Researchers from the University of Chile have analyzed the nicotine present in the hair of the mummies of San Pedro de Atacama, and apparently the cultivation and consumption of tobacco for religious, healing and shamanic purposes began around the same time as agriculture in South America.
According to the new analyzes carried out on 56 mummies from San Pedro de Atacama, there are reasons to think that the cultivation and consumption of tobacco for religious and healing purposes, including use for shamanic trance, began from at least 100 BC. This is stated by the chemists Javier Echeverría and Hermann Niemeyer, from the University of Chile, in an article published in The Journal of Archaeological Science. Echeverría and Niemeyer have analyzed the nicotine present in the hair of the mummies, and the archaeological remains associated with hallucinogenic paraphernalia such as residues in pipes and inhalation tablets of these substances, with surprising results. Of the 56 mummies studied, it was observed that 35 of them had traces of nicotine. However, regarding the widespread belief that they commonly took hallucinogens, it is believed that this practice was actually limited to shamans, who used them occasionally to cure illnesses, ailments or to connect with gods and spirits from beyond. In the present study, no traces of hallucinogens were found in the hair of any of the mummies, which could mean that the aforementioned assumption is not true, or that its use was not as widespread as previously thought.
Nicotine consumption occurred regardless of the individual’s social status, so it was consumed by both high and low social strata. The wealth of the mummies could be ascertained thanks to the multitude of funerary objects that were found in their tombs and, in this way, through the quantity and type of these, it has been possible to determine the social status of each individual. The native flora of Chile still contains many mysteries, since only 29% of the species potentially rich in alkaloids (organic substances that hide some plants and that constitute the stimulants of certain products, such as nicotine in tobacco) have been studied. There is still an enormous phytochemical work to be done, especially in the northern zone of Chile, being one of the gaps in knowledge, which they seek to fill with this research. It is part of a multidisciplinary project in development since 2010, which seeks to study the interactions and human mobility between pre-Hispanic populations in northern and central Chile, using biomedical, genetic, chemical and mineralogical markers. There are studies that indicate that the genus Nicotiana has its origin in the central Andes, in the area currently occupied by Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The use of tobacco was widespread towards the north of the continent during the arrival of the first Europeans. It is not known whether the plant was collected locally or imported from neighboring regions, nor is it known which species of Nicotiana was consumed. The form in which it was consumed has not been determined either, although during the period of time in which its consumption has been demonstrated in the Atacameño area, both pipes and tablets appear in burials. Ethnographic studies throughout South America suggest that tobacco was smoked, ingested, and also inhaled. In the different pre-Columbian American cultures, tobacco played and continues to play! a preponderant role in the ceremonial and spiritual context.
In a series of phytochemical analyses, a species of cactus rich in phenylethylamines and a species of the Solanaceae family have also been found, which turned out to be a new source of nicotine. In parallel, the team continues to work on the analysis of the paraphernalia associated with the consumption of psychotropic substances. When was the American continent populated? Did the cultivation and consumption of tobacco emerge at the same time as agriculture in South America? Did tobacco produce hallucinogenic effects? For what purposes was it consumed? The present investigation can shed light on these and other intricate questions.
The first evidence of human occupation in the Atacama desert dates back to 9000 BC, in the Tuina Cave. However, the occupation of sedentary groups occurred only after the development of the domestication of animals and the cultivation of vegetables. Here, the mummification of the bodies has occurred naturally, unlike the Egyptian mummies, due to the extreme aridity of the terrain and the salinity of the soil. This coincidental fact has allowed them to be preserved in a magnificent state of conservation, provided with hair and funerary goods, including ritual and domestic elements such as pipes and inhalation tablets, with which they consumed the species of wild tobacco that contain a great variety of substances. alkaloids and non-alkaloids that complement and increase their pharmacological effects in the human body. Coca chewing was also strongly rooted in Chile, where it may have emerged some 2,000 years ago in order to combat altitude sickness, very different from the use given by contemporary societies to its main alkaloid, cocaine, which is used as a strong stimulant.
In his speech known as Meditation of the technique (1933), the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) says that the human being is not satisfied with being in the world, but rather seeks his well-being, unlike of the animal, that «…because it is non-technical, it has to make do with what it finds given there and get annoyed or die when it does not find what it needs…». But the use of the technique is not reduced to satisfying the basic needs of the individual, such as heating or feeding; the human being seeks his well-being in the world. «The drug, the narcotic, is an invention as primitive as any other. So much so that it is not clear, for example, whether fire was first invented to avoid the cold (…) or rather to get drunk. The most primitive peoples use the caves to light fires in them and start sweating in such a way that between the smoke and the excess of temperature they fall into a trance of almost drunkenness”, affirms the philosopher from Madrid.