Bolivian exhibit sheds light on ancient hallucinogenic rituals

April 3, 2009

boliviaboardA new Bolivian exhibit showcasing a collection of ritual artifacts provides insight into ancient indigenous ceremonies during which shamans took psychedelic substances.

The objects exhibited in a gallery in downtown La Paz belong to the ancient Tiwanaku culture, which spread over the Andean highlands between 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

The spear tips, polished stones with llama wool wrapped around them and colorful hand-woven fabrics were kept in bags made with puma or jaguar skin and used in rituals to invoke indigenous deities.

But the star of the show is a carved wooden board studded with colorful stones from which indigenous shamans inhaled a hallucinogenic preparation – a powder made with seeds from the cohoba tree, which can be found in several South American countries.

Archaeologist Pablo Rendon describes the board, which has a human figure carved into it, as “really spectacular.” Although plenty of similar stone boards have been discovered in the Andean region, only a handful of wooden ones have been uncovered.

Also, the importance of this one lies in the fact it was found with other objects used for this particular ritual, all of which he says are in “mint condition.”

They were discovered by a local farmer in 1998 under a rock in Amaguaya, a village in the Andean highlands near lake Titicaca, and exhibited soon after. But they have not been seen by the general public for nearly ten years.

Rendon estimates the board was crafted between AD 350 and AD 1000, at the heyday of the Tiwanaku civilization. The set also includes a spoon made with llama bone and featuring a condor-like bird carved on the handle, which was used to measure the amount of powder to be inhaled.

Rendon said the psychedelic dust was consumed only by shamans, who found that getting high was the best way to rub shoulders with supernatural beings and “see into the future.”

(Photograph by David Mercado/REUTERS, April 3, 2009)

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