Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay
But there’s a salient and largely unexamined feature of the Chavín culture which offers a lead into the heart of the mystery: the presence of a complex of powerful plant hallucinogens in its ritual world. The San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus/Echinopsis spp.) is explicitly featured in its iconography; like the Mexican peyote cactus, San Pedro contains mescaline, and is still widely used as a visionary intoxicant in Peru today. Objects excavated from the site also include snuff trays and bone tubes similar to those still used in the Peruvian Amazon for inhaling seeds and barks containing the powerful hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The leading Western scholar of the culture, Yale University’s Richard Burger, whose Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilisation (Thames & Hudson 1992) is the most authoritative survey of the territory, states plainly enough that ‘the central role of psychotropic substances at Chavín is amply documented’.
It’s not special pleading for a drug-centric view of ancient cultures (at least, not necessarily) to observe that the presence of mind-altering plants offers a bridge between remains and ritual by indicating the state of consciousness in which the latter would have taken place. It also opens up collateral evidence from the deep-rooted traditions of mind-altering plant use which still exist in the region, and from modern understandings of the drugs in question. The combination of mescaline- and DMT-containing plants has been surprisingly little explored even in the dedicated fringes of contemporary drug culture, but the preparations in question remain legally obtainable, relatively simple to prepare in high potency doses, and powerfully effective. Such observations may have limited explanatory power, since a state of consciousness is not a belief system and offers little evidence for the content of the ceremonies in which drugs are used. Nevertheless, the effects of these particular drugs set logistical parameters for their use, to which the design of the Chavín complex may have been a practical response.
So: first, a brief survey of the culture from which Chavín emerged, followed by some thoughts on the role which plant hallucinogens might have played in the temple’s mysteries.
For many thousands of years the Pacific coast of Peru has been as it is today: a barren, moonscape desert. Rain never falls except in El Niño years; fresh water is only to be found in the few river valleys which punctuate it; for the best part of a thousand miles, rocky shores meet cold ocean in a misty haze. But the harsh terrain has its riches: the Humboldt current, sweeping up from the freezing depths of the southern ocean, is loaded with krill and alive with fish, its biomass a hundred times greater than the balmy Atlantic at the same latitude off Brazil. For ten thousand years a substantial human population has been sustained by this current: rancid industrial fish-meal factories today, but in the Stone Age groups of itinerant hunter-gatherers whose presence is attested by massive shell middens. Some of these hills of organic detritus – oyster shells, cotton twine, dried chillis, crushed bones – are a hundred feet high, and remained in continuous use for five thousand years or more.