A network of eerie chambers and passageways built into an enigmatic temple complex in the Peruvian Andes may have been used for ritual practices involving psychedelic plants, according to researchers. The mysterious structures were discovered in 2019 deep within the Chavín de Huántar temple, the largest religious site pertaining to the Chavín culture, which occupied the region until about 2,200 years ago.
Though the passages are still being explored and no conclusive answers regarding their function have been obtained, Stanford archaeologist John Rick told Live Science that their purpose was almost certainly “related to ritual activity”. An expert on the site, Rick has produced numerous studies and book chapters describing how Chavín de Huántar’s layout was central to its ceremonial efficacy.
For instance, in 2006 he wrote that “the architecture plays a major role in providing the ambience for rituals that have as a primary function the reinforcing of the authority and power of the Chavín leadership.” To illustrate this point, he cites the strategic placement of “ventilation shafts” that allowed beams of sunlight to illuminate certain ceremonial spaces, thereby enhancing the impact of certain psychoactive plants that were ingested during these peculiar rituals.
The newly discovered passageways vary in length, with the longest measuring some 100 meters (300 feet). Many include dizzying twists and turns, and may have served to create a sense of disorientation or confusion for those under the influence of mind-altering substances.
Exactly which psychedelic plants were ingested at Chavín de Huántar remains a topic of debate, although it is widely agreed that the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus was among the sacraments used during rituals. Native to the area, the cactus is depicted on stone sculptures and textiles within the temple, although no traces of actual plant material have ever been found at the site.
Other scholars argue that ceremonial participants may have snorted a psychoactive snuff made from the pods of the vilca tree, which contains a derivative of DMT known as bufotenine. Though evidence for the use of this drug is thin, a carving discovered at Chavín de Huántar back in 1975 appears to depict vilca pods.
A series of sculpted heads, with what appears to be mucus streaming from their nostrils, have been interpreted as further evidence for the use of vilca, as snorting the snuff tends to cause one’s nose to run excessively. Other implements such as small grinding mortars and “snuff spoons” have also been found at Chavín de Huántar, although with no plant remains it’s impossible to say for sure exactly what plants were consumed inside the temple.
“There are no finds of actual plant remains from the plants, but paraphernalia for drug use, representations of the plants in Chavín graphic art, and documentation of drug effects in the art are widely recognized,” explained Rick in an email to IFLScience.
Given the lack of a smoking gun it’s hard to say with any certainty what exactly went on inside the temple, but whatever they were up to in there, it must have been pretty wild.
[H/T: Live Science]