Luis Eduardo Luna was born in Florencia, in the Colombian Amazon region, in 1947. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the Complutense University of Madrid. He earned an interdisciplinary Masters degree while at the same time teaching Spanish and Latin American Literature at the Department of Romance Languages of Oslo University. In 1979 he moved to Finland where he is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. In 1989 he received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Comparative Religion at Stockholm University, and in 2000 an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. A Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, he is the author of Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon (1986), and with Pablo Amaringo of Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (1991). He is co-editor with Steven F. White of Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine (2000). In 1986 he co-founded with Pablo Amaringo the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting of Pucallpa, Peru, and served as its Director of International Exhibitions until 1994. He was Professor of Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil (1994-1998), has lectured about Amazonian shamanism and modified states of consciousness worldwide, and has curated exhibitions of visionary art in several countries.
Luna has over 30 years of experience with ayahuasca in various contexts: as an anthropologist with indigenous groups and among urban and rural mestizo ayahuasqueros in Peru and Colombia, with all the syncretic Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and as a facilitator in specially designed workshops. See his webste at http://www.wasiwaska.org.
Please see the bottom of the page for links to a video interview with Luis, and his 1982 film 'Don Emilio & His Little Doctors'.
The conquest of the Americas by
the empires of Europe resulted in the nearly total loss of the
cultural, technical and intellectual achievements of one third of the
population of the world of that time. The Amerindian crops adopted by
the European conquerors spread around the world: corn, potatoes,
manioc, tomatoes, pepper, calabash, certain beans, as well as
stimulants such as cacao, coca and tobacco. Yet the advanced
technical capabilities of many Amerindian societies in the fields of
astronomy, engineering, medicinal plants, ceramics, weaving,
basketry, and – as is becoming increasingly evident -- the
sophisticated and efficient use of the land, did not have any
significant impact on the home countries of the conquerors.
Apart from the academic work of
relatively small circles of historians, ethnologists, anthropologists
and the obscure accounts of travelers, there was no European
acknowledgment of a single philosophical idea from the people of the
Americas prior to the recently awakened interest in Amerindian
There was no technical or philosophical/theological exchange between
the peoples of the two continents. Europeans viewed the Amerindian
population as objects of conversion, assimilation, subjugation or
The sacred books of the Maya were
burned in 1562. The quipus of the Andes -- a work of the Devil
according to sixteenth century friars – were destroyed by a
decree in 1583.
The sacred groves, temples and places of worship of the Amerindians
were desecrated. Revered works of art were melted down for the price
of their gold. The repository of Amerindian traditions, the bearers
of wisdom who “remembered” and knew “how to speak”,
were hunted and killed. Their knowledge was treated as the work of
Satan, still today a powerful archetypical figure in both the
Christian and Islamic worlds.
It was the obliteration of the
wonderings about the nature of reality of a whole continent with the
transplantation into the Americas of an Indo-European syndrome that,
according to Gimbutas (1989), had already destroyed the spiritual
manifestations of European Neolithic cultures, the “Old
Europe”, largely associated with the natural environment. At
the time of the arrival of the European conquerors, the “Old
World” for a long time had been engulfed in ideological
religious wars in which deviation from pronounced dogmas could be
punished with death.
All of this went hand in hand with
deforestation, a development that in the West goes back to
Greco-Roman times, if not even further back in time to the fear of
forests: it can be traced to the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh, the
first hero in world literature, who embarked on a quest to kill
Humbaba, the demon of the forest, who lived in the mountainside cedar
groves harvested to the last by the ancient Sumerians (Harrison
The deforestation of Europe was
carried out in the interests of agriculture, the conversion to
grasslands for the grazing horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to
satisfy an insatiable appetite for meat and milk, the construction of
boats and weapons, and for strategic or religious reasons.
The Americas are still being
subjected to the kind of devastating deforestation that already by
the time of the conquest of America had decimated the forests of much
of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Domesticated plants and animals from Eurasia accompanied the conquest
of the Americas, destroying much of the original biota, a phenomenon
referred to by Crosby (1986) as “ecological imperialism”.
At the same time the indigenous population was condemned to
humiliation, subjugation and poverty, barely surviving history’s
greatest ethnocide. Almost by a miracle after five hundred years of
persecution, one aspect of Amerindian cosmology did survive, although
in an attenuated form: shamanism.
Shamanism in the Americas
The term “shamanism”
is used here to refer to an innate human capacity, culturally
manifested in various ways, which include several universal elements:
altered states of consciousness (ASC), community rituals, spirit
world interaction and healing (Winkelman 1992, 2010). The ASC produce
a cognitive and personal transformation by means of various
techniques used to enter into an “integrative mode of
consciousness” (Winkelman 1996, 2010), which include sensory
overload or sensory deprivation, drumming, chanting, fasting,
isolation, meditation, and hyperventilation. Both in the past as well
as in the present numerous examples can be found of the use of
psychotropic plants, often in combination with one or more of the
The cognitive changes thus
achieved may involve journeying to complex, stratified and
interconnected worlds perceived as ontologically real, and contacting
entities often related to the natural environment, such as animal
spirits, or the spirits of the dead. These changes may involve a
symbolic death, or experiencing a transformation into an animal such
as a bird or a powerful predator to visit specific realms or to
better perform a certain task.
Understood in this sense,
shamanism entails a socially recognized status that includes the
possibility of certain individuals being able to heal, cause harms,
prophesize, mediate in situations of social conflict or obtain
leadership capacities by means of the knowledge and power acquired by
such techniques and supernatural contacts.
Shamanism was of central
importance in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and
still plays a central role among contemporary indigenous groups as
well as among certain segments of the mestizo population. Its
ethnography has been extensively and widely documented.
When examined from the
perspectives of the shamanic paradigm, much of the art left behind by
pre-Columbian societies, as well as specific paraphernalia, point in
this direction. The archeological record suggests that shamanism may
have often been intimately associated with the use of certain plants,
usually considered as sacred, and as proposed by Winkelman, now known
as psychointegrator plants.
Winkelman (1996, 2010) uses the
concept of psychointegrator plants and the related concept of
integrative modes of consciousness to postulate that they reflect not
only what happens at the level of the self, but also at the
biological level, manifested in theta wave synchronization, i.e., at
3-6 cycles per second. The Winkelman model posits an accessing of
information from the lower levels of the brain, the brain stem or
reptilian brain that regulates vegetative processes such as
breathing, heartbeat, and the fight or flight mechanism as well as
accessing the paleomammalian brain or limbic system that supports
functions such as emotion, behavior, long-term memory and olfaction.
Winkelman suggests that in this way the information that is normally
habituated or relegated to the subconscious is made available through
a reverse inhibitory process.
In addition Winkelman posits that
at the physiological level psychointegrator plants and substances
enhance the way the serotonin system functions, modulating and
integrating information within the brain. They also inhibit very
specific mechanisms, releasing certain dopamine-related capacities of
the brain normally repressed by serotonin, and consequently enhancing
the functioning of the dopaminergic system, which is fundamental to
motivational and learning processes of the brain.
Winkelman uses the concept of
psychointegrator plants to refer to experiential, phenomenological or
psychological aspects of their physiological effects. He suggests
that the resulting mentation (how you think) and emotion (how you
feel) may produce a holistic state of psychological integration and
Some of the alkaloids found in
psychointegrator plants are surprisingly similar to human brain
neurotransmitters, reflecting adaptions made by human ancestors in
the course of evolutionary processes. Psychointegrator plants are
traditionally used across cultures in a religious, spiritual and
often therapeutic context, and may enhance some of the innate
capacities of consciousness, integrating various forms of
information. They seem to enhance the innate capacities of human
beings for spiritual experiences, as well as the presentiment of
spirits embodied in nature.
Figure 1: Tolita ceramic, Ecuador
standard Eurocentric worldview has no place for the powerful
cognitive transformation facilitated by psychointegrators. For this
reason the typical inhabitant of a Eurocentric worldview is unable to
make any sense of examples of Amerindian art such as the
extraordinary Tolita ceramic from Ecuador shown in Fig 1 (Klein &
Cruz 2007). In Europe, prior to the advent of modern art, there were
few representations of the cognitive changes such as of body
perception, of the disintegration of the self, or of the perception
of non-natural entities that may be produced by psychointegrators.
But once shamanism and integrative states of consciousness are taken
into account, a great deal of Amerindian art begins to make sense.
A case in point is the pioneering
work of the “Father of Colombian Anthropology” Gerardo
Reichel-Dolmatoff and his study of the pre-Columbian gold work in the
Gold Museum in Bogotá (1988). He argues that by recognizing
the relationship between ritual objects and the subjacent shamanic
ideology a deeper significance is revealed. In fact the greater part
of the figurative representations constitute a consistent and
articulated complex of shamanic art, with transformation as the
unifying theme (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988). He contends that much of the
artwork preserved can be explained in terms of the shamanic paradigm.
Certain iconographic elements may serve to identify particular
figures as shamans, such as special headdresses, specific postures,
rattles, and more significant representations of animal
transformation or journeys by means of animal auxiliaries.
Figure 2-3: Pre-Columbian gold work
The ritual objects include several
golden snuff trays from the territory of the Muisca people in the
central highlands of present-day Colombia. The snuff trays, decorated
with felines and birds commonly associated with shamanism, were once
used for the storage of small amounts of the highly psychoactive
powder obtained from the crushed roasted seeds of Anadenanthera
peregrina. The ritual
objects also include golden poporos once used for the storage of
small amounts of lime as well as poporo sticks once used in the
consumption of coca – the poporo sticks are topped with tiny
and complex heads with apparent shamanic motifs.
Representations of birds or winged
objects are also predominant in the goldwork. Reichel-Dolmatoff
suggests that the winged motif is connected with the shamanic sphere
and is a conscious or unconscious allusion to shamanic flight. In
many instances he recognizes, in different styles and variations, the
figures as that of a shaman transformed into a bird, a “bird-man”
(two examples from Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988). There are also highly
abstract examples of goldwork, which are variations of the birdman
motif, once the basic elements are recognized.
Effigies of various animals,
sometimes of a fantastic, non-naturalistic nature, some times
accompany the central figure, which the author interprets as animal
auxiliaries perhaps representing qualities such as sharpness of sight
or hearing, aggressiveness, the ability to undergo metamorphosis,
etc. The incorporation of animal qualities –in its more radical
form complete transformation into an animal- or the transference of
those qualities to their patients being one of the characteristics of
shamans in many cultures (Luna 1992).
Reichel-Dolmatoff also presents
examples of golden figurines with a toad spread on the head of the
central figure, perhaps a reference to Bufo
marinus, whose parotid
glands produce bufotenine, a psychoactive alkaloid, as well as
figurines in which semi-spherical bodies appear on the head, possibly
a reference to psychoactive mushrooms according to Schultes and
Bright (1979). In some of these figures both elements appear.
The goldwork preserved at the
Museo del Oro
is thus for Reichel-Dolmatoff “a treasure of shamanic art, a
treasure of forms and ideas which for thousands of years have
constituted one of the cornerstones of the Indian cultures of this
country”, and the Bird-Man, the ecstatic shaman, one of its key
Rebecca R. Stone in The
Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American
Art (2011) examines
what she calls “shamanic embodiment”, which may be
artistically expressed along a continuum that may go from
predominantly human to creative mixtures embedding animal selves to
images almost wholly given over to the ineffable. She argues that in
order to represent a shaman, a liminal being who is both Here and
Not-Here, there is a deliberate engagement with ambiguity, perhaps
the essential feature of shamanism, which “productively fires
the artistic imagination, catalyzing inventive ways to express the
ineffable cosmic flux”, and using such strategies as
“juxtaposition, conflation, substitution of parts, pars
pro toto (the part
stands for the whole), inversion, double reading through contour
rivalry, figure-ground reversal, and three-dimensional versus
two-dimensional aspects), mirror-imaging, abstraction, and
interiority.” (Stone 2011:67).
Among the myriad possible artistic
approaches to the paradoxes intrinsic to embodying of the shamanic
Self, she proposes four general traits: creative ambiguity,
authority, cephalocentrism and the trance gaze. By way of evidence,
she cites examples of Ancient Costa Rican and Central Andean Art, at
the same time pointing to the possibility of subjecting thousands of
works of art from all over Central and South America to a similar
analysis making use of the concepts she has presented.
Rebecca Stone’s compelling
and encompassing well-crafted argumentation is impossible to
encapsulate in a few paragraphs. Here are some ideas I found
particularly attractive. How can the artist through colors, shapes,
and lines in a static image capture the flux of liminality, of
existing somewhere suspended between states of being, of true
multiplicity in the Self? Amerindian art gives a plethora of
solutions. The artists, without the constraints of an artistic
mandate to reproduce terrestrial appearances, have as their goal the
recorporealization of the shaman, something that entails a
decorporalization, just as does the visionary experience, and then
the rebuilding of a different idea of a spirit-body as a holder for
the being in trance. The visionary experience, on the other hand,
requires a participation in a convincingly nonhuman-centered gestalt
of all nature infused with life and obviates the need to make
hard-edged visual distinctions between a person and a bat or a peanut
and a divine being. The artist is able to throw aside discrete
categories and mimetic attachments to this world and its static
constituents by exploring possibilities beyond how things look under
normal conditions, creating combinations that defy description. The
Western worldview limits our understanding of such art objects
because seemingly neutral terms such as “image,”
“depiction,” and “representation” inevitably
communicate the opposite of the shamanic approach to the object.
Amerindian artists on the other hand “embrace creative
ambiguity”. Rebecca R. Stone proposes that the object we call
an effigy of a shaman served as both a visual rendition of the
shaman’s many selves and as one of the shaman’s
We may infer that seen as a whole,
totally unrecognized by most people, Pre-Columbian art is full of
allusions to unseen realms, shamanic transformation, subjective
states and alternative modes of cognition. One of the most common
themes is the jaguar transformation. The human / feline motif is
found in South America from the earliest cultures, such as in Caral
(ca. 4,600 B.P.) in Coastal Peru. The idea that shamans are able to
transform into jaguars is widespread even today in the Amazon, as
shown by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975) in his monograph on this subject.
Transformation into other animals, such as serpent, harpy eagle or
whatever animal it would be necessary to acquire certain qualities or
cognitive abilities is also believed to be possible. Therianthropes,
a composite of human and animal, sometimes of several of them, as
well as many other motifs expressing various inner states are thus
common in Amerindian iconography. Therianthropes may be either a
representation of entities acquiring anthropomorphic features in
order to communicate with human counterparts, or an expression of a
subjective perceptional mode in which the human acquires animal
qualities. These images would instantly evoke in Amerindian people
particular cognitive states related to multidimensional, multilayered
cosmologies, spaces in the mind (perhaps the perception of alternate
realities) nowadays mostly forgotten but once visited by the
ancestors of all of us, as may be deduced from numerous examples of
Paleolithic rock art (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998;
Lewis-Williams 2002; Hancock 2005).
Throughout the Americas in the
past and in some places still today shamanism has gone hand in hand
with the use of psychointegrator plants. The best known are peyote
and Psylocibin mushrooms
in Mesoamerica; several species of Brugmansia,
Anadenanthera colubrina and
in South America (also introduced in pre-Columbian times in the
Caribbean); the various San Pedro cactus (Trichocereuspachanoi
and other Trichocereus species) in Andean and Coastal areas of Peru;
+ Psychotria viridis)
+ Diplopterys cabrerana) in the Upper Amazon; and of course tobacco,
sacred in the whole of the Americas. In more restrictive areas, many
other psychotropic plants were or are still used.
Figure 4: Paraphernalia from San Pedro de Atacama. Courtesy C.M.Torres. Click for fullsize image
According to Alicia Fernández
Distel (1980) Anadenanthera
colubrina was already
being used in Inca Cueva, Puna de Jujuy, Argentina around 2100 BC. It
played a central role in the extraordinary Tiwanaku culture, roughly
from 300 to 1000 AD, as evidenced in representations of snuff
paraphernalia in monoliths, and the ubiquity of snuff kits, including
tablets, inhalators, spoons and pouches with powder from seeds of
this plant, conserved in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, an area heavily
influenced by the Tiwanaku culture (Torres & Rebke 2006; see
figures 4-5, courtesy of C. M. Torres).
Figure 5. The Ponce monolith in the Kalasasaya yard of Tiwanaku.
According to Gordon Francis McEwan
(2001:197) prehistoric agricultural groups associated with the
Saladoid tradition (c. 5300-2000 BC) transplanted Anadenanthera
colubrina into the West
Indies from the Orinoco valley, reaching Puerto Rico by 2300-2000 BC.
Several pre-Columbian mortars from the Amazon area probably
associated with the use of cohoba
have been preserved (McEwan 2001). The use of Anadenanthera
peregrina was witnessed
during his second trip (1497-8) to the Americas by Columbus, who had
the Catalonian friar Ramón Pané document its use in the
very first book written in the Americas in a European language.
The oldest evidence of the use of
dates from around 2000-1500 BC in Las Aldas on the north-central
coast of Peru (Fung 1972; Polia Meconi 1996: 289). The San Pedro
cactus played a central role in Chavin culture in the northern Andean
highlands of Peru, as evidenced in figures from the religious and
political center of Chavin de Huántar (900-200 BC, see fig. 6)
as well as from Nazca (100 BC to 700 AD).
Figure 6. Therianthrop with feline characteristics holding a stalk of San Pedro cactus. Circular Plaza of the Old Temple, Chavin de Huántar. Photo M.C. Torres. Click for fullsize image.
The oldest known dates for tobacco
are from the North Coast of Peru, with dates ranging between 2500 and
1800 B.C. (Pearsall, 1992: 178). Coca chewing in northern Peru began at least
6000 B.C. (Dillehay et al. 2010).
Compared to the extraordinary
cultures found in coastal Peru, the Andes and Mesoamerica, until
recently the Pre-Columbian Amazon area was considered to be devoid of
high culture. It is now clear that human beings were living in the
Amazon area at least 12,000 years ago or even longer (Roosevelt
1994). The oldest ceramics in South America, from 5080 BC, were found
in Taperinha, near Santarem, in the Brazilian Amazon area (Roosevelt
et al. 1991). Several agricultural centers have been localized in the
Amazon area, perhaps independent of those where agriculture was
autonomously originated in the Americas (Mesoamerica, the Andes, and
Eastern North America). Archeologists such as Clark L. Erikson,
William L. Balée, Michael Heckenberger, Eduardo Neves, Augusto
Oyuela-Caycedo and others are changing our ideas of the pre-Columbian
Amazon with the discovery of the vast man-made channels, raised
fields, mounds and forest islands connected by earthen causeways in
various parts of the Amazon, and the existence over large areas of
the so-called “terra
preta do indio”
(Amazonian Dark Earths) or man-made soils of the highest quality and
at times two meters deep in areas where natural soils are no more
than a few centimeters, as well as large orchards of
semi-domesticated fruit trees (see for example Woods et al. 2009). In
Acre, Brazil, a large number of geoglyphs, geometric earthworks, have
been localized (Schaan et al.), and a large circle of granite stones
found in Calçoene, near Macapá, in Amapá state,
also in Brazil, dating back to between 700 AD and 1,000 AD suggest a
knowledge of astronomy.
The indications of large sedentary
populations, perhaps in the millions, and levels of civilization much
higher and complex than previously thought, lend credence to the
picture painted in 1542 by Friar Gaspar de Carvajal in his chronicle
of the odyssey of Francisco de Orellana and his men, the first
Europeans to travel down the Amazon River from the Napo River to the
Atlantic Ocean. Friar Gaspar de Carvajal wrote of great “capitanías”,
large human settlements on both sides of the river, and of
extraordinary ceramic work, “the best in the world” even
“better than then of Málaga”.
It is difficult to imagine the
kind of cultures that occupied this vast area, given the cataclysmic
decimation of up to 95% of the population throughout the Americas
following European contact. In 1634 Acuña still talked about
myriads of people living along the rivers and cultivating soils of
great fertility. Nearly one hundred years later Charles-Marie de La
Condamine (1701-1774) reported on his journey into the Amazon, which
started in 1743, that the area was to a great extent empty. The most
probable cause was the diseases brought by the European conquerors.
The material culture of the
inhabitants of the Amazon of today and probably even more so of the
Amazon of the distant past is based on a sophisticated use of plant
material. The inhabitants have proved to possess a great knowledge of
edible, venomous, medicinal and psychoactive plants. Amazonian
Indians discovered the properties of latex from the Hebea
species, the source of rubber: the rubber boom 1850-1914, which was
to become a pillar of the automobile and weapon industry, resulted in
the enslavement of local populations; a similar havoc was also
suffered by the local populations in the Congo Free State, the
personal fiefdom of the ill-famed King Leopold II of Belgium. Quinine
from the bark of Ecuadorian chinchona trees was used until the 1940s
in the treatment of malaria. Plants containing curare have not only
been used for various types of arrow poisons but have also been vital
for the development of the techniques of open heart surgery, radical
brain and cranio-facial surgery as well as organ transplants.
The people of the Amazon live in
one of the areas of the largest biodiversity on the planet. It is
becoming increasingly evident that the biodiversity of the Amazot is
to a great extent the result of the natural resource management of
the pre-Columbian people of the Amazon. Some of this knowledge is
still preserved today by the Cayapó of the Brazilian Amazon,
who demonstrate a great understanding of ecosystems, plant and animal
species association, insect-plant interaction, as well as
sophisticated soil taxonomy (Posey 1984, 1991, Posey et al. 1989).
The Cayapó have been credited with the creation of forest
islands on mostly savanna covered territories, with the recognition
of marginal or open spots within the forest that have
micro-environmental conditions similar to those in the savannah, as
well as with the exchange and spread of useful species between
ecological zones through the transplantation of seeds, cuttings,
tubers and saplings (Posey 1984, 1991, Posey et al. 1989).
To a certain extent the Amazon is
an anthropogenic forest, a gigantic garden partially created by human
beings through millennia of interaction with the natural environment.
The Ayahuasca / Yajé
Complex in the Upper Amazon
The knowledge of the people of
the Amazon of what may be called the pharmacology of consciousness
needs perforce to be placed within the context of such a
sophisticated high culture.
Snuffs made from the seeds of
or from the sap of Virola
theidora, are still
used today to induce altered states of consciousness. Various
indigenous groups of Colombia and some areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon
as well as indigenous groups belonging to several linguistic families
in the upper Amazon still today use the pounded stem of the vine
often in combination with Diplopterys
cabrerana, a vine in
the same genus (Malpighiaceae),
either as a cold infusion or as a decoction called yagé
(also spelled yajé).
In other areas of Ecuador, as well as the Peruvian, Bolivian and
Brazilian Amazon, indigenous groups use the stem of Banisteriopsiscaapi
in combination with the leaves of Psychotriaviridis (Rubiacea),
usually as a decoction, under the Quechua name ayahuasca
(also spelled ayawaska).
There are other vernacular names for both yajé
There is no clear evidence of the
earlier use of either of these plant preparations beyond the
statements by eighteenth century missionaries, who considered the
preparations to be agents of the Devil. However, given the antiquity
of the use of other psychotropic plants, it seems unlikely that yajé
are a relatively recent innovation. It is little more than
speculation to claim that knowing how to prepare yajé
derives from some kind of higher psychopharmacological knowledge of
indigenous Amazonians. But what is beyond speculation is that the
preparation of yajé
requires the mastery of a sophisticated technique.
Diplopterys cabrerana and
contain the alkaloid DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is orally
inactive due to its degradation by the monoamine oxidases (MAO)
present in the human gut and liver. The MAO-inhibitor harmine in
protects the DMT in Diplopterys
from oxidative metabolism, thus allowing the transport of the DMT
through the intestinal wall and liver and making it available for the
central nervous system. The serotonin reuptake inhibitor
tetrahydroharmine in Banisteriopsis
caapi most probably
adds to the overall effect of ayahuasca on consciousness. In addition
to the two main alkaloids harmine and tetrahydroharmine, some
Banisteriopsis caapi contain
active amounts of harmaline.
Yajé and ayahuasca are
still used by numerous indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon for
contacting normally hidden spiritual realms, for hunting, for
learning about the plans of other people, for finding the etiology of
illness or for divination. Yajé or ayahuasca is frequently a
source for their art, expressed in body painting or the decoration of
their material culture. It may be also used for memorizing myths or
tales important to their communities, for reinforcing the social
moral values, especially among the youth, and for getting in touch
with the spirits of other plants to learn about their properties (all
uses are not necessarily present in each and every indigenous group).
The importance of the plants
involved in these preparations is reflected in myths and narratives.
They may have been revealed by beings living in underwater realms
–considered especially powerful- or the offspring of the Sun
after impregnation of a woman through her eyes (Reichel-Dolmatoff
1975, Lagrou 2000, Luna 2011). The plants are considered sacred, with
their collecting and handling often ritualized and their consumption
occurring in special ceremonies, either collective or intimate.
In some areas these and other
plants are considered as teachers, a commonly held idea the author
first encountered while doing fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon among
or practitioners specialized in certain especially powerful plants or
(Luna 1984, 1986), many of whom primarily used ayahuasca
for the diagnosis and treatment of illness as well as for divination.
Another commonly held idea is that by taking ayahuasca
and other sacred plants it is possible to have a clearer mind and
focus, enhanced sensory perception and imagery (and therefore the
possibility of learning more easily), in addition to access to
information not readily available in everyday life. It is commonly
held that the plants strengthen and protect people from illnesses,
including those caused by living agents such as other human beings or
Practitioners often talk about la
ciencia de la ayahuasca,
a concept that describes the ability to find the plants in the
forest, the knowledge of the kind of soil where they grow, their
color and shape, the part of the plants used, as well as the way to
prepare them such as the amount of plant material and water added,
the intensity of the fire, the point of boiling, the moment at which
the pot is taken off the fire, even the thoughts, songs or prayers of
the person who is preparing the brew.
Plant teachers include not only
the plants involved in the preparation of ayahuasca,
but also other plants that are used either as occasional admixture
plants, such as several species of Brugmansia
grandiflora, or are
used by themselves such as Courupita
guianensis that is said
to teach in the dreams, which are not necessarily psychotropic (Luna
1986, Beyer 2009). The subjacent idea is that by ingesting these
plants one gets in touch with their spirits and learns from them,
either directly in the visions that they may produce, or in dreams.
Practitioners claim that it is possible to fine-tune one’s
psyche in a controlled way in order to acquire certain cognitive
abilities to perceive aspects of reality not available in normal
consciousness. The Aguaruna of the Peruvian Amazon, for example,
believe it is not enough simply to know the facts: one must learn how
to bring the body, the intellect and the emotions together into the
epiphany of the visionary experience (Brown 1985). The acquired
knowledge inspires cultural creations such as song, dance, body
painting or narratives or otherwise benefits the individual or group.
In contemporary terms we could say that for the practitioners, the
plants are cognitive tools to enhance their cultural production.
A note on ayahuasca shamanism
and art among the Shipibo of the Ucayali River, Peru
In 1987 I spent a month in Santa
Rosa de Pirococha, a small Shipibo settlement of around 70
inhabitants on the left bank of the Ucayali River approximately
between the cities of Pucallpa and Orellana. The Shipibo are famous
for their elaborated designs - kené
in their language -- with which in earlier times they decorated the
objects of their material culture and their bodies. Nowadays Shipibo
woman still embroider their skirts with elaborate geometrical
patterns. Originality is emphasized so that within their overall
particular style, all the skirts are different (Figure 7). Nowadays
Shipibo women also produce high quality ceramics, which they also
decorate with elaborate geometrical patterns (Figure 8). The Shipibo
seem to see themselves as not only as covered but also as surrounded
by a normally invisible field of colorful tridimensional patterns.
Figure 7. Young Shipibo Women. Santa Rosa de Pirococha 1987.
The Shipibo are locally known for
their shamanic traditions associated with the use of shori,
their vernacular name for ayahuasca.
The reason for my visiting Santa Rosa de Pirococha was to study the
process of “learning from the plants”, which involves a
certain diet and the repetitive ingestion of ayahuasca.
During the one-month stay, I was guided by of Don Basilio Gordon, at
the time a reputed shaman and now deceased.
For one month I followed the prescribed traditional diet consisting
of only manioc, plantains and at times a little fish, and did not
consume any salt, sugar or alcohol. I drank ayahuasca
thirteen times. As I do not know the language, my training basically
consisted of following the melody of the songs while under the effect
of the brew, and accompanying Don Basilio in his trips to the forest
to see various plants.
Figure 8: Shipibo woman decorating a ceramic. Santa Rosa de Pirococha, 1987.
Don Basilio told me that when you
know the songs of a given plant, it is not necessary to use the
physical plant as all their physical properties are embedded in the
song. In this tradition healing is basically done through the songs.
There were always a few mestizo patients attending the ceremonies
during my stay, but no members of the Shipibo community, except
Irineo, a man in his thirties, who often sang along Don Basilio.
At the end of my stay, Don Basilio
told me that he was going to sing a song to protect me when going
back to Pucallpa. When I asked him what he meant, he took one of the
cloths richly embroidered with geometrical patterns. “I am
putting this on you”, he said. This was for me a confirmation
of the work by German anthropologist Angelika Gebhart-Sayer who to my
knowledge was the first person to find a relationship between the
songs sung under the effect of ayahuasca,
Shipibo art, and healing, which involves the restoration of the
beauty and harmony of the invisible patterns surrounding the body of
the patients. She writes:
Under ayahuasca influence, the
shaman perceives, from the spirit world, incomprehensible, often
chaotic, information in the form of luminous designs. He then
"domesticates" this information by converting it into
various aesthetic notions: geometric patterns, melodies/rhythm and
fragrance which play a key psychological and spiritual role for both
the patient and society. Only through this mediating step the awesome
and incomprehensible become an applicable corpus of shamanic
cognition suitable for the mundane village. (Gebhart-Sayer 1986).
Shipibo art is one of the many examples of Amerindian art that point to
another reality, to perhaps the threshold of geometric patterns that often
appear at the onset of the visionary experience with ayahuasca. The current interest of
Westerners in ayahuasca
has provoked an interest in Shipibo textiles and ceramics that has
created a renaissance in Shipibo art, body painting and cultural
already by the
beginning of the 20th
century were adopted by a segment of the mestizo population of the
Western Amazon. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s they gradually gained a
foothold among the urban population of non-Amazonian towns in Brazil,
becoming a part of organized religions. Beginning in the 1980s with
the experimentation of Westerners with ayahuasca and its various
associated traditions, interest in ayahuasca has become an
international phenomenon (cf. Labate & Jungaberle 2011). The
numerous narratives about ayahuasca encounters and other plant
preparations with a similar phytochemistry, i.e., the so-called
ayahuasca analogues (Ott 1994), have made possible comparative
Among the narratives available I
decided to concentrate on the theme of transformation, which we saw
are so common in indigenous accounts and pre-Columbian iconography,
particularly on that of jaguar transformation. Here are two examples
of transformation from an anthology on ayahuasca encounters (Luna &
White 2000). The first, a jaguar transformation experienced during an
ayahuasca session by French anthropologist Dr. Françoise
Barbira-Freedman. The second example is transformation into a water
molecule and witnessing of the photosynthesis process experienced by
American ethnopharmacologist Dr. Dennis McKenna during a ritual of
one of the Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a
shamanism among the Lamista during the early 1980s. She partook in
ceremonies and participated in an apprenticeship process, gradually
penetrating into a worldview that challenged her own ideas about
power and morality. She was being “put right” by her
shaman informants in the sense that she was becoming spiritually and
physically stronger so to better able to cope with the cosmological
realities of that culture. She relates how in one of her experiences
with the brew she came face to face with a large female jaguar
following her. She goes on to relate how other jaguars she saw became
angry when she picked some flowers and how she became transformed
into a jaguar and began to fight:
“A wave of intense
aggressiveness unfurls in my solar plexus. This causes me to vomit,
later than usual after taking Ayahuasca, and the process of 'becoming
jaguar' takes me over irresistibly. I feel it all at once, paws and
claws, spine and tail, nose, whiskers and tail; I see with a jaguar's
eyes, suddenly encompassing a wider field of vision, prick a jaguar's
ears, open my jaws in practice. 'My' jaguar has gone; It dawns on me
that I have become her, am her, yet at the same time I retain the
awareness of her merged with my consciousness. I find it easy to
signal to the other jaguars to go away with mere body language,
arching my back intensely. As I do this, I have a flashback of my cat
standing up to the stray cats of a new neighborhood when we moved
house in Cambridge.
Nothing I ever read about shamanic
animal metamorphoses could have prepared me for the total involvement
of my senses, body, mind in this process. I am fully experiencing it,
I am it, yet at the same time I retain the awareness of who I am,
albeit in jaguar form, partaking with other people clearly dealing
with intense experiences of their own in an Ayahuasca ceremony. The
female jaguar whose form I have entices me to go into the forest
where she will teach me the ways of jaguars. Suddenly I am in a
swampy area near an ox bow lake which is my home and instantly I am
made to understand/feel stalking prey, jumping and killing, ripping,
spreading fear and also feeling fear myself, being lonely and shy and
even cowardly among the other animals there; surprisingly lounging
and relaxing in the water.
It does not surprise me that the
other shaman present, as an eagle, comes to find me and blows gently
on my crown. It is even reassuring, as surprised as I am to know that
this large harpy eagle is him, that as a jaguar I can physically
relate to the being of the eagle, particularly eyes, beak and talons.
I respond to the ritual blowing and feel very calm and at ease in my
jaguar self, keenly sensing my surroundings.” (Barbira-Freedman
Particularly noteworthy are the
This vision engaged my whole self
experientially in a phenomenological approach, which was blatantly at
odds with the empiricist standpoint I intellectually favoured. There
was no longer any other possible standpoint for me as an
anthropologist than that of the shamanic rainbow, forever bridging
between incommensurable perceptions and perspectives within highlands
and lowlands, earth and sky, earth and water, from a constantly
changing in-between.” (p.117).
The full text merits a close
Dennis McKenna was one of the
invited guests at the first scientific conference organized by the
Uniâo do Vegetal (UDV) in Brazil. The UDV (Uniâo do
Vegetal), created in Porto Velho in 1968 by José Gabriel da
Costa (1922 -1971), is the youngest of the Brazilian religious
organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, to which they give
the name of vegetal.
The UDV conceives the brew as having two basic components: “força”
(force) and luz” (light).
At the end of the conference a
ritual was held involving the consumption of the sacrament. After a
second cup McKenna found himself changed into a disembodied point of
view, suspended in space, thousands of miles over the Amazon basin”
seeing a World Tree in the form of an enormous Banisteriopsis vine,
“the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and
covered the earth, that together the community of the plant species
that existed on the earth provided the nurturing energy that made
life on earth possible.”
that photosynthesis was the “force” the UDV were talking
about, “indeed the force on which all life depends”. He
“I found myself “instantly
transported from my bodiless perch in space to the lightless depths
beneath the surface of the earth. I had somehow become a sentient
water molecule, percolating randomly through the soil, lost amid the
tangle of the enormous root fibers of the Banisteriopsis
World Tree.” (McKenna 2000:154-7).
McKenna continues with an
extraordinary, detailed narrative about his journey through the roots
and vascular system of the vine, his arrival at the surface of a leaf
and how as a water molecule he not only witnessed but also
participated in the process of photosynthesis.
Accounts by educated Westerners
such the French medical anthropologist Dr. Françoise
Barbira-Freedman and the American ethno-pharmacologist Dr. Dennis
McKenna echo ideas found in Pre-Columbian art and in indigenous
narratives. They point to a new alter-ego, to an alternative
epistemology: the gaining of knowledge through a radical
self-transformation, by taking an alternative -- non human -- point
of view, by cognitively merging with the focus of one’s
The techniques for achieving such
cognitive states are culture-specific. Like the mastery of any other
technique, they require a special form of training. However, the
various techniques have a biological dimension that is common to all
human beings. The first steps in the scientific study of this
biological dimension have already been taken in what amounts to an
immense field of future research. Hopefully the development of some
of the new theories of human consciousness will take into account
tools that traditional societies have used for thousands of years.
An example of one such new theory
of human consciousness is Ede Frecska’s theory of the dual
complementary methods of knowledge acquisition (Frecska 2008). The
author proposes that the duality and complementarity in the physical
universe where there are particles and waves, mass and energy, local
effects and non-local connections is also found in a duality and a
complementarity in knowledge acquisition. Frecska posits the
existence two sources of knowledge: perceptual-cognitive and
direct-intuitive, with the former having fewer problems than the
latter with replicability. Perceptual-cognitive knowledge is
electrochemical (based on local effects), operates via neuroaxonal
networks, is linguistic albeit not necessarily verbal, and relies on
a modeling with a subject-object division. It peaks in Western
scientific thinking. Direct-intuitive knowledge is quantum-physical
(based on nonlocal connections), operates via sub-neural networks, it
is ineffable and relies on direct experience with no subject-object
division. It is the source of contemplative traditions.
Winkelman, on the other hand,
suggests evolutionary mechanisms by which early primates would be
able to metabolize substances toxic for other organisms found in the
natural environment, and which may have contributed to human
Clearly, psychointegrator agents
do not simply disrupt normal perception. It seems that through them,
by mysterious ways of mind exploration not yet understood, it is
indeed possible to access valid information not readily available by
ordinary means. Psychointegrator agents offer complex, often
beautiful, coherent and useful experiences not normally accessible,
to which some traditional societies assign great value. To dismiss
such experiences as aberrations of the mind under the effect of
drugs, which is the ordinary accepted discourse, is quite biased.
Unbiased attention needs to be given to such phenomena. As William
James pointed out, no
account of the universe in its totality can be final, which leaves
these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded
The religious use of peyote by
Native Americans in the United States, and ayahuasca among the
general population in Brazil and a few other countries, has been
accepted. This is of course a great step forward. However this is
still too short. Ferguson (2011) points out that one of the reasons
for the scientific superiority of Western Europe over the Ottoman
Empire in the sixteenth century was the unlimited sovereignty
religion in the Muslim world: in 1515 a decree of Sultan Selim I had
threatened with death anyone found using the printing press. To allow
the religious use of ayahuasca but to prohibit it as a tool for
scientific and personal exploration would be a similar mistake.
Science explores today the vast riches of outer space, as well as the
minute yet immense realms of subatomic particles. We explore the
depth of the oceans and the forests, high mountains and deserts. Yet
the exploration of consciousness is still a forbidden realm, vastly
explored by shamanic societies yet neglected in contemporary science
due to a great extent to religious preconceptions carried throughout
Amerindian art, largely inspired
by altered states of consciousness, has perhaps a message for us. It
expresses forms of cognition neglected by most, but still accessible
to all of us as humans. The ontological reality of the worlds
perceived through psychointegrator agents in the final analysis
depends on the perceiver’s worldview. Many traditional
societies would not doubt the existence of parallel and
multidimensional worlds. With the exception of contemporary theories
in physics and cosmology, modern thinking does not admit the
existence of parallel and multidimensional universes. Short of direct
experimental verification, orthodox scientific thinking treats talk
of parallel and multidimensional universes as fiction if not as the
projections of a deranged mind. This is not usually corroborated by
those who have immersed themselves deeply in the study or
experimentation of integrative states of consciousness.
As a researcher I often ponder
about the reality of the worlds I perceive through ayahuasca. A
recent study on visual perception using functional MRI concludes that
practically indistinguishable neural activity was observed in the
primary visual cortex when having visions under the effects of
ayahuasca than during normal perception. According to the authors
this means that visions have a real, neurological basis; they are not
made up or imagined (Araújo et al. 2011). Certainly this
somehow explain why these alien perceptions often seem to have
subjectively the qualities of reality, at times even more so than
normal reality. Interaction with normally invisible beings,
visitation of apparently coherent –at least subjectively- other
worlds are commonly reported by educated individuals. The fact is
that, whether we want it or not, these other dimensions -whatever
their ontological reality- constantly emerge in our daily life,
either through the stories we tell our children -we all lived once in
those forested and magical worlds-, in the arts everywhere, in some
of the religions we create, and certainly in our dreams. These other
worlds and beings greatly enrich our existence. Without them, as
without our remaining forests and their animals, the world would be a
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Consider the following paragraph from the 1583 Decree of the Church
Council of Lima, Declaring the Quipus to be the Work of the Devil:
“Consider prohibited in full books that deal directly with, or
recount, or teach lascivious or unchaste things, for one must keep
in mind that which undermines the faith but also that which
undermines good behavior -which reading such books usually does.
And so those who have such books shall be rigorously punished by the
bishops. However, ancient books in Latin, written by non-Christians,
shall be permitted, because of the elegance and propriety of the
Latin language, provided that these lascivious books, even if they
are in Latin, not be read to young boys. And because in lieu of
books the Indians have used, and some continue to use, registers
made of different threads, that they call quipus, and with these
they preserve the memory of their old superstitions, rites,
ceremonies, and perverse customs, the bishops should diligently try
to take away from the Indians completely all the records or quipus
that facilitate their superstition.” (Organización
de la Iglesia y órdenes religiosas en el virreinato del Perú
en el siglo xvi: Documentos del Archivo de Indians. Ed. Roberto
Levillier, vol. 2 (Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1919), pp.
213-214. This selection was translated by Cheryl E. Martin. [back to text]
In Mann’s view (2011) it was the 1492 collision of two Old
Worlds that resulted in a New World. [back to text]
Plato in his unfinished dialogue Critias wrote a moving account of
the damage done in his time: “What now remains compared with
what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat
and soft earth having wasted away… Mountains which now have
nothing but food for bees… had trees not very long ago. [The
land] was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as
now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was
deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy
earth… feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now
only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once
flowed.” (Quoted by Wright (2004:87-8). [back to text]
It is estimated that the amount of pristine forest in Western Europe
is just 2-3%. In the European part of Russia 5-10% of the forests
can be classified as pristine or near-pristine natural forests. (http://www.saveamericasforests.org/europages/history&geography.htm). Deforestation in the
Amazon area is well known. Less so is the near total loss of
Brazilian Atlantic Coastal Forest, one of the areas of richest
biodiversity and high endemism in the world –even more so than
most of the Amazon area-, of which only around 7% remain of a
million square kilometers of forest due to urbanization, agriculture
and cattle ranching (Thomas 2008) [back to text]
(Fray Ramón Pané; Translated by Susan C. Giswold
(1999). José Juan Arrom. ed. An Account of the Antiquities
of the Indians. Durham, NC ; London: Duke Univ. Press. A
New Edition, with an Introductory Study, Notes, & Appendixes by
José Juan Arrom". [back to text]