A Hallucinogenic Tree Changed How Humans Used Drugs squib

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty; Biwer et al.

Throughout the Andes, stretching skyward from dry tropical rainforests, is an inconspicuous tree that can turn your mind euphoric. While the bark of the Anadenanthera colubrina, or vilca, can be used to make tea and its leaves are used for dye, it’s the thin, disc-like seeds within its flattened, 13-inch-long pods that have captured people’s attention for 4,000 years. They’re filled with high levels of bufotenine, a potent hallucinogen similar to LSD.

To trip on vilca, modern and ancient people have smoked it or used it as an enema because you can’t just eat the seeds to get high. Enzymes in the gut neutralize the psychedelic effects of vilca when it’s ingested. But a new study published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity reveals that the Wari civilization that ruled the Peruvian Andes between 600 and 1,000 CE were perhaps the first to find a way to side-step this snag. The answer? They mixed their drugs with their beer, of course.

More specifically, the Wari mixed vilca seeds with chicha, a beer-like beverage brewed from a plant called Schinus molle, (or molle del Peru, better known in the U.S. as the Peruvian peppertree). A type of chemical produced during fermentation called beta-carbolines can suppress the action of the gut enzymes. If you drink molle chicha mixed with vilca, you can still feel vilca’s psychotropic effects—maybe a bit weaker than vilca that’s smoked or used as an enema, but long-lasting.

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