Archaeological evidence from Peru suggests elite members of the Wari Empire mixed a hallucinogenic drug with a beer-like beverage in order to cultivate and preserve political control.
During feasts, Wari elites added vilca, a powerful hallucinogen, to chicha, a beer-like beverage made from fruit. Together, the concoction made for a potent party drug, which the researchers say helped those in power bond with their guests and consolidate relationships. And because vilca could only be produced by the elites, these psychedelic feasts served to boost their social and political importance. Such are the findings of a new study published today in Antiquity.
The vibrant pre-Columbian Wari state ruled over the Peruvian Andes from around 600 CE to 1000 CE, prior to the emergence of the Inca Empire. Evidence of the vilca-chicha mixture was found at the Quilcapampa site in Peru—a short-lived Wari outpost built during the 9th century CE. Archaeologists with the Royal Ontario Museum assisted with the fieldwork, while Matthew Biwer, an archaeologist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, contributed to the analysis.
Quilcapampa, located on a road in south-central Peru, is significant in that it’s “one of the few investigated Wari sites in the Arequipa province of Peru, which is currently understudied in terms of Wari,” as Biwer, the first author of the new study, explained in an email. In particular, the site has “provided critical evidence of how Wari operated in the region” as well as insights into the “Wari-local relationships that developed over the unusually short occupation of the site,” he added.
Vilca, as a drug, dates back thousands of years, but it wasn’t clear if Wari individuals partook. Members of the contemporary Tiwanaku state most certainly did, ingesting it as snuff. The chemical bufotenine DMT is what gives the drug its potent psychotropic qualities. But as the new research suggests, the Wari people did use vilca to get high, but instead of consuming it as snuff, they added it to chicha—in this case, chicha produced from the fruits of Schinus molle, an evergreen tree native to Peru.
“This is, to my knowledge, the first finding of vilca at a Wari site where we can get a glimpse of its use,” said Biwer. “Vilca seeds or residue has been found in burial tombs before, but we could only assume how it was used. These findings point to a more nuanced understanding of Wari feasting and politics, and how vilca was implicated in these practices.”
The excavations at Quilcapampa provided evidence of both substances, as over a million pea-sized molle dregs, or fruits, were found at the site, and also some seeds of the vilca tree, which is used to produce the potent hallucinogenic drug. As Biwer explained, it was the archaeological context that allowed his team to conclude that the two substances were mixed together.
“Vilca is not common at the site—we only have a few seeds recovered,” he said. “This is important because we know its use was not widespread—it was limited to certain contexts.”
Indeed, vilca was only recovered in a couple of areas at the site, one of which was a central garbage pile located near a pit of molle chicha dregs. The close association of the vilca to the molle chicha dregs, the complete absence of snuff paraphernalia at the site, and evidence pointing to a big party, all point to the use of the vilca-chicha mixture in a feast held at Quilcapampa, said Biwer.
These communal feasts, hosted by the elites, cemented social relationships while showcasing state hospitality. In a sense, it was beer and drugs that allowed the Wari empire to maintain political control, as Biwer argued in his email to Gizmodo:
The ability to provide a feast for guests has powerful social, economic, and political connotations. Hosting a feast involves giving away food and other resources to guests. This can provide a lot of social and political clout for a host, whose guests witness the economic abilities of the host to provide the feast (remember, there is no grocery store to go buy food). Who is invited, what is served, who eats what and how much, and many other aspects of feasts create a politically charged atmosphere. It is also political in that the guests of a feast may become indebted to a host who gave them food and drink—not everyone has the means to repay. 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.
That the elites had exclusive control over the vilca drug seems likely. The tree does not grow in the valley where Quilcapampa is located, the nearest source being more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) away. Clearly, not everyone had the means to procure these hallucinogenic seeds, but not only that, it was in the best interest of Wari leaders to control its access and use, according to the study.
The new research shows that Wari had access to vilca, which wasn’t clear before, and that they added it to chicha, as opposed to using it as snuff. This is significant, said Biwer, because “snuff creates a mind-altering experience for an individual,” whereas “the addition of vilca to chicha can provide this experience to many more people.” And by doing so, “Wari began to use feasting and the ability to provide a mind-altering experience…to create social relationships and power with locals and other groups they encountered,” he added.
Prehistoric South Americans had access to a remarkable assortment of drugs. Research from 2019 revealed a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle consisting of five different psychoactive substances, including ayahuasca and cocaine. The bundle, found in a Bolivian cave at an altitude of 13,000 feet, was likely the property of a shaman, who would have possessed considerable knowledge about certain plants and where to procure them.