Home Archeology History Researchers Find Traces of Psychoactive and Other Ceremonial Plants beneath Ancient Maya Ballcourt

Researchers Find Traces of Psychoactive and Other Ceremonial Plants beneath Ancient Maya Ballcourt

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Map of the Helena complex showing the location of the excavation in relationship to the structures of the ballcourt (structures H-4 through H-7). Image credit: Lentz et al., doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0301497.

A research team led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists has discovered found evidence of a collection of four ceremonial plant species beneath the end field of a Late Preclassic ballcourt in the Helena complex of the ancient Maya city of Yaxnohcah in Mexico. The plants included Ipomoea corymbosa (xtabentun in Mayan), Capsicum sp. (chili pepper or ic in Mayan), Hampea trilobata (jool), and Oxandra lanceolata (chilcahuite). Two of the plants, jool and chilcahuite, are involved in artifact manufacture that have ceremonial connections while chili peppers and xtabentun have been associated with divination rituals. Xtabentun (known to the Aztecs as ololiuhqui) produces highly efficacious hallucinogenic compounds.

Map of the Helena complex showing the location of the excavation in relationship to the structures of the ballcourt (structures H-4 through H-7). Image credit: Lentz et al., doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0301497.

The ancient Maya played several ball games, including pok-a-tok, which has rules similar to soccer and basketball. Players tried to get a ball through a ring or hoop on a wall.

“The ancient Maya likely made a ceremonial offering during the ballcourt’s construction,” said University of Cincinnati’s Professor David Lentz.

“When they erected a new building, they asked the goodwill of the gods to protect the people inhabiting it.”

“Some people call it an ensouling ritual, to get a blessing from and appease the gods.”

From 2016 to 2022, Professor Lentz and his colleagues worked at the ancient Maya city of Yaxnohcah in Campeche about 14.5 km (9 miles) north of the border of Guatemala.

They discovered a 2,000-year-old Maya ritual deposit beneath an early plaza floor of a civic ceremonial platform upon which was constructed a ballcourt in the Helena complex of Yaxnohcah.

“When buildings were expanded or repurposed, as with the ballcourt, the ancient Maya made offerings to bless the site,” said University of Cincinnati’s Professor Emeritus Nicholas Dunning.

“Archaeologists sometimes find ceramics or jewelry in these offerings along with plants of cultural significance.”

“We have known for years from ethnohistorical sources that the Maya also used perishable materials in these offerings, but it is almost impossible to find them archaeologically, which is what makes this discovery using eDNA so extraordinary.”

“Ancient plant remains are rarely discovered in tropical climates, where they decompose quickly.”

But using environmental DNA, the scientists were able to identify several types known for their ritual significance.

They discovered evidence of a morning glory called xtabentun, known for its hallucinogenic properties, lancewood, chili peppers and jool, the leaves of which were used to wrap ceremonial offerings.

“Finding evidence of these plants together in the same tiny sediment sample is telling,” said Dr. Eric Tepe, a botanist at the University of Cincinnati.

“I think the fact that these four plants which have a known cultural importance to the Maya were found in a concentrated sample tells us it was an intentional and purposeful collection under this platform.”

“The challenge of trying to interpret a collection of plants through the opaque lens of 2,000 years of prehistory. But the findings help add to the story of this sophisticated culture,” Professor Lentz said.

The ancient Maya devised water filtration systems and employed conservation-minded forestry practices.

But they were helpless against years-long droughts and also are believed to have deforested vast tracts for agriculture.

“We see the yin and yang of human existence in the ancient Maya. To me that’s why they’re so fascinating,” Professor Lentz said.

The findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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D.L. Lentz et al. 2024. Psychoactive and other ceremonial plants from a 2,000-year-old Maya ritual deposit at Yaxnohcah, Mexico. PLoS ONE 19 (4): e0301497; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0301497

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