When using the word ayahuasca, we generally mean the well-known decoction of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub Psychotria viridis, but in the Peruvian Amazon the term “ayahuasca” is also commonly used to refer to just the vine. A diluted preparation of this single ingredient is regularly used among various indigenous groups in Peru, including the Awajún where it is consumed as a rite of passage aimed at turning children into adults.

Drinking only the ayahuasca vine is not popular amongst tourists or travelers embarking upon shamanic healing in Amazonia today. It’s very rare for an ayahuasca retreat to provide ceremonies that serve only the boiled vine and not also the spectacular visionary alkaloid DMT. At the same time, the use of the ayahuasca vine alone has been poorly described within the scientific community. Some researchers suggest the only or main reason for boiling and consuming the ayahuasca vine is to suspend a gut enzyme and activate the visionary “light” of the DMT.  

While DMT is certainly a marvelous thing, we are wrong in suggesting the ayahuasca brew is simply a liquid form of this wonderful alkaloid. Thinking against this simplistic view of ayahuasca, some pioneering ethnopharmacologist are reconsidering the varied potentials of the ayahuasca vine in medicine and consciousness. For instance, Dennis Mckenna was the first to suggest that β-Carbolines, alkaloids contained in B. caapi, are monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors that allow DMT to enter the blood. Now, however, he also recognizes that β-Carbolines have some very interesting properties on their own and their chemistry and pharmacology may be a new research frontier that will attract more attention in the future.

Some people… may be able to experience stronger effects with the intake of the vine-only brew.

Traditional cultures in the Amazonian rainforest have virtually always highlighted the dominant role or spirit of the vine compared to other ingredients of the ayahuasca brew, and I hope we are now ready to move, at least to some degree, beyond the “Hollywood” special-effects of DMT and receive further lessons on the medicinal properties of the master plant, the ayahuasca vine. A recent field trip to the remote town of Santa María de Nieva located in Awajún territory allowed me to learn from indigenous masters more about the importance of drinking B. caapi, including as a tool to “look for visions” and to learn about one’s future and vocation in life.

At Takiwasi, a center for drug addiction treatment located in the city of Tarapoto, a boiled decoction of only B. caapi is administered in the so-called “purgahuasca” ceremonies. The ceremonies are becoming increasingly frequent because both therapists and patients consider the decoction to be safe and effective for therapeutic purposes. The combination of the cathartic and purgative effects, the ritual context, and the psychological insights triggered by a modified state of consciousness is considered to have a high healing potential.

Notes on Traditional Awajún Medicine

The Awajún represent the second largest Amazonian ethnic group in Peru after the Ashaninka and they are settled mainly in the area of Amazonas, next to the border with Ecuador. Being located in such a remote area of the country and being difficult to access has allowed the Awajún to limit contact with Western society and thus preserve their language and traditions, including the use of psychoactive plants such as the ayahuasca vine, which features prominently in their medical system.

In Awajún culture four main psychotropic plants are highly venerated for their medicinal properties. These are:

  • Tobacco or Tsaág (Nicotiana rustica), widely consumed in liquid form;
  • Ayahuasca or Datem (Banisteriopsis caapi);
  • Toé, also known as Baikúa or Tsúwak (Brugmansia suaveolens);
  • Yaji (Diplopterys cabrerana), which is the most common admixture used by the Awajún in the preparation of the ayahuasca brew.

The iwishin shaman can detect the disease attached to his patient and its cause, and is able to extract it by sucking it with his tséntsak or “magic darts”. For that, he drinks the ayahuasca brew, made by the combination of datem and yaji, while his patient remains sober.

aya vine and leaves
Banisteriopsis caapi – the ayahuasca vine.

The tsuwájatin is another type of herbalist doctor who doesn’t drink the ayahuasca brew; instead, he administers purgahuasca to the patient, the non-concentrated decoction of the ayahuasca vine alone. In this case the intake is mainly intended for the patient to get in touch with the superior being called Ajútap.

In fact, through the consumption of ayahuasca, tobacco, and toé, natives aim at obtaining visions that will ensure them a long and prosperous life as well as victory over their enemies. Traditionally, psychedelic plants helped Awajún men to do their job as hunters and warriors, and helped Awajún women in agriculture and to take care of the medicinal plants in their gardens. The intake of these sacred plants was usually performed in a ceremonial house or near a waterfall, a place considered sacred in Awajún culture. Most men started taking tobacco, ayahuasca, and toé in their childhood. In particular, ayahuasca helped them to be stronger, healthier, and immune to fatigue.

According to Awajún cosmovision, there are two types of disease which are known and distinguished by what causes them: diseases of natural origin (játa), for instance, that can be caused by an accident or trauma, and diseases of supernatural origin (jínamu), which are grouped under the generic term of daño (damage) and are caused by the manipulation of the supernatural world by evil sorcery. In traditional Awajún medicine, two types of brujos (shamans) are known: those who cause diseases (wáwek or tunchi) and those who cure diseases (iwishin). Psychoactive plants, such as the ayahuasca vine, play an important role in this cosmovision.

Drinking Banisteriopsis caapi (the Ayahuasca Vine) as an Initiation Ritual

Rites of passage are common among indigenous cultures especially when adolescence is reached. In the case of the Awajún culture, I was able to observe that these rites are usually led by the father or some family member, demand both physical and spiritual preparation, and can last from one night to several days, at the end of which the young boy is considered an adult.

Among the Awajún, the ayahuasca vine B. caapi prepared alone is consumed in a collective ritual that both men and women face as part of their initiation into adult life, starting at 10 years of age. During the ritual, the shaman calls for the spirits to help the teenager find their vision and purpose in life. The contact with the world of spirits through this ceremony is intended as a means to obtain answers concerning personal and community life, while the concomitant purification by purging is considered highly healing and shared with other indigenous peoples of South America.

All Awajún that I met during this field trip emphasized the importance of this ritual to define the vocation and vision for the future life of young boys and girls. One of them even told me that in his village, its customary to give purgahuasca in minimal doses also to infants and children, so that they can get used to this medicine. The importance of taking purgahuasca as a ritual that marks the passage from childhood to adulthood is also testified by several cases of mental disorders of cultural origin experienced by natives living in big cities that seems to be the consequence of losing contact with their cultural roots, including the possibility of participating in purgahuasca rituals.

The Potential of B. caapi Alkaloids in Modern Therapy

Among the academic domain the discussion is open on the development of new drugs from the β-Carboline alkaloids, which are also contained in the ayahuasca vine B. caapi. Although the classical explanation on the role of this plant in the ayahuasca brew has been linked to the monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitory activity (the visionary activity historically associated with DMT alkaloid extracted from other plant sources), the renewed interest about a broader role and potential of β-Carbolines in mental health research has led to the publication of many papers.

These alkaloids that are rich in the ayahuasca vine are considered promising tools for the treatment of depressive disorders. They show sedative, anti-depressant, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), hypnotic, and anticonvulsant activities, as well as beneficial effects against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This recent scientific research indicates how the ayahuasca vine is much more than simply a way to get the mind-blowing DMT into the bloodstream and it corroborates the many indigenous perspectives on the medical importance of the vine itself.

Purgahuasca Preparation

Scientific and popular literature does not yet take into account the distinction of various ayahuasca vines depending on the different morphological characters of the plant, although this aspect is relevant for many traditional cultures. In my experience I could observe that Takiwasi staff in charge of plant preparations also consider the distinction of ayahuasca vines according to their color, and this is taken into account for the preparation of the specific medicines, including ayahuasca brews or purgahuasca.

In general, the preparation of traditional Amazonian herbal medicines follows a series of practices that are usually considered by scientists as rituals, magic, or popular beliefs; these include chanting ikaros (healing songs) and avoiding perfumes, alcohol, or sexual intercourse for few days before starting the herbal preparation, among others. All these procedures are part of the preparation methods, therefore ethnopharmaceutical practices; they are traditionally considered relevant to obtain good quality medicines that are also safe and effective, and are followed at Takiwasi and many international retreat centers in Amazonia.

Purgahuasca Effects

After trying my first purgahuasca, which involved drinking only the ayahuasca vine-only brew made from B. caapi in a large dose, I remember saying to myself that I never had such a strong trip with any other sort of psychoactive drug. I was not able to stand up and walk alone to the toilet for example, and this never happened to me before, even if I have a decent background as a “psychonaut” or explorer of psychoactive substances. My soul was also moved and I could reach deep states of mindfulness that night. Purgahuasca for me is always a very demanding experience, but at the same time one of my favorite ones.

traditional ayahuasca iowaska ceremony
Purgahuasca may give weaker visions, but this can allow the drinker more profound self-insight.

At Takiwasi, the purgahuasca ceremony lasts around 3 hours, is accompanied by ikaros, the blowing of tobacco smoke, and other energetic procedures performed by the healer on the body of the patients, according to their needs and reaction to the plant medicine. Purgahuasca has a powerful emetic effect, but also induces visions; the latter is interesting considering that purgahuasca is a vine-only brew, prepared without any DMT additives. It provokes a state of dizziness, usually controlled and with awareness, known as mareación, as well as physical discomfort, shivering, sweating, sensation of heat, vomiting, and, occasionally, diarrhea.

At the psychological/emotional level, it is frequent to see patients connecting with emotions of sadness or grief and therefore crying. In other cases, they may express their anger, even physically, but still in a controlled way. In general, feelings and emotions that the patient has previously hidden or repressed can emerge. Spiritual experiences may eventually arise afterwards, expressed in dreams or insights when patients are resting, and these have to do especially with a reconnecting to the sacred dimension of life. In the days after the session, patients are more lucid, have clearer thoughts and ideas, and are more motivated to complete their treatment.

According to Takiwasi’s staff, some people who may encounter blockages in their process with classic ayahuasca brew ceremonies, and do not receive much significant information or insights from it, may be able to experience stronger effects with the intake of purgahuasca, which some of them refer to as the best experience they have had at the level of understandings and information received that are useful for their personal healing.

Learning directly from the Awajún community about the importance of the vine without any other additive, and about its uses at very low doses as early as infancy was quite astonishing for me. Especially the latter practice would horrify any Western-style safety manager; although the very same person would allow his or her child to play in front of a high-tech screen, and I really don’t know what is more poisoning! At least, there is a long-standing use for the Awajún tradition and this should be enough to guarantee greater safety. This experience showed me once more the enormous potential of learning from traditional cultures.

Recently, I have started to question the actual relevance for a typical westerner to take DMT. We are overwhelmed by colorful images in our daily life, and plenty of screens screaming hallucinatory advertisements or spectacular promises. What is missing is the ability to dive into the silence of our inner life and rest.

Purgahuasca is a deep and often dramatic experience that can help to balance the lightness of the kaleidoscopic effects induced by classical psychedelics, and hopefully help us to move toward a more lasting equilibrium in our mind. This could not only reduce the constant need for visions that is evident in most shamanic tourists, but could also help us to sit down and listen to a new lesson coming from Amazonian wisdom traditions.

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Header art by Danny Stanley Insta @avongarde

Matteo Politi, PhD