The Inca and antidepressants

Using medicinal plants in the lead up to human sacrifice could have helped keep victims in high spirits...
26 April 2022

Interview with 

Dagmara Socha, University of Warsaw


Peru Mountain


The Inca people appeared in Peru around 800 years ago. They notoriously practised human sacrifices high in the mountains. In recent years the bodies of some of these children have been discovered, and owing to the extremely low temperatures and dry air, they have been well preserved. So well preserved, in fact, that things they were eating and drinking at the time they died have been preserved too. And that includes plants with known medicinal qualities, including agents that give relief against altitude sickness, and substances that cause euphoria and relaxation. Speaking with me, Harry Lewis, from the University of Warsaw, Dagmara Socha…

Dagmara - Inca sacrificed many things to God, including the textiles, food, and the object that they value and think were precious like the gold silver objects, but also children and women, they would bring them from long distance to have them and sacrifice them for the gods because they were more precious, even more than gold or silver.

Harry - Is this something that would happen on an annual basis or, or how frequent would a ritual like this occur?

Dagmara - Incas make the sacrifice when something important happened in the Inca empire. So when the new heir of the throne had been born or the Inca ruler was sick or died, or also they make it for the important places in their empire, like for the high mountains or Pilgrim center. And then they make it also, when something important happens, like there was an earthquake or eruption of the volcano.

Harry - And you managed to get your hands on a couple of these, I suppose you'd call victims. It must be very exciting to get something that's so precious. So what can you do with it? What can you find out when you get a sample from one of these victims?

Dagmara - We know from previous research that Incas give to the children and young women leaves from the coca and some of mommy still have tbe rest of the leaf inside the mouth. Chewing of them help with altitude sickness, but we also want to check if Inca gives something else to this victim. And the second was the Ayahuasca beverage. In this case, we actually find the trace of consumption of lianas called Banisteriopsis caapi, they're growing natural in Amazonnia forest. And they are a main component of this Ayahuasca beverage.

Harry - That particular plant in the beverage, what purpose could it serve by being given to the victims at the end of the ritual?

Dagmara - Generally the modern Ayahuasca is obtained from two plants. One of them is the liana that I mentioned called Banisteriopsis caapi and the active alkaloid is harmine. The most important property of this plant is that it's an anti-antidepressive. Today the harmine is also used for anti-addictive treatments.

Harry - This must be one of the first examples of humans using antidepressants.

Dagmara - Actually we have some trace of the consumption of harmine in previous studies, from the mommys from the regular death, but we didn't know why it was given. And here we have the clear information that for the Inca it was important to ensure the good mood of the victims. So giving them antidepressive plants could be clearly an intention for this kind of purpose. And it's also the first evidence for using, by Incas, antidepressive plants. And also probably the oldest case known to date.

Harry - And that paper really was fantastic to read Dagmara Socha and her research was published in the jounral Nature.


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