Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff is widely considered to be the father of Colombian anthropology. He devoted almost six decades of his life to researching various Indigenous groups throughout the country, including the Guahibo, Kogi, Muisca, Kuna, and Tukano. He studied and documented their beliefs and customs and is famous in the psychedelic underground for highlighting the traditional use of the shamanic brew yagé or ayahuasca. Aside from cultural anthropology, he made significant archaeological discoveries, helping shape the well-rounded body of knowledge about both ancient and more recent indigenous life in Colombia that we have available today.
His work on ayahuasca and psychedelic shamanism in the Amazon rainforest has gifted readers around the world with a treasure of information. But before looking at his profound work on the traditional use of ayahuasca, it’s important to know about the difficult and traumatic life he had growing up in Europe.
Reichel-Dolmatoff’s Pre-Colombian Life
Reichel-Dolmatoff was born on March 6th, 1912 in Salzburg, Austria. As a descendant of Russian aristocrats and Austrian savants and artists, his high school education was rooted in the study of Latin and Greek. He followed this classical orientation and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. At the young age of 14, Reichel-Dolmatoff entered a dark decade of his life, possibly not by his own choice. He was a member of the Hitler Youth, then the Nazi party and the SS (its paramilitary organization), took part in the infamous “Night of Long Knives” in 1934, and served as a guard in the notorious Dachau concentration camp in 1935.
In 1936, this chapter came to an abrupt end, following his hospitalization due to a mental breakdown. He got dismissed from the SS and relocated to France, eventually continuing his education at the country’s most prestigious university, the Sorbonne in Paris. During this time, he became actively involved with the Nazi resistance movement, which he continued even after he emigrated to Colombia, as the Secretary to the Free France movement. He was awarded a national award by the President of France for his resistance work. His prior involvement with the Nazis remained a point of regret throughout his life, a period which he tried to keep hidden. Ideations from this troubling time cannot be seen in any of his writing.
Home Away From Home
Reichel-Dolmatoff fled Europe in 1939, just at the cusp of WWII. Following advice given by the French political scientist Andre Siegfried, he went to Colombia, where he found work in paleontology with petroleum companies in Bogotá. He also got involved with French ethnologist Paul Rivet, who was in exile in Colombia. Rivet was the founder of the National Institute of Ethnology and the local representative of the Free France movement. The two worked for the liberation of France, and conducted anthropological and archaeological research in parallel. Reichel-Dolmatoff became a Colombian citizen in 1942, and, after marrying Alicia Dussan Maldonado (also an ethnologist), it was clear that he had made Colombia his new home.
Rivet had a strong interest in fieldwork, and he would send Reichel-Dolmatoff on missions throughout the country; from the Llanos Orientales savannas, through the Guajira desert, to the tropical forests of Choco and the jungles of the Amazon basin. Reichel-Dolmatoff’s research was thorough and expansive, and it massively contributed to the world’s idea of the thus far unknown historical framework of Colombia. He basically put Colombia on the proverbial anthropological map.
On Tukanoan Shamanism and Ayahuasca Use
Deyόri turi represents the ordinary state of consciousness, the visible or ‘transparent’ world.
Some of Reichel-Dolmatoff’s most notable work draws on the time he spent with the Tukano indigenous community along the river Vaupés. He studied Tukanoan beliefs and rituals, including their complex cosmological interpretations, elaborate system of symbols, sexuality, and various communal customs including art creation, initiation, shamanism, and the use of yagé or ayahuasca. He documented his findings extensively in numerous books, the most well-known of which is Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (1971).
According to Tukano lore, as Reichel-Dolmatoff recorded in this book, reality is consisted of two realms: deyόri turi and deyόbiri turi. The former represents the ordinary state of consciousness, the visible or ‘transparent’ world. The latter denotes the ‘invisible’ world, an alternate cosmic plane, “another dimension of existence and cognition”. He described yagé as: “the shaman’s main potion, or psychic technology […] a broad collection of plant-based psychoactive admixtures that act as spirit-Gods, conscious altering tools, medicines and powerful pharmacological agents that can inspire medicinal and spiritual qualities from a cornucopia of plants.”
The sacred duty of the shaman, then, is to use yagé in order to cross over from deyόri turi to deyόbiri turi. This passage is regarded as a dissolution into transcendence or the rupturing of a cosmic placenta and subsequent rebirth in an alternate reality. Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote that, for the Tukano, “the purpose of taking yagé is to return to the uterus, to the fons et origo of all things, where the individual ‘sees’ the tribal divinities, the creation of the universe and humanity, the first human couple, the creation of the animals, and the establishment of the social order”. In this state, the shaman can “make contact with supernatural forces, including spirits, for gaining esoteric knowledge to assist in the benefit of society”.
Reichel-Dolmatoff also extensively recorded the initiation and training of neophyte shamans. Around the age of twenty-five, the Tukano initiates begin their training after a long period of observing the work of elder shamans. The training itself consists of months or years of isolation in a remote forest with other initiates, on bare living and ritual essentials. During the training, they will consume small amounts of food, mainly simple broths and manioc starch.
The purpose of all the restrictions is to bring the initiates to a state of bare existence, and cause a kind of psychic death.
This causes significant lack of energy, which is considered a suitable, defenseless state in which psychoactive plants they consume can take full effect. “Long nights chanting, dancing, reciting myth, and drinking various types of yajé, along with sleep and food deprivation, and social and sexual abstinence are all examples of rigorous processes that characterize the initiation period”. The purpose of all the restrictions is to bring the initiates to a state of bare existence, and cause a kind of psychic death. This opens up the door to rebirth into shamanic realms of ancestors, creator beings, and masters of animal and plant spirits.
After a few months of this exhausting regimen, the future shamans are also subjected to poetry and symbolism lessons, which are meant to help them unravel and understand the dynamic flows of life and the ‘invisible’ realm. The elders help their trainees navigate a web of symbols with which they can express and encapsulate their process of transformation. Ultimately, these skills will serve to support the shamans’ healing work during yagé ceremonies.
About the ceremonies themselves, Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote that they take place “in an enriched environment; after a period of sensory deprivation the participants are gradually introduced to music, colours, changing lights, which furnish a specific environment for each category of ritual.”
Through his personal experience, he portrayed the stages of a yajé journey:
The first stage is characterized by the appearance of small star shaped or flower shaped elements which flicker and float brilliantly against a dark background, in repetitive kaleidoscope patterns. There is a marked bilateral symmetry to these luminous perceptions which sometimes appear as clusters of fruits or feathery leaves. Grid patterns, zigzag lines and undulating lines alternate with eye shaped motifs, many concentric circles or endless chains of brilliant dots …. The person watches passively these innumerable scintillating patterns. After a while the symmetry and the overall geometrical aspect of these perceptions disappears and the second stage sets in.
Now figurative, pictorial images take shape; large blots of colour will be seen moving like thunderclouds and from them will emerge diffuse shapes looking like people or animals or unknown creatures. The Indians interpret these images as mythological … which to them bear witness to the essential truth of their religious beliefs.
In a third stage, all these images disappear. There will be soft music and wandering clouds, a state of blissful serenity.”
(The Cultural Context of an Aboriginal Hallucinogen Banisteriopsis Caapi [from Flesh of the Gods 1972])
In his descriptions of the use of yajé by the Tukano, Reichel-Dolmatoff found it to be inextricably linked with birth and sexuality. He recorded that “for the Indian the hallucinatory experience is essentially a sexual one. To make it sublime, to pass from the erotic, the sensual, to a mystical union with the mythic era, the intrauterine state, is the ultimate goal … coveted by all.” According to Tukano belief, the origin of B. caapi coincides with the origin of humans themselves. The myth says that the vine was birthed by the First Woman, in the form of a boy radiating golden light. She rubbed this luminous boy with leaves, and the men cut off pieces of him, which became the ancestral strains of B. caapi. Tukano lore is rife with imagery of raw human processes as symbols of sophisticated spiritual experiences.
Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote some 40 books and over 400 academic articles, singlehandedly pioneering and advancing the Colombian anthropological and archaeological scenes. His contributions brought out into the open the wealth of knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples of the Colombia, highlighting their relevance to the Western world. They also brought us a vast understanding of their use of ayahuasca as a healing and divinatory agent and how it fits into their culture on the whole.
He was a renowned and internationally welcomed academic figure with numerous honorary fellowships and awards confirming his merit. Along with his wife, Reichel-Dolmatoff created the first Department of Anthropology in Colombia at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He was a visiting professor at many eminent institutions worldwide, including the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, Cambridge University in the UK, and University of California in LA. He was a member of the Colombian Academy of Sciences, a Foreign Associate Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, and a member of the Academia Real Española de Ciencias. He was also a founding member of the Instituto Ethnologico Nacional del Magdalena and the Third World Academy of Sciences. For his vast accomplishments, he was awarded the Thomas H. Huxley medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1975.
The tireless intellectual and researcher remained active until his final days and completed a book on Amazonian trees and an academic lecture just days before his death. He passed away peacefully on May 17th, 1994, in Bogotá.