Courtesy of Scott Fitzpatrick

Things they carried. Ceramic bowls, like the one pictured from Costa Rica, were found on the South Caribbean island of Carriacou and are older than the earliest known pottery-making inhabitants.

Hallucinogenic Hand-me-downs

On a Caribbean island 1000 years ago, shallow ceramic bowls had a ritualistic purpose: They were used to inhale hallucinogens and, researchers say, these pre-Columbian people passed the bowls down through generations. It's the first evidence that drug apparatuses were heirlooms that migrated along with people between islands.

Carriacou, the largest island in the Grenadines in the South Caribbean, was settled about 400 C.E. by Amerindians from South America. The Suazan Troumassoid people, as they were known, lived in small beachfront communities and were highly spiritual. One of their ritualistic objects was the ceramic inhaling bowl, which they used to snuff cohoba, a hallucinogenic powder thought to have been derived from the seeds of the yopo tree. Its effects resembled those of mildly hallucinogenic mushrooms, says anthropologist Scott Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who describes a study of the artifacts in today's Journal of Archaeological Science.

Fitzpatrick and Quetta Kaye, an archaeology graduate student at University College London in the United Kingdom, chanced across one of these bowls in a 1000-year-old garbage pile at Grand Bay, Carriacou, among pottery shards, bone needles, and shell beads. Kaye recognized that the bowl resembled two others on display at the Carriacou Museum. Historians there didn't know much about the ceramic inhaling bowls, so Fitzpatrick and Kaye decided to date the items.

Radiocarbon dating of some of the other objects placed the settlement at about 1000 C.E. To date the bowls themselves, Fitzpatrick used a method called luminescence dating, which can tell researchers the last time an object was exposed to intense heat--perfect for dating fired pottery.

All three of the inhaling bowls dated to about 400 B.C.E., about 800 years before pottery-making people came to the island--suggesting that they arrived there from elsewhere. Fitzpatrick believes that the bowls came with the first settlers and were passed down to their descendants. Other valuable items like jadeite figurines and well-made pottery are known heirlooms in the Caribbean, but this is the first time drug paraphernalia has been recognized as such. "They're ideal heirlooms," he says. "They're fairly utilitarian, in a sense, because they were used frequently, but at the same time, they're very ritualistic."

William Keegan, curator of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville agrees with Fitzpatrick's suggestion that the ceramic bowls were generational hand-me-downs. "The notion of them being heirlooms makes a lot of sense to me." But Basil Reid, an archaeologist with the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, isn't convinced of the bowls' heirloom status. That's because earlier pottery-making groups in the region could have produced the bowls and eventually exported them to Carriacou. "It's difficult to claim, with any degree of certainty, kinship relations between the earlier groups" that migrated to Carriacou and elsewhere in the Caribbean, he says.

Posted in Archaeology, Social Sciences