Bolivian exhibit sheds light on ancient hallucinogenic rituals

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.

Amazon infanticide video and U.S. Christian missionaries

The video shows a near-naked Indian in a remote Amazon village as he digs a large hole. A terrified child is pulled out of a hut and placed in the freshly dug grave. Soon his body and face are covered in earth.

Is this a powerful indictment of the practice of infanticide by Indian tribes in the Amazon, or a distortion of the truth and an incitement to hatred by U.S. Christian missionaries?

indiansThe tribal rights group Survival International hit out this week at the “Hakani” video, which has several edited versions online,  calling it faked and a dangerous exaggeration of the problem of infanticide practiced by Indian tribes.  The video, made with the support of a U.S.-based evangelical missionary group Youth With A Mission, seems to be an attempt to rally support for a proposed Brazilian law that would ban infanticide and other harmful practices by indigenous tribes. When contacted by Reuters, Youth With A Mission said it wouldn’t comment on what it called baseless allegations.

Llama sacrifices in a Bolivian mine at carnival

Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.

The llama sacrifice is a ritual at the heart of Bolivia’s carnival, which also includes more familiar trappings such as parades, masks and carnival queens. The Quechua Indians who run the tired old Itos mine above the city of Oruro make offerings to two different protectors during carnival. As Catholics, they have a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the mine. As Quechuas who observe pre-Columbian religious beliefs they make sacrifices to “uncle,” the spirit who owns the zinc and tin and silver they blast out of shafts 300 meters deep. It’s dangerous work because they run aging equipment on a shoestring budget – each miner gives 10 percent of his earnings back to the cooperative. Commercial miners abandoned Oruro long ago, having sucked the biggest riches out of the mountain. The Quechua cooperative miners make a hard living off of the leftovers but if things go well at the sacrifice it could mean better days ahead.

For the sacrifice, dozens of miners and several journalists walk into the mine and stop in a cavern about 25 meters in. The atmosphere is serious, as befits a religious ceremony, but also joyous and a little unhinged as the miners drink heavily and their children run around squirting everyone with gigantic pump-action water guns (which is something children in Oruro do during carnival week). Some of the miners are in Andean ponchos, others in coveralls and helmets and headlamps. Most of their wives are in traditional Bolivian Indian wide skirts and bowler hats and shawls.