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.
Previous article by Luis:
- Ayahuasca and the concept of reality. Ethnographic, theoretical, and experiential considerations. by Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., F.L.S., 24 April 2011
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 shamanism. 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 annihilation.
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 1992).
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 houses, palaces, fortresses, 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 other techniques.
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 emotional growth.
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
The 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 symbols.
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 subjective selves.
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 (Lophophora williamsi) and Psylocibin mushrooms in Mesoamerica; several species of Brugmansia, Anadenanthera colubrina and Anadenanthera peregrina in South America (also introduced in pre-Columbian times in the Caribbean); the various San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi and other Trichocereus species) in Andean and Coastal areas of Peru; ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis) and yajé (Banisteriopsis caapi + 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.
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 or yopo 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 Thricocereus pachanoi 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 Anadenanthera peregrina 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 Banisteriopsis caapi, 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 Banisteriopsis caapi in combination with the leaves of Psychotria viridis (Rubiacea), usually as a decoction, under the Quechua name ayahuasca (also spelled ayawaska). There are other vernacular names for both yajé and ayahuasca.
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 or ayahuasca are a relatively recent innovation. It is little more than speculation to claim that knowing how to prepare yajé or ayahuasca derives from some kind of higher psychopharmacological knowledge of indigenous Amazonians. But what is beyond speculation is that the preparation of yajé or ayahuasca requires the mastery of a sophisticated technique.
Diplopterys cabrerana and Psychotria viridis 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 Banisteriopsis caapi protects the DMT in Diplopterys cabrerana and Psychotria viridis 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 varieties of 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 mestizo vegetalistas or practitioners specialized in certain especially powerful plants or vegetales (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 spirits.
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 and Brunfelsia 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 identity.
Ayahuasca transformation narratives
Yajé and especially ayahuasca 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 studies.
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 sacrament.
Barbira-Freedman studied 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 2000:115).
Particularly noteworthy are the author’s comments:
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 reading.
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.”
McKenna “understood” that photosynthesis was the “force” the UDV were talking about, “indeed the force on which all life depends”. He relates:
“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 attention.
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 evolution.
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 (James 1929:379).
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 centuries.
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 duller place.
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Please see Luis’s interview with Sonia Doubell, now up on the GrahamHancockDotCom YouTube channel:
See also Luis’s film, Don Emilio & His Little Doctors (1982)
- A remarkable exception would be the influence of Iroquois Confederacy ideas on the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States (see http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/hconres331.pdf). [back to text]
- 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]