucinogenic substances and providing these experiences,” Biwer said. “I think it provides a really good example of the connection between politics, drug use, intoxication and the social bonds.”

Researches are still trying to understand why the Wari civilization failed. However, researchers continue to examine pre-Columbian settlement sites and learn more about early Peruvian inhabitants.

“​The Wari Empire stretched from northern Peru to the far south near the Chilean border, and from the coast to the mountainous areas of the Andes,” Biwer explained. “It is the first example of an empire in South America, having collapsed around 400 years prior to the rise of the Inca Empire.”