Use of Psychoactive Snuff in Pre-Columbian Chile-By Constantino Manuel Torres

The archaeological region of San Pedro de Atacama is located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, at an altitude of 2450 meters above sea level. In pre-Hispanic times, the area was occupied by a succession of pre-ceramic hunters and gatherers and ceramic-stage agriculturists and herders. These pre-Inca peoples established their habitation sites around oases and river valleys. San Pedro de Atacama, one of the largest oases of the Atacama Desert, is composed of small settlements centered along the lower course of the San Pedro River. This is a rich archaeological area where the dryness of the environment allows for the excellent preservation of textiles, bone and wooden artifacts, and of human remains, which become mummified by the arid climate.

One notable feature of the San Pedro culture is the high incidence of snuffing implements. The most common of the snuffing kits found in San Pedro de Atacama consists of a woolen bag containing a wooden rectangular snuff tray, a snuffing tube made usually of wood or bone, a spoon or spatula, a small mortar and pestle, and one or more leather pouches used as containers for the snuff powder. All of these objects could be present in any particular set, although frequently only tubes, spoons, and snuff powder containers are found. A total of 612 snuffing kits have been found in 42 of the approximately 50 sites excavated in the area. The methods of execution include incised line, low relief carving, and sculpture in the round. The size and chronology of the sample indicates that approximately 20-22% of the adult male population was using psychoactive snuffs circa 200-900 AD. After the tenth century AD, the practice of snuffing practically disappears in the area; finds of snuffing paraphernalia are rare in Inca settlements after 1480 AD in the Atacama Desert.

The use of a tray and a tube as part of the snuffing paraphernalia is widely distributed throughout South America. Snuff trays have been found as far north as northern Colombia and as far south as Calingasta, San Juan Province, Argentina, and Coquimbo, IV Region, Chile. The temporal distribution of these objects is also of great amplitude. The oldest trays and tubes known from all of South America are those excavated by Junius Bird and Frederick Engel on the north and central coasts of Peru and dated circa 1200 BC. The presence of these implements in an archaeological setting is a clear indication of the use of psychoactive snuffs. Twentieth-century snuffing practices have been documented among numerous groups of the Amazon basin.

The botanical identity and the chemical makeup of archaeological snuff powders have only been recently determined. Until now the evidence has largely consisted of descriptions by early European chroniclers and comparisons between archaeological artifacts and those from the Amazon collected within the last two hundred years. Two samples of archaeological snuff powders found in tomb #112 of the pre-Hispanic site known as Solcor 3 in San Pedro de Atacama were submitted to chemical analysis. The site has been dated by a series of seven radiocarbon dates and six ceramic samples dated by thermoluminescence. The dates range from 320 to 910 AD. The approximate date of tomb #112 is 780 AD, as determined by radiocarbon dating and comparisons with artifacts found in other dated tombs. The mummy bundle of tomb #112 had two snuffing kits inside multicolored textile bags, each located at shoulder height on the left and right sides of the body. Each bag held a rectangular snuff tray, a simple snuffing tube, two leather pouches containing the snuff powder, and a small spoon.

The analysis demonstrated the presence of the psychoactive alkaloids dimethyltryptamine (DMT), 5-methoxydimethyltryptamine, and 5-hydroxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (bufotenine) in both snuff samples. The finding of bufotenine in the San Pedro de Atacama snuff samples suggests that the plant source of this material was a species of the genus Anadenanthera. This is the only genus implicated in the snuffing complex that contains bufotenine. In addition, small pouches containing Anadenanthera seeds have been found in Solcor 3 in contexts corresponding to the same period as the analyzed snuff samples. These psychoactive tryptamines have a rapid and strong onset of effects, producing radical modifications of states of consciousness, as well as of cognitive and perceptual patterns. Anadenanthera colubrina is the species native to the south central Andes and the southern Amazon basin periphery, and most likely was the plant used in San Pedro de Atacama. Use of Anadenanthera colubrina snuff continues among the Mataco people, who inhabit the area of the Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers, on the border between Argentina and Paraguay.

Further support for A. colubrina as the source of the archaeological snuff powders is provided by the early chronicles of the European explorers of South America. They refer to powders prepared from the seeds or beans of a tree. According to Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1535, the cohoba snuff of the Taino of the Greater Antilles was obtained from a tree whose pods contain lentil-shaped seeds. In 1560 Fray Pedro de Aguado described the yopo snuff of Colombia as prepared from the seeds or beans of a tree. Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, writing in the sixteenth century, and the Jesuit explorer José Gumilla in the eighteenth century both described the source of snuffs as the seeds of a tree. Later, in 1802, Alexander von Humboldt, during his travels in the Amazon, observed among the Otomac the use of a snuff prepared from the fermented seeds of a tree. In 1850 the English botanist and explorer of the Amazon, Richard Spruce, also witnessed the preparation of a snuff powder from the seeds of a tree. The situation is similar in the Peruvian Andes where the early chroniclers such as the sixteenth-century writer Santa Cruz de Pachacuti reported snuff preparations based on seeds or beans.

The iconography of the snuffing paraphernalia comprises a large variety of themes and motifs, including staff-bearing figures, decapitation scenes, and a variety of zoomorphic depictions. Notable among these are feline, avian, and camelid representations. Feline and bird imagery is frequently associated with psychoactive plant use throughout the Americas. However, it is in San Pedro de Atacama that camelid representations acquire significant importance in this context. Throughout the pre-Hispanic world, psychoactive substances were considered intermediaries between the human and the supernatural realm; as such, they were capable of participating in the interpretation and creation of cultural elements. The study of the objects utilized in the ingestion of psychoactive substances could provide the opportunity to explore the relationship between hallucinogens, the construction of complex iconographic systems, and state formation in the Central Andes.


By Constantino Manuel Torres
, Professor of Art History at Florida International University

Contact: [email protected]