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Psychedelic Plants Found in Ancient Mayan Ballcourt


Archaeologists studying the ruins of an Ancient Mayan city of Yaxnohcah, on the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico, found evidence of at least four psychedelic or medicinal plants that were used in a ritual some 2,000 years ago during the Late Preclassic period.

It’s well known that psychedelic plants and fungi played a significant role in Mayan religion and culture as a whole, and researchers are narrowing down which species were used based on archaeological evidence. 

According to a study published April 26 in the journal PLOS One, Mayans at Yaxnohcah participated in a ritual at a ballcourt using four or more plants. After conducting a DNA analysis of soil samples from a spot on an elevated platform supporting a ballcourt, researchers identified several plants, the Smithsonian Magazine reports. These include a hallucinogenic flower known as xtabentun (Ipomoea corymbosa), as well as lancewood (Oxandra lanceolata), chile peppers (Capsicum sp.), and jool leaves (Hampea trilobata). All four have medicinal properties. The plants were likely wrapped up in a bundle tied or woven from jool leaves. All that is left is a dark patch showing particles of organic material.

It paints a colorful picture of Mayan religion. Xtabentun is a variety of the psychedelic morning glory flower, growing wild in the Yucatan. It had several uses in Mayan culture because it produces the pollen Yucatecan honey bees use to create the nectar needed to make traditional Mayan liquor, with a kick. Morning glory varieties have seeds that contain ergoline alkaloids such as the psychedelic ergonovine and ergine (LSA), chemically similar to the more potent LSD. Chile (or chili) peppers were used medicinally for a variety of purposes as well. Jool leaves are used to wrap up offerings and lancewood is used ceremonially as well.

Researchers believe the plants may have been used to “christen” or bless the new ballcourt.

“When they erected a new building, they asked the goodwill of the gods to protect the people inhabiting it,” lead author David Lentz, a biologist at the University of Cincinnati, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Some people call it an ‘ensouling ritual,’ to get a blessing from and appease the gods.”

Most of what is known about Maya rituals—including psychedelic plants and fungi—comes from modern ethnographic sources. For instance Mayans typically consumed k’aizalaj okox, otherwise known as teonanàcatl to the Aztecs which is a psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe mexicana, a variety of psilocybin that was locally sourced. They also knew well about the psychedelic properties of cacti, eating peyote (Lophophora sp.) and drinking balché, a mixture of honey and extracts of Lonchocarpus sp.

The Helena Complex and Ballcourt

The Maya played several ball games including Pok-a-Tok, which is a mix of soccer and basketball, and players try to hit a ball through a stone ring attached to the wall, Popular Science reports. Ballcourt games, in the Ancient Mayan culture, served as more than a sport and also served as a ritualistic activity.

From 2016 to 2022, excavations took place at the Helena ballcourt complex at Yaxnohcah, a 1-meter high stone and earthen platform measuring 68 meters by 147 meters. The Helena complex was linked by a causeway to a larger ceremonial complex located 900 meters to the southwest. Researchers believe the Helena platform was remodeled in 80 CE and a ballcourt was added during the Late Preclassic period that took place circa 400 BCE-200 CE. 

Researchers determined that four medicinal plants were used for either divination or as medicinal ritual.

“Whatever the intent of the Maya petitioners, it seems clear that some kind of divination or healing ritual took place at the base of the Helena ballcourt complex during the Late Preclassic period,” researchers wrote. “On a final note, as with the ceremonial plants found at Yaxnohcah, a greater understanding of the ritual and other sacred practices of ancient cultures can now come into clearer focus with the assistance of eDNA [environmental DNA] evidence, a methodology whose promise for archaeology is only beginning to be explored.”

Better DNA analysis makes it possible to understand the species that were used.

“We have known for years from ethnohistorical sources that the Maya also used perishable materials in these offerings,” said co-author Nicholas Dunning, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Cincinnati. “But it is almost impossible to find them archaeologically, which is what makes this discovery using eDNA so extraordinary.”

Many Preclassic Mayan cities are thought to collapse around 100 AD, which would have been only 20 years after the construction of the ballcourt at Yaxnohcah. However, Yaxnohcah is an anomaly and survived the collapse that affected most Mayan settlements during this period. eDNA data from the archaeological site is providing researchers with a wealth of information about what they consumed and why.

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