Author of the Month

Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay

These twin influences – the coastal mountains and the jungle – are mirrored by the presence at Chavín not of one hallucinogenic plant but two. The San Pedro cactus, as depicted on the wall of Chavín’s old plaza, may have been an element of the earlier coastal tradition, but is in any case native to Chavín’s high valley: a magnificent specimen, which must be at least 200 years old, towers over the site today. Local villages still plant hedges with it, and traders to the curandero markets down in the coastal cities still source it from the area. But the mucus pouring from the noses of the carved heads, combined with material finds of bone sniffing tubes and snuff trays, all point with equal clarity to the use at Chavín of plants containing a second drug, DMT, and a tradition with a different source: the Amazon jungle.

Today, the best-known ethnographic use of DMT-containing snuffs is among the Yanomami people of the Amazon, who traditionally blow powdered Virola tree bark resin up each others’ noses with six-foot blowpipes, a practice which produces a short and intense hallucinatory burst accompanied by spectacular streams of mucus. But there are various other DMT-containing snuffs used in the region, including the powdered seeds of the tree Anadenanthera colubrina, whose distribution – and its artistic depiction in later Andean cultures – makes it the most likely ingredient in the Chavín brew.

Anadenanthera-snuffing has been largely replaced in many areas of the Amazon by ayahuasca-drinking, a more manageable technique of DMT ingestion, but this displacement is a recent one, and Anadenanthera is still used by some tribal groups in the remote forest around the borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Even today, the tree grows up the Amazonian slopes of the eastern Andes and as far west as the highlands around Kotosh. The transformation offered at Chavín was, it seems, mediated by the combination of these two extremely potent psychedelics.

The presence of these two plants at Chavín, without necessarily illuminating the purpose or content of the rituals, has certain implications. The effects and duration of San Pedro and Anadenanthera are very distinct from one another, and characterised by quite different ritual uses. San Pedro, boiled, stewed and drunk, can take an hour or more before the effects are felt; once they appear, they last for at least ten. The physical sensation is euphoric, languid, expansive, often with some accompanying nausea; in many Indian traditions, such effects are dealt with by setting the participants to slow, shuffling three-step dances and chants. The effect on consciousness is similarly fluid and oceanic, including visual trails and a heightened sense of presence: the swirling lines which surround the figures at Sechin could perhaps be read as visual representations of this sense of energy projecting itself from the body – particularly from the swirling, psychedelicised intestines – into an immanent spirit world.

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