T Transworld Research Network
37/661 (2), Fort P.O.
The Ethnopharmacology of Ayahuasca, 2011: 1-21 ISBN: 978-81-7895-526-1
Editor: Rafael Guimarães dos Santos
1. Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca.
Luis Eduardo Luna
Wasiwaska, Research Center for the Study of Psychointegrator Plants
Visionary Art and Consciousness, Florianópolis, Brazil
Abstract. Ayahuasca, a psychotropic beverage used by numerous
indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon, the Orinoco Basin and
the Pacific Lowlands of Colombia and Ecuador, has an important
role in their medico-religious, artistic and social lives. Its use was
later incorporated in healing ceremonies among the mestizo
population of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. This chapter presents
an overview of such uses among some indigenous groups as well
as that of contemporary practitioners in the Peruvian Amazon
It is my intention to give an overview of indigenous use of ayahuasca, and
a discussion on the so-called vegetalismo phenomenon among the mestizo
population of the Peruvian Amazon. I will also add a brief commentary about
Correspondence/Reprint request: Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna, Wasiwaska, Research Center for the Study of
Psychointegrator Plants, Visionary Art and Consciousness. Florianópolis, Brazil
E-mail: email@example.com and www.wasiwaska.org
Luis Eduardo Luna
the so-called “ayahuasca tourism” phenomenon. The part related to the
indigenous realm is mostly based on written sources, as my first-hand
experience was limited to short stays with few indigenous groups1. The part
related to vegetalismo is mostly based on my own fieldwork during 1980-
1988. I was unfortunately not able to fully examine an excellent recent in
study on the phenomenon by Beyer.
2. Part I: Indigenous use of ayahuasca
2.1. European perception of sacred plants in the Americas
Although Europeans learned very early about the use of psychotropic
plants among the indigenous population of the Americas, they ignored their
properties, with exception of tobacco. These plants were used in a
spiritual/religious context, a realm that in Spain was in the hands of the
Catholic Church, which judged them as vehicles of communication with the
Devil, a perception that basically has not changed in our contemporary world,
in which Amerindian sacred plants have been, with exceptions, criminalized.
The first book written in Spanish in the New World (1497-8) was the
Chronicle of Catalan friar Ramón Pané’s, at the orders of Columbus, and
partially dedicated to the description of the believes and ceremonies of the
Taíno, on the island of La Española (now-a-days Haiti and Santo Domingo),
an indigenous population originally from the Orinoco region who populated the
Antilles, taking with them the use of cohoba (Anadenanthera peregrina). Pané
was the first European to describe how their shamans “came out of their minds”
to communicate with the cenis or spirits.
Juan Cárdenas, a chronicler, wrote on 1591 in reference to peyotl
(Lophophora williamsii) that the natives who eat it “lose their senses, see
visions of terrifying sights like the devil, and are able to prophesy their
future with ‘satanic trickery’”. In a religious manual of 1760 there were
questions that equated the eating of peyote with cannibalism.
1 From the onset I have to point out that my personal experience with indigenous use
of ayahuasca is restricted to one session – for me life changing – with Don Apolinar
Jacanamijoy, an Ingano “taita” whom I knew since childhood, and his son Roberto
Jacanamijoy; one period of a month in the Sibundoy Valley with two Kamsá shamans,
Don Salvador Chindoy and Don Miguel Chindoy, father and son; another month in
Santa Rosa de Pirococha, a Shipibo small settlement, under the care of Don Basilio
Gordon; perhaps half a dozen sessions with Don Benito Arévalo, a Shipibo, and later
a few with his son Don Guillermo Arévalo; finally two weeks with a Campa shaman
in Rio Palcazú, when I was in isolation doing the diet. The rest of my fieldwork,
carried out during 1981-1988, was with mestizo practitioners.
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 3
There was a similar perception by the religious authorities regarding
ayahuasca. One of the earliest sources is from Father José Chantre y
Herrera in his history of the Jesuit missions from the late seventeen and
early eighteen centuries, who speaks about a “diabolic brew”.
Missionaries of the Montfortian Congregation, most of them Dutchmen,
established in 1914 among the Tukano, Desana, and Pira-Tapuka of the
Papurí River immediately prohibited the use of yajé and destroyed most of
its ritual paraphernalia. This persecution by the part of religious
missionaries comes to our days. In the mid eighties I heard similar stories
in the Peruvian Amazon as carried out by members of the Summer Institute
of Linguistics, and in the nineties near Manaus, Brazil, a group of
Tukanos complained to me that Salesian missionaries prohibit them to take
2.2. A question of terminology
The Quichua term ayahuasca (also spelled ayawaska), from aya = spirit,
ancestor and waska = vine, is not precise. In contemporary literature it is used
to refer to the concoction of Banisteriopsis caapi plus Psychotria viridis. It is
also sometimes used to refer to a beverage – a concoction or a cold infusion –
made of B. caapi plus Diplopterys cabrerana (known as chagropanga,
chiripanga or other vernacular names), which is locally known as yajé (also
spelled yagé). To complicate matters both the term ayahuasca and yajé are
used to refer to Banisteriopsis caapi by itself. I propose to use the term
ayahuasca, common in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and parts of Ecuador, when
referring to the first preparation. The term yajé will designate the second
preparation. We use the term caapi when referring to a preparation made only
of Banisteriopsis caapi, as well as to the plant itself. Given that this vine is
the essential element, when referring to the whole phenomenon I will talk
about the caapi complex.
It is relevant to point out that indigenous groups distinguish several
“kinds” of vines to refer to what western botanists see as just one species.
This means they have a much more refined taxonomy, based not only on the
morphology of the plant, but also on its effects, which may differ according
to the type of soils it grows, the part of the plant used, the season and the
moon in which the vine is harvested, and other factors. Langdon examined
yajé classification among the Siona of the Colombian southeast. There
hasnot been, as far as I know, any inter-ethnic comprehensive study focusing
on the vernacular taxonomy of Banisteriopsis caapi.
We have to view the caapi complex in the context of the use of other
psychotropic plants, such as tobacco, Anadenanthera and Virola snuffs, as well
Luis Eduardo Luna
as other plants, psychotropic or not, with religious/spiritual significance2. No
doubt many Amazonian indigenous groups have a great interest in mind-
altering plants. They are specialists in the pharmacology of consciousness.
A bibliographical investigation in 1986 resulted in references to the use
of B. caapi with or without additives among seventy-two indigenous groups
belonging to several linguistic families. This list is most probably not
exhaustive. The use of B. caapi has been adopted in later times by some of
these groups, and it is still expanding, even outside of the Amazon area, for
example among the Guarani of southern Brazil. Bravec de Mori argues
for the relative recent introduction of ayahuasca south of Iquitos. The
point of dispersion of the use of Banisteriopsis caapi is not known, or when
this might have happened. The origin of its use may forever remain a
We have no evidence of indigenous group using ayahuasca outside the
Upper Amazon. In the early nineties I heard that natives of Marajó, the large
island located at the mouth of the Amazon River (no specific ethnic group
was named) sold Banisteriopsis caapi to Umbanda (an Afro-Brazilian
religion) centers, to be used for herbal baths, and I saw it being cultivated for
this purpose at an Umbanda center in Porto Velho, in the Brazilian State of
Rondônia. No fieldwork in this area has been carried out on this subject.
Ayahuasca and yajé have many other vernacular names[10,13]. In
Brazil religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament call it
either santo daime or vegetal.
2.3. Importance of the caapi complex
Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), a pioneer in the study of
Amazonian psychoactive plants, summarizes thus the importance of caapi
among Indian tribes:
“Probably no other New World hallucinogen – even peyote – alters
consciousness in ways that have been so deeply and completely evaluated
and interpreted. Caapi truly enters into every aspect of living. It reaches
into prenatal life, influences life after death, operates during earthly
existence, plays roles not only in health and sickness, but in relations
between individuals, villages and tribes, in peace and war, at home and
in travel, in hunting and in agriculture. In fact, one can name hardly any
aspect of living or dying, wakefulness or sleep, where caapi
hallucinogens do not play a vital, nay, overwhelming, role”.
2 For a comprehensive discussion of the botany of ayahuasca see Ott[8,9].
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 5
Reichel-Dolmatoff, whose studies of the Tukano indigenous groups of
the Colombian Vaupés threw new light to the role of caapi in those societies,
wrote the following:
“The use to which these hallucinatory trances are put by the different
Indian tribes varies from curing rituals to initiation ceremonies, and
from the violent frenzy of warriors to ecstatic religious experiences. In
all cases, it seems, yajé is thought to provide a means of being
transported to another dimension of consciousness, which, in the daily
life of the individual or of the group, acquires great importance. It would
seem, then, that without exploring this dimension, a knowledge of
aboriginal culture is impossible”.
It is not surprising that the origin of caapi is found in the myths3. Here
two examples. The first myth is from the Tukano of the Colombian Vaupés
territory, an agriculturist indigenous group that lived in relative isolation
when Reichel-Dolmatoff collected it in the late sixties, and which was
recited in many ceremonies. Here a highly abbreviated form based on the
narratives he collected:
It happened in the beginning of time, when Anaconda-Canoe was
ascending the rivers to settle mankind. Yajé woman, the first woman of
creation, had come with the men, the ancestors of the Tukano. She was
impregnated through the eye by the intense yellow light of the Sun Father,
the phallus, the Master of Yajé, in the House of Waters, the first maloca
[communal house], by a roaring and foaming fall. The woman left the maloca
while the men were preparing cashiri beer and gave birth to the yajé vine in
the form of the a radiant child. She then enters the maloca with her child, the
men becoming dizzy, seeing red colors, the blood of childbirth, and losing
their senses. The woman asked: “Who is the father of this child”? One man
had kept a clear head. He said: “I am his father”. He took one of his copper
earrings and broke it in a half, and with the sharp edge he cut the umbilical
cord, a large piece, which is why yajé comes in the shape of a vine. The
others grabbed him by his fingers, arms and legs, tearing him into peaces,
each getting his own kind of yajé, and which give their identity to various
groups within the Tukano and the rules by which to live.
3 When Steven White and I were preparing Ayahuasca Reader: Encounter with the
Amazon’s Sacred Vine , we noticed that the indigenous myths we found were
referring to B. caapi. We did not find any myth referring solely either to Psychotria
viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. This is interesting given that it is the admixture
plants that contain the visionary alkaloid (DMT).
Luis Eduardo Luna
Even though at first sight we would have among the Tukano a heavenly
origin of caapi, the abode of Father Sun is in ahpikondiá, the underworld,
and the source from which all life springs and to which the souls of the
virtuous return after the body’s death. An underwater origin of nishi pai
(ayahuasca) is found among the Cashinawa and other indigenous groups of
the Pano linguistic family of the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon. There are
several variations on this myth. Here in an abridged form, based on a
narrative collected by Lagrou in the Purus River:
Yube, the ancestor of the Cashinahua, went hunting by a lake not far
from a genipap tree [Genipa americana, used by indigenous groups to paint
their bodies]. While he was hiding a tapir arrived, took a genipap fruit in his
mouth and threw it to the lake. An anaconda rose from the lake and as she left
the water turned into a beautiful woman, her body covered by genipap
designs. They made love. When Yube went back home he did not eat any of
the food his wife had prepared, nor was able to sleep, his mind on the
beautiful woman he had seen. The next morning he went to the lake, took
three pieces of fruit and threw them in the water, and as the woman came out
he tried to lay her down. The woman resisted and transformed into the
anaconda, almost suffocating him. Yube explained why he had come, and
lied saying he was single. The woman said that she was looking for a
husband. If he wanted to make love to her he had to live with her in the lake.
He agreed, made love to her, and the woman squeezed the sap of a leaf in his
eyes so that he would not be afraid. She had him climb on her back and took
him to her family in the lake. Yube got used to living with the anacondas,
work for his father-in-law and made three children with her wife. One day the
snake people were going to take nishi pai (ayahuasca) and his wife warned
him against taking it, but he insisted he would take it. He went with his
father-in-law to collect the vine and the leaves. When he drank the brew he
became afraid and cried: “The snakes are swallowing me”. The snake people
were offended and nobody wanted to speak with him any longer, nor gave
him food. He went to the forest where he met the little fish that told him he
was in great danger, as the snakes were going to kill him. The fish put the
juice from a leaf in Yube’s eye and took him to a stream where his previous
wife use to go to cry for him since he disappearance three years ago. She
recognized him, gave him food, and he lived there for a whole year hiding
from the snakes. Then a child was born. He went to the forest to find genipap
to paint his newborn child but it rained and the rivers began to rise. He
slipped into a stream and a snake, his youngest son, got hold of his big toe.
Then his oldest daughter swallowed his whole foot, and his snake wife
gulped down his whole body until his armpits. He cried for help, his kin
rescued him, but his bones were broken. He wanted to know when he was
going to die and asked them to bring all sorts of vines and leaves until he
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 7
recognized the right ones to prepare nishi pai. He gave his people the brew,
who learned how to make it. During three nights he sang the songs he had
learned from the snake people and then he died. He was buried and kawa
leaves [Psychotria viridis] came out of his eyes and four kinds of vine grew
from his limbs. His people prepared the drink but did not know the songs.
One of the boys who had not taken the brew with the ancestor, but who had
listened carefully, remember the songs, which is the reason why the
Cashinahua know these songs.
Among Záparo and Peruvian mestizo vegetalistas the origin of the two
plants involved in the preparation of ayahuasca come from the bones and
blood (or simply from the grave) of a human being. A variation of this myth
was later incorporated as the central myth of the União do Vegetal, one of the
Brazilian organizations using ayahuasca.
The fact there are such myths may indicate that the caapi complex is
probably old, but we have no certainty, as the earliest unequivocal record is
from the eighteen century. The botanical distribution of Banisteriopsis caapi
encompasses a huge area, and it is easily cultivated, as exemplify by the use
of pildé, one of the vernacular names given to the beverage, by indigenous
groups of the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Peru, where it must have
been introduced, as the plant could not have migrated naturally across the
Recent studies are showing that large areas of the Amazon Basin were
probably heavily populated. Extensive areas of the so-called terra preta do
indio, anthropogenic soils of extraordinary quality for intense cultivation,
reveal perhaps large human populations. In Beni, in the Bolivian Amazon, huge
areas were dedicated to raised agricultural fields, dikes and reservoirs and fish-
corralling fences, demolishing the theory that the Amazon had not enough
protein to sustain large human populations[17,18]. Numerous geoglyphs in
Acre, in the Brazilian Amazon, reveal habitation – and therefore resources – in
areas paradoxically now dedicated to cattle ranching. Certainly the astonishing
ceramics found along the Amazon River (for example those of
Santarem and Marajó), which Fray Gaspar de Carvajal in 1513 praised
as “the best in the world, better than those of Malaga”4, reveal huge cultural
4 Here the original Spanish text: “En este pueblo estaba una casa de placer, dentro de
la cual había mucha loza de diversas hechuras, así de tinajas como de cántaros muy
grandes de más de veinti cinco arrobas, y otras vasijas pequeñas como platos y
escudillas y candeleros desta loza de la mejor que se ha visto en el mundo, porque la
de Málaga no se iguala con ella, porque es toda vidriada y esmaltada de todas colores
y tan vivas que espantan, y demás desto los dibujos y pinturas que en ellas hacen son
tan compasados que naturalmente labran y dibujan todo como lo romano”. (p. 69)
Luis Eduardo Luna
sophistication. What role Banisteriopsis caapi may have had in culturally
diverse pre-Columbian Amazon we don’t know. Near Santarem were found
beautifully made ceramics with the jaguar and other shamanic motives in
which a small drink was used obviously ceremonially. As far as I know there
has been no identification of what drink these ceramics may have contained.
2.4. Indigenous spirituality and shamanism
Indigenous ayahuasca use can only be understood within the context of
indigenous spirituality. According to its worldview there is an underlying
spiritual aspect to everything that exists, an intimate relationship and even
dependency between the seen and the unseen, between the world of nature
and human creation on one side, and normally invisible and intelligent
forces. The preservation of the individual and the community, and therefore
human action, depends on finding the proper balance in this complex
reality. Sacred plants, such as ayahuasca, facilitate the perception of such
complexity. Gifted individuals may establish alliances with spiritual forces
and interact for the benefit (or detriment) of others. They are able to
interpret natural phenomenon finding hints that reveal the development of
unseen forces that determine human existence. They are curious, interested
in plants and animals, weather conditions, natural phenomena and the
traditions of his community. They are therefore the recipients of the myths,
narratives, songs, and spells. They have clear visions when under the
influence of sacred plants, or are able to shed light upon the visions and
experiences of others. They are intellectuals and humanists. These are the
shamans or payés, both feared and seek for when the situation thus requires
it. They undergo especial training, which implies dietary restrictions, the
avoidance of sex, sojourns with shamans of neighboring indigenous groups
and the acquisition of helping spirits, powerful objects, magical arrows and
metaphors that help them in their practice. They are both knowledgeable of
their natural environment as the masters of complex normally unseen
2.5. Types of rituals
Reichel-Dolmatoff pointed out that among the Tukano there are two
kinds of caapi rituals. On one hand there are the great collective ceremonies
involving one or more exogamic units which involve dancing, singing, and
recitations, accompanied by rattles, flutes, fifes and other musical
instruments, and which emphasizes the divine origin of their social laws, also
the ceremonies connected with the individuals life cycle such as initiations
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 9
and burials, and above all the ancestor-communication Yuruparí ceremonies.
On the other hand the more intimate sessions devoted to shamanic practices,
such as healing and divination, finding game or learning about the plans of
the enemy during warfare, and involving just a few individuals. He also
indicated that in the Vaupés only Banisteriopsis caapi was used in collective
rituals, while in shamanic séances, in which “special effects” are desirable,
Banisteriopsis rusbyana (and old name for Diplopterys cabrerana) was also
added. Collective rituals taking place in 1923 were described by Karsten
among the Shuar of Ecuador, particularly those related to victory feasts,
and in 1934 by Goldman among the Cubeo of the Colombian Vaupés
region, related to ancestor cults. Due to the missionary activity and other
western influences, most collective rituals do not exist any longer. It is the
intimate shamanic use that has been preserved and transformed, with external
influences, in the sessions of mestizo ayahuasqueros.
2.6. Uses of the caapi complex
Many publications have dealt in one way or another with the use of
yajé/ayahuasca by indigenous groups. It is not my intention to summarize
here such studies. I will rather present the main uses, taken from indigenous
groups belonging to several linguistic families and cultural subdivisions
(hunter gatherers, agriculturists, savanna dwellers, etc.). Not all elements are
necessarily present in each indigenous group, and some of them are deeply
intertwined, so that differentiation is difficult. This will give us an idea of the
range of uses among the indigenous populations of the Amazon and Orinoco
Basins, and the Pacific lowlands of Colombia.
2.7. Contact with the primordial spiritual realm
The main function of ayahuasca/yajé is to enter into contact with the
unseen side of reality. Harner, referring to the Shuar of the Ecuadorian
Amazon, points out that the true forces behind daily life are in the
supernatural realm, the true reality, and can only be accessed through the
psychedelic experience. For the Cubeo, according to Goldman, the
exaltation of intoxication and frenzied emotional experience is sacred, and
caapi is used primarily to enter into contact with the ancestors. Harner calls
this modified state of consciousness “shamanic state of consciousness”.
Winkelman proposes the term “integrative consciousness” using a highly
convincing neurophenomenological approach to shamanism that bridges the
realm traditionally found within anthropological and religious studies, with
Luis Eduardo Luna
Traveling to other dimensions and helping others to undertake without
danger journeys to the other side of reality is the specialty of the shaman. In
the case of the Siona, according to Langdon[25,26], the shaman conducting
the ritual, through his songs, take the assembly into specific region of their
cosmos, each characterized by its particular sounds, rhythms, music, smells
The process of entering the other side of reality may be experienced in
terms of dismembering, death, and resurrection, a common motive found in
shamanistic traditions globally. Referring to the Tukano of the Colombian
Vaupés, Reichel-Dolmatoff writes the following:
“Recognizing that the individual must pass from one dimension of
existence – or cosmic plane – to another to communicate with the
spiritual or invisible world, the Tukanos take caapi to effect this
transport. The trip represents to them the process of birth and breaking
through the wall that separates the two cosmic planes and signifies,
according to anthropological studies, the rupture of the placenta.
Drinking caapi is often interpreted as returning to the ‘cosmic uterus’.
Since they insist that they sometimes come to know death while under the
influence of the drug, the Tukanos consider the return to the cosmic
uterus as an anticipation of death which permits contact with the divinity
or visitation with the source and origin of all things”.
A related metaphor is found among the Kamsá of the Colombian
Putumayo. After birth the baby’s umbilical chord is severed, separating him
from his mother’s placenta. According to their view, yajé is like a new
umbilical chord connecting the person to the whole cosmos.
2.8. Transformation and communication with the animal and plant world
A common motive in shamanism everywhere is transformation into an
animal to perform certain tasks. In the Amazonian region one of the main
shamanic motives is that of jaguar transformation, especially to attack
enemies. In some cases the shamans may become other great predators, such
as the harpy eagle and the anaconda. These three animals crown the
Amazonian trophic pyramid. The shaman may either transform into an
animal, or an animal or a plant may adopt anthropomorphic features to
communicate with humans. We are here confronted with a radically different
epistemology, one that presupposes the possibility of perceiving the world
from the point of view of a non-human creature, something which cannot be
rejected as a totally far-fetched way of thinking, even though difficult to
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 11
comprehend without direct experience of the states of consciousness in which
it is based. A dialogue of worldviews is needed, one that goes beyond
ethnographic curiosity and which accepts that other approaches to reality are
indeed possible. Western science, due to prejudices, is largely totally ignorant
about the possibility of acquiring actual information about the natural world
in non-ordinary states of consciousness.
2.9. Divination, healing and warfare
Getting information from other realms is indeed one of the main
functions of the caapi complex. It is used to locate animals in the forest, to
find out about relatives in distant places, to know the cause or etiology of
illness, to get to know the plans of the enemies, etc. When Karsten asked
the Shuar why they drink natéma, he got the following answer: “It is in
order that the people may not die away”. He then adds the following
commentary: “By this kind of divination they try to find out what dangers
are threatening the family, whether enemies are planning an attack against
them, whether evil sorcerers are operating against them, whether they will
be successful in their own undertakings, and so forth”.
Ayahuasca/yajé is used to diagnosis and to look for the deeper cause of
illness. Sometimes also the patient may take it to contribute to find the
etiology of the ailment. Sucking, blowing tobacco smoke over the patient or
over the medicinal plants used, songs and incantations are usually essential.
Some indigenous groups may use it in conjunction with other plants. Such
is the case of the Tukano, who use vihó, a DMT containing snuff prepared
from the sap of Virola species. Often medicinal plants are collected under
certain dietary conditions, for example before dawn and without having
eaten anything, as well as after invoking the spirits of the plants or making
offerings to them.
Given that illness is usually thought as the result of the action of an
animated agent, fighting it is part of the healing process. The shaman has
the double role of healer and sorcerer, protecting his community but at the
same time attacking its enemies, either by transforming into a jaguar, or by
sending back the illness to the person who sent it, or through helping spirit
It seems that among some indigenous groups caapi was used with
warfare. Spruce described in 1852 how the person who has taken caapi
would “bursts into a perspiration, and seems possessed with reckless fury,
seizes whatever arms are at hand, his murucú, bow and arrows, or cutlass,
and rushes to the doorway, where he inflicts violent blows on the ground or
the doorposts, calling out all the while, ‘Thus would I do to mine enemy
Luis Eduardo Luna
naming him by his name) were were this he!5’” Calavia pointed out that
Yaminahua memories of life before the pax branca (the peace imposed by
whites), suggest a conception of ayahuasca that might seem strange or
perhaps even scandalous in another context: the plant-substance is a
bloodthirsty agent associated with war and vengeance that eventually is
tempered by the blood of a dead relative. It is also the instrument of an
aggressive shamanism in which therapy is defense and counter-attack.
Not keeping dietary prescriptions when hunting, having contact with
menstruating women or childbearing women, not paying respect to the spirits
when approaching special places in the forest, may cause illness.
2.10. Acquisition of songs and designs
In some indigenous groups there seem to be an intimate relationship
between the experiences in other realms through yajé/ayahuasca and visual
expressions in body painting and the patterns used in the ornamentation of
communal houses, weapons, paddles, stamping tubes, ceramics, and other
objects. Songs and dances are also said to derive from experiences on the
other side of this reality.
According to Father Plácido de Calella, a missionary who worked among
the Siona, in the beginning of the 20th century, “during these hallucinations
the shaman and the other participants claim to see large crows of people,
called “yajé people” (yagé-pai) and who sing and play musical instruments.
When the trance is over the men copy the design motifs of the body paint of
these spirit-beings and use them to adorn their own faces”. Langdon later
confirmed this idea, while also by reporting that most Siona narratives can be
characterized as shamanic, in the sense that they deal with shamans and/or
with experiences in the occult world when dreaming or taking yagé.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, when discussing with a Tukano of the Colombian
Vaupés Territory the colorful designs on the exterior of one of the communal
5 It has always puzzled me the rapid reaction in the persons taking caapi described by
Spruce, who wrote: “This is all I have seen and learnt of aya-huasca. I regret being
unable to tell what is the peculiar narcotic principle that produces such extraordinary
effects. Opium and hemp are its most obvious analogues, but caapi would operate on
the nervous system far more rapidly and violently than either”. Such rapids effects are
not at all what I have observed throughout the years participating in yajé and
ayahuasca rituals, where usually between half and hour and an hours pass before
feeling the effects. Could it be that the type of diet held has such a direct diverse effect
among indigenous populations and more westernized participants? More studies are
needed to elucidate this apparent anomaly.
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 13
houses, received the following explanation: “We see these things when we
drink yajé”. A subsequent study of the patterns reveled that certain motifs
had meaning, almost always phrased in terms of fertility symbolism. Reichel-
Dolmatoff compared Tukano designs with phosphenes (light patterns
originated within the eye and the brain) isolated by Knoll[6,29]. “The
similarities are such [he concludes] that there can be no doubt left: The
decorative patterns of the Tukano are almost whole derived from drug-
induced inner light experiences”. The geometrical patterns would only
represent the initial stage of neurophysiologic stimulation. A second stage
would be marked with the onset of figurative representations, in turn
Among the Shipibo of the Ucayali River (Peru), the extraordinary
designs that cover the ceramics, skirts, and previously other material objects
of this culture, are inspired by nishi-pai. According to Gebhart-Sayer the
shaman ascends to higher realms where he listens the melodies from the
spirits and sing with them. Those songs have a visual manifestation that the
women transmit in their art. The Shipibo believe their bodies are covered
by invisible designs. Illness is the disruption of the patterns, and the songs of
the shaman restore their order and beauty. Healing is thus an aesthetic
endeavor. While doing fieldwork in Santa Rosa de Pirococha, a Shipibo
settlement by the Ucayali River, I asked Don Basilio Gordon, a shaman,
about the plants he used to heal his patients. He said that it is enough to know
the songs of the plants to be able to cure. The plants are needed only if you
do not know their song.
2.11. Promotion of social order
Caapi and other sacred plants are considered among some indigenous
groups as promoting social order. Brown[31,32] referring to the Aguaruna of
Peru writes: “Adults sometimes remark that their children control more
knowledge (e.g., the ability to read and write) because they attend school, but
that they are often “stupid” (anentáimchau, literally “without thought”)
because they no longer undergo the rigorous training linked to the use of
hallucinogenic plants. This lack of thought manifests itself in such antisocial
behavior as fighting with close kinsmen, attempting suicide, maintaining an
unseemly interest in sexual adventures, and otherwise affronting traditional
morality”. For the Aguaruna, it is not enough simply to know facts; one must
learn to think well by bringing together the body, the emotions, and the
intellect in the epiphanous context of the visionary experience.
According to Reichel-Dolmatoff yajé gave the Tukano their life, the rules
by which they should live, their way of life. Karsten reports that among the
Luis Eduardo Luna
Shuar “both men and women are, by drinking natéma, made strong and
clever for their different occupations and duties, the men for hunting, fishing,
war, etc., the latter for agriculture, for the education of the children, for the
care of the domestic animals, and for other domestic work incumbent on
them”. For the Siona yagé is central to their notions of well being and
health, as well as their acquisition of knowledge.
3. Part II: Mestizo use of ayahuasca
3.1. The use of ayahuasca among the mestizo population of the Peruvian
Although there has been missionary activity in the Amazon region
since the middle of the 16th century, the greatest and most devastating
western influence in this region took place during the so-called rubber
booms in 1879-1912 and 1945-47. The great demand of rubber caused by
the industrial revolution created chaos among indigenous populations,
many subjected to slavery and moved around to other Amazonian regions.
There was also a period of intense biological and cultural mixture of
westerners and the indigenous people. Practitioners appeared conducting
healing rituals in which indigenous Amazonian ideas and the use of
ayahuasca (and other plants) were integrated with Andean and Christian
beliefs. This is the so-called vegetalismo phenomenon, from vegetal, the
name given to plants with extraordinary properties, such as ayahuasca. I
dedicated several years to the study of this tradition in the period between
1981-1988, and was the subject of my doctoral dissertation and several
My main informant and friend was Don Emilio Andrade Gómez, a
mestizo vegetalista who lived 12 kilometers from Iquitos, by the road that
now connects the city with Nauta, in the south, where he received patients
Tuesdays and Fridays, at times (not always) drinking ayahuasca. I became a
sort of apprentice, as well as that of Don José Coral, a vegetalista friend of
his, who lived a few kilometers away. This took place before the current
flux of westerners arriving to Iquitos in search for ayahuasca. As an
educated Westerner I think I was alone in this quest at that time. As a
mestizo (I was born in the Colombian Amazon, of non-Amazonian parents)
I was simply part of a tradition, now at least one hundred years old. Don
Emilio took ayahuasca for the first time in 1937 at the age of fourteen. His
teacher was Don Juan Hidalgo Nina, also a mestizo, who in turn had Don
José Benavides Sánchez as his teacher.
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 15
3.2. Plant teachers
For me the greatest discovery was the concept of plant-teachers. Don
Emilio considered ayahuasca as one of many doctores, plant-teachers,
plants that give knowledge6. He called these plants doctores: ojé (Ficus
anthelmintica), toé (Brugmansia sp.), catahua (Hura crepitans),
clavohuasca (Tynanthus parunensis), ayahúman (Courupitas guianensis),
and many others. Don Emilio called them collectively as vegetales, hence
the name vegetalista, which refers to a person that has learned from those
plants. Within vegetalistas there are specialists in one or other plant, for
example tabaqueros, toeros. There are also paleros (specialists in certain
large trees, or palos), who have great reputation, or perfumeros, specialized
in the use of perfumes from certain plants in order to heal. The bark or
other plant of these trees may be added to the ayahuasca when it is being
prepared, or may be taken also independently. Don Emilio use to say that
he was only an “ayahuasquerito”, a little ayahuasquero, but there were
others with greater powers, those who learned from big trees in which
ayahuasca may climb and grow. These plants can also be taken for
medicinal purposes, or solely in order to make the body strong, not
necessarily to learn from them.
In order to learn from the plants it is necessary to dietar (maintain a
certain diet). This term implies not only food restrictions, but also sexual
segregation (if possible isolation, or at least not having sexual intercourse)
and certain ritual procedures. The initiate must abstain salt, sugar, fruits and
fish containing much fat. Basically it should be manioc or rice, plantains,
and just a little fish from time to time. It is a process of purification that
opens the contact to the spirits of the plants. Vomiting is conceived as
helping the purification process. The shaman is there first of all to protect
the initiate. Sometimes, as a result from an illness, a person may go into
diet and isolation by himself (I use here the masculine, but there are also
cases of female practitioners), and in the process becoming a healer.
It is often said that the initiate is first tempted by spirits to receive
certain powers. If taken, the initiate may become a brujo, a sorcerer. If the
initiate refuse those powers and continue his training then he becomes a
6 The idea of ayahuasca as a teacher is present in Brazil among practitioners of Santo
Daime, “o professor dos professors”, “o mestre de todos os ensinos”.
Luis Eduardo Luna
3.4. Icaros, the magic phlegm and concepts of illness
In this tradition the essence of power and wisdom is in the icaros, the
songs the spirits of the plants (or other spirits) teach the initiate, either when
taking ayahuasca or other plants, or in the dreams that follow such ingestion.
Icaros may have various functions. They may be invoked for protection, to
call certain spirits, to heal particular illnesses, to travel to specific places, to
give strength or to diminish the effects of ayahuasca, etc. A vegetalista may
possess dozens of icaros, their complexity often being an indication of his
power. Icaros are an essential part of the work of a vegetalista. An icaro is
always sung over the ayahuasca brew before taking it, and ceremonies
basically consist of a vegetalista singing during several hours his icaros,
often accompanied by a schacapa, a bundle made of Pariana leaves, a
tradition found among indigenous practitioners such as the Kamsá or Ingano
Icaros must often are learned directly from the plants, particularly during
the initiation period or when the vegetalista decides to spend time in isolation
to replenish his healing energies. They may be also learned from other
practitioners. It is said that icaros my leave a person all-together to go into
another one. They can be stolen from another person, or being forgotten due
to some sort of sorcery from the part of envious practitioners.
During initiation the neophyte may receive from his teacher (or from
plant-spirits) a magic phlegm called mariri, yausa or yachay. This is said to
be planted like a tree, growing inside the initiated to extract the illness from
his patients, which may be cause either by the intrusion of a pathogenic
object, often called a virote, the name given to the arrows Spaniards shot with
their crossbows, in an area where powder often got wet making fire weapons
unusable. It is also possible to harvest those virotes and keep them in the
phlegm for later use as a weapon. Sucking and blowing are essential elements
in a healing session, especially certain areas of the body such as the boca del
estómago (solar plexus), the top of the head, the temples, and along arms and
legs. As in other traditions, hiding an insect or a small thorn in the mouth and
pretending it was extracted from the body of a patient, is part of the tools of
the vegetalistas to elicit a psychosomatic response. Some practitioners may
use certain stones, called encantos, to help in the extraction of illness.
Illness may be also conceived as the result of soul loss due to fright or
sorcery. Since illness is conceived as caused by an animate agent – human or
supernatural –, healing is often associated with defense and counter-attack.
Vegetalistas are particularly vulnerable during ayahuasca sessions. Stories
about practitioners being wounded or killed during such sessions abound.
Protection is then necessary. Through certain songs – as is also the case with
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 17
the Shipibo of the Ucayali River – the person may be covered by an arkana,
described as some sort of metal shirt covering the body of a person, thus
protecting her from pathogenic darts.
It is also normal, especially in difficult situations, to invoke Jesus and
Mary, angels with swords, animal protectors (Amazonian as well as lions,
elephants, and the like), soldiers with guns, war airplanes, flying saucers, etc.
Whenever a new symbol of power emerges, it is easily incorporated in this
highly syncretic tradition.
The concept of illness may apply also to bad luck in business or in love,
and special ceremonies are held to treat those situations that include the use
of magnets (to make the person attractive), perfumes and certain plants.
There are also ideas found in other parts of the Americas. For example certain
winds or vientos, or whirlpools may cause the illness. Unexpected encounters
with spirits may cause fevers and even death. In all situations icaros are
essential in the healing process as well as protecting the person from further
Seeing beings seems to be a universal feature of ayahuasca intake. Spirits
may adopt any shape, as indigenous people or as people from any part of the
world. They may be also animal, therianthropes, or completely alien and
believed to be of extraterrestrial origin or living in other realms within our
world, in the forest, the bottom of lakes or rivers, the interior of the Earth,
etc. Their dresses may seem royal, ancient or futuristic, luminous, huge or
small, benevolent or at times threatening, fully visible or composed of
appearing and disappearing lights of any colors. Often they communicate
telepathically, with gestures or with words (less common). Obviously, their
appearance depends on human culture.
The plasticity of Peruvian vegetalismo can be seen in the adoption of
modern technology. They may communicate with the language of radio, like
described by Chevalier, or in “computer language” as reported by
Beyer. Don Emilio told me that the first time he took ayahuasca he saw
luxurious cars, trains, boats, helicopters and peoples of all kinds. Later he
saw “doctores” who came from all over the world: “They all came, French,
English, Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Chileans, these doctors
were from all places”. The adoption of modern technology has been observed
by Chaumeil in contemporary Yagua medical practices. He describes
innovations like telephones, parabolic antennae, syringes etc. as being used
by nowadays Yagua “shamans” for communication with spirits, for spiritual
Luis Eduardo Luna
Particular spirits are believed to live in the surrounding forests, lakes
and rivers. This was perhaps even more when I was conducting my
fieldwork than today, due to the continued deforestation and urbanization
process. The Chullachaqui (uneven foot in Quechua) may adopt the shape
of a relative or a friend to lure a person walking alone into his forest realm,
never to return. If this spirit is offended he may produce dangerous storms
or make people sick. The Chullachaqui is believed to have as its dwelling
in what they call supay chacras, areas where only Duroia hirsute grows, a
small tree that through its chemistry prevents the growth of other plants
nearby. The water realm is especially powerful. Mermaids may seduce men
or pink dolphins may seduce women to take them into their world. Two
giant serpents preside those two realms: the Sachamama or mother of the
forest, and the Yakumama or mother of the water. They are ambivalent with
respect of human beings, but vegetalistas may establish a rapport with them
for the benefit of their patients.
4. A comment on ayahuasca tourism
I would like to end with a brief commentary on the phenomenon
currently known as “ayahuasca tourism”, and which is taking place first of all
in the Peruvian Amazon, especially around Iquitos. It is an occurrence with
international repercussions, given the number of practitioners of many
nationalities emerging from this tradition that are conducting ceremonies in
My knowledge of this phenomenon is superficial. In July 2005 I was
invited as a speaker to a conference in Iquitos, a city I had not visited for
many years. Having done fieldwork (and experiential training) in that area in
the early eighties, I was nearly shocked to see the buses full of people from
all over the world going to participate in ceremonies with this or that
indigenous or mestizo practitioner. Obviously much had happened during this
twenty-five year gap in which I had been absent.
New studies have emerged, most notably those of Dobkin de Rios, who
has taken what is in my view an extreme position. Given that DMT, the
visionary agent present in both Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana
is an illegal substance, emanating from 1970 Control Substances Act of the
United States of America, she considers this phenomenon as a
manifestation of international drug trafficking. People arriving to Iquitos
are empty souls looking for a high, while most practitioners meeting the
demand simply charlatans looking for profit and taking advantage of female
participants[38,39]. I see this phenomenon in a different way, rather as a
Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca 19
sort of continuation of the vegetalismo tradition turned international, with
positive as well as negative aspects. It is not my intention to examine here
such a complex phenomenon. I rather prefer to point out to a recent study,
which I find most welcomed. I am referring to Evgenia Fotiou’s doctoral
dissertation about ayahuasca tourism in Iquitos. She writes:
“Through my data I show that the western interest in ayahuasca is much
more than a pretext for drug use but rather is often perceived as a pilgrimage
and should be looked at in the context of a new paradigm, or rather a shift in
the discourse about plant hallucinogens, a discourse that tackles them as
sacraments, in sharp contrast to chemical drugs. Ritual in this context is
instrumental but not as something that reproduces social structure; rather it
fosters self transformation while at the same time challenging the
participants’ very cultural constructs and basic assumptions about the
Fotiou sees ayahuasca tourism as a two-way avenue in which indigenous
and mestizo ayahuasqueros absorb –once more- certain western ideas and
adapt their practices to the expectations of non-Amazonians, while people
from other countries adopt indigenous ideas about intelligent plant spirits and
the like. This is not at all something new. As we have seen earlier, exchange
of symbols and power metaphors have been an essential part of Amazonian
We are now in a phase beyond ayahuasca tourism. Ayahuasca is
becoming –in a modest scale, of course- a global phenomenon, with
practitioners coming from various traditions, such as the Brazilian religious
organizations, and with the absorption of a number of therapeutic techniques.
There is an increasing number of people who for one reason or another
decided to conduct rituals in their own settings.
It is my impression, corroborated by a study by Winkelman that
more often than not most of the people taking ayahuasca now-a-days do it
with the intention of finding guidance from within, for personal growth, or
in search of spiritual experiences. Claudio Naranjo observed in 1967 when
doing experiments with harmaline, an alkaloid mostly found in trace
amounts, but also present in significant amounts in certain brews, pointed
out that “concern with religious and philosophical questions is
frequent”. Shanon has pointed out similar ideas regarding
ayahuasca intake among Westerners, a position I also ratify. More so, I
believe ayahuasca/yagé, as well as other sacred plant preparations from the
Americas and beyond, have extraordinary potential in the study of
consciousness and as cognitive tools. More studies should be conducted, as
well as public discussions as how to deal, in a positive way, with one of the
greatest discoveries of Amazonian people.
Luis Eduardo Luna
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