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The Forgotten Fungi: Unraveling the Mysteries of Ancient Mushroom Use in Peru

Updated: Apr 28

In the bustling markets of modern Peru, amongst the colorful array of fruits, vegetables and spices, there's a noticeable absence—a void in the culinary and cultural tapestry that once thrived. Overlooked, underestimated and scarcely understood, mushrooms hold a rich history in this Andean nation, a legacy buried beneath the sands of time. As the vibrant metropolises of the lowlands pulse with modernity, the ancient knowledge of mushrooms fades into obscurity, relegated to the annals of forgotten folklore.

Moche ceramic figure with mushrooms protruding from its head, representing medical and perhaps spiritual use of mushrooms. (Source: a. Borhagyi 2010)

Yet continuous research led by Dr. María Holgado Rojas from Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco and a pioneering study by Peter Trutmann from Swiss conservation NGO Global Mountain Action has set out to peel back the layers of neglect, shedding light on the profound significance of mushrooms in ancient Peruvian societies.

It is highly likely that ancient Peruvians brought the knowledge of mushrooms with them as they migrated from the Northern Hemisphere, including the knowledge of edible, medicinal and sacred mushrooms. This study shows evidence that as early as 1200 BCE they were important enough to be represented in the ceremonial and ritual art of the Cupisnique culture (1200 - 200 BCE) and Pucará cultures (1200 BCE - 400 CE). One can also trace mushroom use through a continuous dateline of cultures from 3000 years ago to at least 1532 and geographically from the north to the south of the country through the Cupisnique, Pucará, Paracas, Moche, Wari, Chimú through to and finally the Inca cultures. With the destruction of Inca and indigenous societies after European contact, particularly their spiritual rites and beliefs, representations of mushrooms by indigenous peoples virtually disappeared.

Thus, in a quest to uncover their ancestral culinary, medicinal and spiritual roles, researchers delved into the past unearthing important clues scattered across the Peruvian archaeological landscape.

Cupisnique mushroom beaker. Source: Metropolitan Museum 1978.412.113

Culinary Delicacies: From Ceramics to Cuisine

Step into the kitchens of ancient Peru and you'll find mushrooms woven into the fabric of daily life. Ceramics adorned with depictions of fungi hint not only at their revered status, but also serve as a testament to their culinary use. Species like Morchella, which are still prized for their earthy flavor and delicate texture, once graced the tables of ancient feasts. Even early colonial writings extol the virtues of mushrooms as staples of the Inca diet. For instance, the Quechua names for types of mushrooms—‘c’allampa’, ‘concha’ and ‘Paku’—mentioned by the indigenous chronicler Poma de Ayala in the 17th century, reflect the diverse culinary traditions surrounding mushrooms.

Morchella mushrooms (Source: Guillianna Camarena Montenegro)

Moche shaman or ‘curandero’ with Calvatia cynthiformis on head b) Wari bowl with anthomorphic figure with young Cavatia species possibly C. cynthiformis ears. Calvatia cynthiformis mature and Calvatia cynthiformis imature.

(Sources: Museo Larco, Lima / Caceras J. / PeterTrutmann)

Medicinal Uses: Shamans and Fruiting Bodies

In the realms of healing, mushrooms have been esteemed for their medicinal properties from millenniums, from North America to China and throughout Europe. Shamanic figures depicted in ancient artwork, their forms intertwined with mushrooms, hint at a deeper connection—a symbiotic relationship between healer and fruiting bodies of mushrooms. Puffballs like Calvatia species, hailed for their anti-inflammatory and healing properties, found their place in traditional remedies, offering solace to ailments of the body and spirit. Recent ethno-mycological studies (Holgado et al 2010, Trutmann and Luque 2011) have also shed light on the continued use of mushrooms for medical purposes in Peru, with species like Calvatia cynthiformis and Lycoperdon wrightii and still employed by indigenous communities.

Moche personality with young Psilocybe mushroom featured on the back of his head. Source: Museo Larco, Lima / Young Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms

Spiritual Journeys: Entheogens and Ancient Rites

There is well documented evidence of consumption of psychoactive mushrooms for their mystical potency in Central America as well as Columbia and Ecuador. Amanita muscaria and Psilocybe species, with their mind-altering properties, served as conduits to otherworldly realms, guiding shamans and seekers on transcendent journeys of self-discovery. In intricate tapestry work representing Peruvian cosmology, mushrooms can be seen repeatedly, with their presence a testament to the ancient quest for enlightenment. The representations of mushrooms in Paracas textiles and Moche ceramics, often associated with shamanic figures and ritual objects, provide tangible evidence of their spiritual significance.

A character consuming mushrooms is accompanied by Mictlantecuhtli, god of death. Painted during the XVI century, and refers to the Aztecs.⁠ 

Anthropomorphic figure with mushroom symbols, shamanic figures with mushroom in hands (Sources: Metropolitan Museum, Norbert May rock Collection).

Forging Connections Across Continents

As researchers unravel the mysteries of ancient mushroom use in Peru, they find themselves drawn into a web of interconnectedness, spanning continents and cultures. From the sacred rites of the Aztecs to the consumption of psychoactive plants and fungi in the North Andes, the use of entheogenic mushrooms echoes across time and space, weaving a narrative of human exploration and spiritual questing. The exchange of cultural and spiritual practices likely played a role in the transmission of knowledge about mushrooms from Central to South America. The dispersion of crops like the Cherimoya from Mesoamerica to South America through sea-trade routes between Mexico and northern Peru, facilitated the movement of other goods and ideas between ancient civilizations.

Yet, amidst the ruins of ancient civilizations, questions linger—what led to the decline of mushroom use in post-conquest Peru? Was it the shadow of colonialism, casting doubt upon the sacred traditions of the past? Or did shifting trade routes and cultural preferences steer Peruvian societies away from the path of mushroom enlightenment?

Mushroom shaped pendant. Source: Museo Machupichu, Casa Concha, Cusco

A Call to Reconnect: Nurturing Resurgence in Modern Peru

As Peru stands at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, there arises a poignant opportunity—a chance to reclaim the lost legacy of mushrooms, to breathe new life into ancient traditions and forge a deeper connection with the natural world. Initiatives like Dr. Holgado Rojas's research serve as a catalyst for change, sparking conversations and inspiring a renewed appreciation for the forgotten fungi of Peru.

Moche figure with mushroom showing gills protruding from head (Source: Museo Larco, Lima)

In the quest for a more sustainable and spiritually fulfilling future, the forgotten fungi of Peru offer a beacon of hope—a reminder that in embracing the wisdom of our ancestors, we may yet find harmony amidst the imbalance of the modern world. For in the humble mushroom lies a world of possibility—a world waiting to be rediscovered, one spore at a time.


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