Fresh Clips: Peruvian Mystery Herb

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This research could lead to new studies that could eventually lead to the development of new medicines.

In 2006, the National Geographic News service reported on the discovery of a well-preserved 1,500-year-old tattooed mummy of a young woman deep inside a mud-brick Moche pyramid. The discovery was detailed in the June 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine. The archaeological evidence suggests that sacrifice played an important role in Moche religious ritual.

The richly illustrated iconography depicting religious life also clearly showed that one particular plant played an important symbolic, or perhaps even biological, role in rituals, especially sacrifice. The fruit or seed is clearly depicted, most frequently on the belts of warriors and runners, intoxicated priests, or floating or flying through the air in sacrificial scenes. Moche scholars call the plant depicted in the art Ulluchu. The late Donna McClelland, a pre-Columbian art scholar, established the importance of the plant in a seminal 1977 paper.

However, Ulluchu has remained an unidentified plant until now. Combining the morphological characteristics of the fruit/seed, along with ethnobotanical data and assumptions on the pharmacology, Rainer Bussmann and Douglas Sharon identified the plant as a species of Guarea, a tree represented by 25 to 30 species in Peru. Why is this discovery significant beyond its obvious academic value? The genus Guarea is poorly studied chemically and pharmacologically, though some species are used as folk medicines. Given the importance of the plant in Moche culture, Guarea species undoubtedly hold yet-undiscovered value. The research could lead to new studies that reveal the secrets of Guarea, which could eventually lead to the development of new medicines.

About Moche Culture

The Moche culture thrived on the north coast of present-day Peru from 100 to 800 a.d. and is sometimes called the “lost civilization of Peru.” This native group left rich archaeological evidence of their society, beliefs and practices, primarily in the form of a rich iconography and architecture.  Elaborately painted ceramics, gold pieces, irrigation systems and religious structures, such as mud-brick pyramids, are studied by anthropologists and archaeologists.

How They Did It: Identifying Ulluchu

Building upon Donna McClelland’s early work, ethnobotanist Rainer Bussmann of the Missouri Botanical Garden and his colleague, Douglas Sharon of California, combined iconography, ethnobotany and phytochemistry to discover the identity of this elusive plant known as Ulluchu from the rich Peruvian flora of more than 18,000 plant species.

The artwork gave many clues that combined to lead to this conclusion. First, there was the possibility that the plant may have psychoactive principles, given its use by priests. Then, the idea that the mystery plant may increase blood pressure, hence blood flow in sacrifices. Additionally, a famous icon of Moche slaves led to sacrifice clearly showed erections–another clue pointing to a plant that increased blood flow.

R.W. Bussmann and D. Sharon. “Naming a phantom–the quest to fine the identity of Ulluchu, an unidentified ceremonial plant of the Moche culture in Northern Peru.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2009, 5:8.

Steven Foster is an expert on medicinal plants.