RADIOCARBON DATING OF ATACAMA (CHILE) SNUFF TRAYS: AN UPDATE ON
STYLISTIC AND CHRONOLOGICAL CORRELATIONS
Pascale Richardin1 • Catherine Lavier2 • Helena Horta3 • Valentina Figueroa3 • Nicolás Lira4
ABSTRACT. The Atacama region of Chile has the highest concentration of hallucinogenic paraphernalia from prehistoric
cemeteries on the planet. These artifacts have been studied since the late 19th century, primarily from the perspective of
stylistic classication, which has been used to infer their temporal assignation. However, direct chronological dating of the
snuff trays has not been addressed until now, through an interdisciplinary study conducted in San Pedro de Atacama on the
psychotropic paraphernalia collection of the Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J.
(IIAM), part of the Universidad Católica del Norte. In this study, samples were taken from eight snuff trays for radiocarbon
dating and to develop a suitable procedure and protocol for sample extraction and handling of wooden archaeological pieces.
This article provides the results of these activities by establishing the existence of a sequence of styles in the hallucinogenic
paraphernalia that goes from the Middle to Late Intermediate period (about AD 300 to 1400), which shows that in this time-
span there were two styles (Tiwanaku and local), and then both were replaced by a macroregional style.
According to archaeological investigations conducted to date, and thanks to the extraordinary cli-
matic conditions of the Atacama Desert, which enable the conservation of organic materials, we
know that in this South Andean region the inhalation of powder obtained from plants with alkaloid
components that alter the state of consciousness of those who consume them was practiced for a
long period of time (e.g. Uhle 1898, 1913, 1915; Núñez 1962, 1963, 1967, 1994; Tarragó 1968,
1989; Thomas and Benavente 1984; Torres 1984a,b, 1986, 1987a,b, 1998, 2001a,b, 2004; Torres
et al. 1991; Torres and Conklin 1995; Chacama 2001; Hermosilla 2001; Torres and Repke 2006).
This practice and the instruments associated with it—snuff trays and tubes, large and small spoons,
dispensers, stone and wood mortars, spatulas, pouches to hold the pulverized seeds, woven bags,
cane and wooden recipients—have been collectively called the “hallucinogenic complex” in the
specialized literature. The grave goods of hundreds of tombs dating from the Late Formative period
to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors bear witness to this deep-rooted custom and in turn have
enabled the preservation of a variety of snuff paraphernalia, most of it made of wood, some of it
stone. Notable among those instruments are the snuff trays, which were used to hold the powder
from the cebil seeds (Anadenanthera colubrina var. Cebil) (Reis Altschul 1964, 1972; Torres et
al. 1991; Torres 1998) so they could be snuffed through tubes. Investigation of the hallucinogenic
complex began more than a century ago, but to date none of the psychotropic paraphernalia men-
tioned have been subjected to radiocarbon dating. An interdisciplinary team composed of French
researchers from the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France and CNRS, and
Chilean researchers from the Department of Anthropology of the Universidad de Chile and from
the Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J. (IIAM), of the
Universidad Católica del Norte, performed the aforementioned dating in 2012. Given that the idea
was to employ for the rst time on these objects a procedure to extract samples from archaeological
material, among other precautions the team decided to subject a smaller number of trays to analysis,
focusing especially on those that were already showing signs of deterioration, as can be observed in
the photograph of the samples studied.
Traditionally, the paraphernalia studied has been chronologically assigned on the basis of (1) its
association with other materials found among the same set of grave goods (essentially ceramics,
1. Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, Palais du Louvre, Porte des Lions, 14 quai François
Mitterrand, F-75001 Paris, France. Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com.
2. Université Pierre et Marie Curie, UPMC Paris 06, UMR 8220, Laboratoire d’Archéologie Moléculaire et Structurale,
LAMS, Paris, France.
3. Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Museo R.P. Gustavo Le Paige S.J., Universidad Católica del Norte, Chile.
4. Université Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris 01, UMR 8096, Paris, France.
Radiocarbon, Vol 57, Nr 5, 2015, p 1–10 DOI: 10.2458/azu_rc.57.18318
© 2015 by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona
2P Richardin et al.
charcoal and bones), which could be dated by thermoluminescence or 14C; and (2) its stylistic and
iconographic correspondence. Our goal has thus been to develop a more accurate methodology for
dating these materials.
SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA IN THE MIDDLE PERIOD
During the period traditionally considered the rise of Tiwanaku inuence (about AD 400–1000),
San Pedro society had a tremendous cultural vitality owing to its unique geographic location at the
heart of a group of oases in the middle of the Atacama Salt Plateau (2450 m asl) and the fact that it
was situated at the halfway point on the route stretching from the Pacic coast through the Atacama
Desert and the eastern watershed of the Andes Mountains (Figure 1). The Atacameño people took
full advantage of these conditions. From early on, they became skillful at beneting from an exten-
sive network of kinship-based political alliances that were built not only with Altiplano societies but
also with others adjoining that region, such as the peoples of what is now northwest Argentina and
those that lived in the Southern Altiplano of what is today Bolivia. The cultural richness that result-
ed from those alliances is more than evident in a variety of local traditions ranging from the textile
traditions displayed in their clothing and identifying headwear (Agüero 2000, 2004) to the Black
Polished ceramics (Stovel 2005, 2008) and the manufacturing of copper ore beads and psychotropic
paraphernalia (Salazar et al. 2014), all of which were clearly congured in the Atacameño style.
In connection with the hallucinogenic complex, interest initially focused on snuff trays and other
psychotropic elements of Tiwanaku style, but has now spread to the denition of other styles, in-
cluding a so-called Atacamenian local style (Llagostera et al. 1988; Llagostera 2001, 2006) or “local
production” (Núñez 1963), or San Pedro style (Horta 2014), and one macroregional style (Circum-
puneño). The latter has been described as a post-Tiwanaku style frequently represented in the basin
of the Loa River, the Puna de Jujuy, and northwestern Argentina, and infrequently represented in the
oasis of San Pedro de Atacama (Horta 2012).
Figure 1 Map of San Pedro de Atacama
14C Dating of Atacama (Chile) Snuff Trays
SNUFFING PRACTICE AND STYLES
In this macroregional context, San Pedro de Atacama was a pole of attraction for different pre-
Hispanic societies that wished to exchange different products for the copper ore found in the
area. Exchange was practiced intensely at this time, and the products traded were not limited to
domestic and other everyday goods but also included ritual and symbolic items associated with the
religious sphere. Thus, during the Middle period, snuff trays and other paraphernalia made their
way to San Pedro from different places, such as the Southern Altiplano of Bolivia and northwestern
Argentina; nevertheless, about 25% of the IIAM registered paraphernalia was manufactured locally
Regarding stylistic diversity, early investigations of the hallucinogenic complex focused on a lim-
ited number of items displaying Tiwanaku iconography and formats and ignored those that did not
correspond to that style. Torres was the rst researcher to attempt to dene the Tiwanaku style based
on the collection of trays and tubes preserved by IIAM, using a sample of around 500 items for his
analysis5 (Torres 1984a). It should be noted here that formal iconographic analysis of hallucinogenic
paraphernalia has generated a prolic body of literature by researchers of different nationalities.
Figure 2 shows the eight snuff trays from the archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama,
selected for this study.
5. Currently, the IIAM has a records database that includes digital images of these objects, which has greatly facilitated their
study and enabled registration of nearly 700 pieces.
Figure 2 Studied snuff trays from the Archaeological Museum of San Pedro de Atacama: (1) IIAM 351, Tiwanaku style, Qui-
tor 6 grave 2509, snuff tray 9076; (2) IIAM 024, San Pedro style, Quitor 5 grave 2077-2089, snuff tray 9148; (3) IIAM 340,
San Pedro style, Sequitor Alambrado grave 5203-5205, snuff tray 9065; (4) IIAM 393, Tiwanaku style, Sequitor Alambrado
grave 1702, snuff tray 9079; (5) IIAM 275, Tiwanaku style, Catarpe 5 grave 2351, snuff tray 9075; (6) IIAM 205, San Pe-
dro style, Quitor 5 grave 2163, snuff tray 9149; (7) IIAM 038, Circumpuneño style, Quitor 1 grave 1178, snuff tray 8890;
(8) IIAM 387, Circumpuneño style, Pucara de Quitor without context, snuff tray 9055.
4P Richardin et al.
MATERIAL AND METHODS
Sampling of the wooden objects in this study is very delicate because it raises several problems
based on their fragility and conservation, and on their representativity and signicance. The pres-
ervation of these snuff trays is particular because of the very low humidity contained in the bers.
This is due to the cutting and the wood work used in the past, but also due to the conditions of dis-
coveries and conservation in the region and the museum. The free water is completely evaporated,6
the saturation level is overtaken7, and the bound water in cellular membranes falls below the limit
of the natural drying8, reaching an almost “oven-dried” state. During this phase, the wood can un-
dergo structural modications and can deform (and/or during and after excavation), as far as, once
dried, it is capable of absorbing the humidity of the air (hygroscopy). Fortunately, the environmental
conditions in the Atacama region are constant and without abrupt variations.9 The water rate in the
wood reaches a low level of hygroscopic balance10 and it stabilizes, thus avoiding any change, and
explaining the generally very good conservation of the tablets.
However, the difculties of the wood sampling is due to the tablets’ rather small size, their whole
aspect, and their hardness, which can make visible and invasive any taking of matter. Using methods
developed at the C2RMF (Richardin and Gandolfo 2013a,b), microsampling is performed in order
to keep the integrity of the object, while gathering sufcient quantity (between 2–10 mg) for 14C
measurement (Figure 3).
6. Water situated in the space of the wood (bers, vessels, tracheids, etc.).
7. Over the bers saturation point (PSF) at around 30% depending of the wood species, their age, their volumetric mass, their
percentages of components (e.g. cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin, and extractives) and the climatic conditions (temperature,
hygrometric degree, atmospheric pressure, etc.).
8. Depending also of those same factors, below 18/15%.
9. From 15/20% during the “wet” season and some 5% in the dried areas.
10. Probably around 5% for the tablets.
Figure 3 Location the sample taken from the snuff tray IIAM 351 (a) before and (b) after
sampling. Binocular picture of the collected sample (3.93 mg): (c) recto and (d) verso.
14C Dating of Atacama (Chile) Snuff Trays
Moreover, analyzing wood with a dendrometrical approach also generates usable information and
data for the next steps of the snuff trays’ analysis. At the moment, certain information like the
number of tree rings and their growth, does not interfere in the interpretation of the 14C dates. The
number of snuff trays is limited due to current restrictions to preserve the integrity and preservation
of such artifacts; however, from the tray sample some degree of categorization was able to be made
according to style: Tiwanaku (samples 351, 393, and 275), San Pedro (024, 340, and 205), and
Circumpuneño (038 and 387) style. Thus, the selection criterion was the feasibility of sampling and
then the assignment to a particular style.
Next, the question arose as to whether the tables could be ordered chronologically. This dendro-data
can be used to date a large lot of tablets and to classify them in contemporary groups: wood series
will be correlated between them and the styles will benet from an higher chronological neness.
It will then be possible to better specify information such as circulation axis, speed of propagation,
arrival and term, acculturation, and adaptation.
Three steps for the sample preparation for 14C dating are necessary: a chemical pretreatment (clean-
ing or extraction of the carbonaceous matter), a combustion (or extraction of CO2), and a graphiti-
zation (transformation of CO2 into graphite). Only the two rst steps are performed at the C2RMF
while the graphitization step is done at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies
Alternatives (CEA) of Saclay, France (Cottereau et al. 2007; Moreau et al. 2013).
In order to eliminate all insoluble impurities (e.g. dust or textile bers due to the manipulation of
museum objects), samples are initially washed in an ultrasonic bath with ultrapure water (Direct-Q
system, Millipore). Then, because they can be polluted by varnishes, waxes, and other organic com-
pounds or even by oils and resins from within the wood itself, the samples are also washed with a
mixture of dichloromethane/methanol (1/1) and then with acetone (AnalaR Normapur, VWR Inter-
national). Between each cleaning, 3–4 rinses with ultrapure water are performed. This is the routine
solvent extraction sequence for samples collected from museum objects and treated at C2RMF
(Richardin and Gandolfo 2013a).
The wood samples were then subjected to a routine acid-base-acid method (Richardin et al. 2010).
This consists of sequential washes (80°C, 1 hr) with 0.5M HCl, 0.05M NaOH, and once again with
0.5M HCl. After each step, the supernatant was removed and the remaining sample rinsed with
ultrapure water until neutrality of the washing water was achieved.
Finally, the clean samples were dried overnight in a low-vacuum (100 mbar) oven at 60°C. The
dried samples were then combusted to CO2 at high temperature (5 hr at 850°C) under high vacuum
(at 10–6 Torr) using a homemade combustion bench. To control the sample preparation, we used a
standard: a calibration sample (FIRI H) or a charcoal from South Africa, with an innite age (CB-
AFS). Yields are between 30 and 55% and the CO2 amounts (between 0.1 and 0.9 mg) are sufcient
for 14C measurement.
CO2 samples were reduced to graphite at 600°C using Fe powder as catalyst prior to accelerator
mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C dating.
6P Richardin et al.
Measurements were conducted at the AMS facility of the CEA of Saclay (Moreau et al. 2013). The
14C activity is calculated by comparing the measured intensities of the 14C, 13C, and 12C beams from
each sample with those of CO2 standards, prepared with HOx (I) oxalic acid reference, normalized
with a δ13C value of –25‰. The 14C ages (in yr BP = years before 1950) are calculated by correcting
the isotope fractionation δ13C, measured by AMS with the 13C/12C ratio. Calendar ages are deter-
mined using the OxCal v 4.2.3 program (Bronk Ramsey 1995; Bronk Ramsey and Lee 2013) and
the most recent calibration curve data for the Southern Hemisphere, SHCal13 (Hogg et al. 2013).
Calibrated age ranges correspond to 95.4% probability (2σ) and are expressed in years cal BC.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The 14C ages (in yr BP), and calibrated calendar age ranges of the individual samples are given in
Table 1 and compared in Figure 4.
Table 1 Radiocarbon ages (BP) and calibrated ages of samples.
Inventory nr Lab code
95.4 % (2σ) calibrated
age ranges (relative
area under distribution) Style
IIAM 351 SacA-33697 1845 ± 30 AD 125 (83.4%) 254
AD 294 (12.0%) 335
IIAM 024 SacA-33785 1635 ± 30 AD 390 (95.4%) 543 San Pedro
IIAM 340 SacA-33292 1590 ± 30 AD 426 (95.4%) 584 San Pedro
IIAM 393 SacA-33686 1525 ± 30 AD 534 (95.4%) 643 Tiwanaku, volumetric
IIAM 275 SacA-33291 1340 ± 30 AD 655 (93.9%) 774
AD 820 (1.5%) 832
IIAM 205 SacA-33696 1150 ± 30 AD 885 (93.8%) 996
AD 1005 (1.6%) 1013
IIAM 038 SacA-33290 1135 ± 30 AD 892 (95.4%) 1016 Circumpuneño
IIAM 387 SacA-33685 660 ± 30 AD 1299 (95.4%) 1399 Circumpuneño
According to the calibrated dates, the Tiwanaku and San Pedro styles are contemporary, and were
clearly in effect during the Middle period, about AD 300–1000, while the Circumpuneño style was
present during the period AD 900–1400, and thus is an expression of the Late Intermediate period.
The date obtained for snuff tray IIAM 351 (Figure 2.1) corroborates the early chronological place-
ment of the Tiwanaku Sacricer,11 a gure depicted in prole with the head front-facing or turned
upwards, visual attributes related to decapitation (a human head and ax), feline features (teeth and
ears), and occasionally, wings. According to observations made by Torres (2001a), this is the most
frequently found icon on Tiwanaku snuff trays discovered in San Pedro de Atacama, and according
to our records it is found on 24% (15/62) of the imported paraphernalia in the collection of Horta
(2014). Additionally, snuff tray IIAM 275 (Figure 2.5) demonstrates that the icon in question was
used for an extended period that lasted at least until AD 700–800, with the additional information
obtained from the Solcor 3 snuff tray (AD 500–1000; see Note 11).
11. This refers to thermoluminescence (TL) dates obtained previously for trays 8844 from Toconao Oriente, tomb 4229-4230
(AD 190 ± 140; Berenguer et al. 1986; Torres 2001a) and 9106 from Quitor 8, tomb 3229-3230 (AD 180; Berenguer et al. 1986;
Torres 2001a; Tarragó 1989). For tomb 107 of Solcor 3, which includes a beautiful tray with the Tiwanaku Sacricer,
three 14C dates were also obtained: AD 490 ± 100; AD 730 ± 60; AD 930 ± 120 (Llagostera et al. 1988). These demonstrate
the extensive period during which this important icon was in use.
14C Dating of Atacama (Chile) Snuff Trays
Furthermore, the date for snuff tray IIAM 393 (Figure 2.4) is consistent with the classical Tiwanaku
period and establishes a more precise temporal range for this singular representation, which depicts
a human gure reclining backwards, an image seldom found in the snuff trays identied to date from
the south-central Andean region12 (Llagostera 2006:Figure 6c).
Also worth mentioning are the dates obtained for snuff trays IIAM 024, 340, and 205, in the San Pe-
dro style (Figures 2.2 and 2.3). This style, which features human gures and images of shamans and
their alter egos on rectangular trays, is only found in the central oases of the Atacama Salt Plateau
(present-day San Pedro de Atacama), and as such it can be considered a local style. The range of
dates obtained from these three snuff trays indicates that the San Pedro style was contemporary with
that of Tiwanaku (about AD 400–1000), which contradicts the idea put forward by other researchers
that the Atacameño people had begun to practice snufng and developed their own unique style
before the inuence of that Altiplano state took hold (Llagostera et al. 1988).
The results of the 14C dating obtained for snuff trays IIAM 038 and 387 (Figures 2.7 and 2.8) are
fully coherent with the proposal that the Circumpuneño style was in effect in post-Tiwanaku times
(Horta 2012). The tray IIAM 038 is fractured today, but the notes left by Le Paige (1964, 1965) tell
us that the upper middle section originally bore the gure of a bird that is now missing (“beautiful
snuff tray with a condor with outspread wings”). This description and the general format of the piece
allow us to assign it to the Circumpuneño style.
As discussed in the Introduction, for the rst time samples have been obtained directly from Chilean
snuff trays for 14C analysis, with the double aim of developing a procedure and protocol for studying
wooden archaeological material and to test 14C and thermoluminescence (TL) dates obtained over
12. In the IIAM collection only two other examples are known: IIAM 403, tray 9071, no tomb, from Solor Túmulo Sur, and
the other from Solor 3, also without context. The most spectacular of this series—for its degree of integrity and the
preservation of iconographic detail—is tray N°41.0.8911, from San Pedro de Atacama, which today is housed in the
American Museum of Natural History in New York (Torres 1987b:Plate 97).
Figure 4 Calibration plots of the calibrated dates of the samples
8P Richardin et al.
the past 30 yr for a variety of grave goods including snuff trays. Thus, the indirect dating by asso-
ciation with ceramics or bone (conducted in 16 different contexts) can now be complemented by
direct dating of the material performed by our team on the aforementioned snuff trays. Indeed, the
results presented do no invalidate the time ranges that were previously established by TL dating (six
tombs) and 14C (10 tombs) dating. [Recently, Torres-Rouff and Hubbe (2013) have 14C dated a large
sample of osteological material with interesting facts about the prolonged duration in time of several
cemeteries of the Salar de Atacama.] On the contrary, our results reinforce the previous ones and
even expand the period during which snufng was practiced in the Atacama region up to Inca times.
As indicated above, up to now the usual archaeological practice in relation to the hallucinogenic
complex has been to date a piece of ceramic, charcoal, or bone from a certain tomb and then extend
the date obtained to the paraphernalia found in the same tomb. Using this method, researchers have
found most of the paraphernalia in association with Polished Black and Almost-Polished Black ce-
ramics, giving a date range of approximately AD 100–700 (Tarragó 1989; Torres 1998). Neverthe-
less, the direct 14C dates obtained for these eight snuff trays enable us to both expand the dates pre-
viously assigned and establish the time ranges for each style dened to date, namely Tiwanaku, San
Pedro, and Circumpuneño. In effect, the rst two styles were found to be contemporary, falling into
the Middle period, while the third was conrmed to have been in effect during the Late Intermediate
period. Thus, the variations in stylistic and iconographic attributes established for each style have
chronological signicance, and when conducted on a broad sample, stylistic and iconographic anal-
ysis as a method in itself can indeed provide independent verication through the use of 14C dating.
This paper was nanced under the Proyecto de Investigación Asociativa Conicyt Anillo ACT-96.
We want to thank Bernard Berthier and his team from the Laboratory of Measurement of Carbon 14
(LMC14 - UMS2572) for the graphitization step of the gas samples and the 14C measurements, and
Nathalie Gandolfo from the C2RMF for the sample preparation.
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