People from Western societies have a habit of treating indigenous people like “living museum objects” that are unchanged by history. Perceptions of shamans of the Amazon who drink the powerful brew ayahuasca are a good example of this.

While the origins of ayahuasca drinking are not clear to archaeologists, and some researchers suggest its wide use among indigenous people is very recent, many Western ayahuasca drinkers passionately believe the brew has been used for thousands of years.

If there is no evidence for this, why do so many people suggest it is true? What is so difficult in thinking, “We are actually not exactly sure how far back in time it goes”. One reason is that the believers have seen this ancient history in their personal ayahuasca visions. This may be true, but its difficult to take it as a fact given the universe of contradictory reports that are woven from personal ayahuasca visions. In parallel, there are many different indigenous narratives about how ayahuasca emerged at the beginning of time. They include alien visitors coming from the sun, animal allies that transformed into plants, and deceased human souls that fertilized the first soil that grew ayahuasca.

There is another less epic reason about why we might want to believe that ayahuasca has been used since ancient times. Like with a good aged wine, time provides an aura of depth, authenticity and legitimacy, and this is something ayahuasca drinkers have struggle to receive from the many societies that have wrongly criminalized, pathologized or demonized the brew.

Before we unpack this further, first we need to get straight on the anthropological research. Ayahuasca use might, in fact, be thousands of years old. But there is no conclusive evidence of ayahuasca being consumed beyond a few hundred years ago. There is evidence that ayahuasca was probably first used among Tukanoan speaking groups of the Upper Western Amazon. This appears when looking at historical records, linguistic dispersal, and the botanical diversity of ayahuasca cultivated in the region.

Anthropologist Bernd Brabec de Mori suggests it’s unlikely that ayahuasca drinking is thousands of years old. He notes that archeologists have recorded vast ancient trade networks connecting tribes of the Tukano region to other parts of the Amazon. Yet, there is no evidence of ancient ayahuasca trade.

It may be difficult to find records of ancient ayahuasca drinking because the rainforest climate does a good job of destroying or devouring things. We may never know if ayahuasca was used in ancient times. But there is evidence of DMT-containing snuff preparations being used back as far as 900BC, and DMT is the key psychedelic element in most ayahuasca brews.

DMT snuff DMT snuff

Researcher Steve Beyer describes how “artwork at Chavín de Huantar that shows figures with wide-open eyes and streams of mucus running from their nostrils is presumably a result of snuffing; some of these heads appear to be half human and half feline or half bird, perhaps depicting a form of shamanic transformation. Elaborately carved mortars, presumably used to grind Anadenanthera beans, have been uncovered, as well as bone tubes, decorated spoons, and elaborately carved snuff trays.”

So, there is lots of evidence of what appears to be DMT used in ancient times, but not ayahuasca. Various anthropologists have argued that ayahuasca drinking probably spread among indigenous people over the last 200 years through the notorious rubber tapping industries. Bernd Brabec de Mori mapped the language of ayahuasca magical songs, or “icaros”, across parts of the Amazon. He found many of the lyrics and words about ayahuasca could be linked to indigenous migrations of the last few hundred years.

One of the first Westerners to drink ayahuasca and write about it was the Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio. In the text Geografía de la República del Ecuador (1858) he explained:

Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken; they feel vertigo and spinning in the head, then a sensation of being lifted into the air and beginning an aerial journey; the possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge: the savages (apparently the Zaparo of eastern Ecuador) say that they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear, and other beautiful things relating to their savage life. When this instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors out to devour them, their first flight ceases and they descend to earth to combat the terrors who communicate to them all adversities and misfortunes awaiting them.

Recent anthropological research shows that ayahuasca shamanism is part of different cultural traditions across the Amazon Rainforest. In this short video, anthropologist Daniela Peluso explains how these traditions vary in important ways:

Kahpi teacher and anthropologist, Glenn Shepard, notes how some indigenous groups seem to have been using the ayahuasca vine long before learning to add the DMT-containing leaves from the chacruna plant (psychotria viridis). While the chacruna plant is responsible for the profound psychedelic effects of ayahuasca, science is showing that the ayahuasca vine appears to have special therapeutic properties of its own. It has been shown to grow new brain cells and to have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. The vine also potentiates the effects of many other molecules, such as DMT, when taken in combination by allowing them to enter the bloodstream in higher doses than usual. This series of effects may help explain why ayahuasca has been such a central helping-spirit in Amazonian shamanism.

-Psychotria viridis (chacruna) and Banisteripsis caapi (ayahuasca). Photo: Ben De Loenen
Ayahuasca shaman
-Amazonian shamans from the Matsigenka, Nahua & Huachipaeri. Photo: Glenn H. Shepard.

If the use of the typical ayahuasca brew is in fact relatively recent among many indigenous people, a few hundred years of indigenous ayahuasca drinking is still a long time if we consider how young the psychedelic movement is in modern Western societies. Also, it’s important to remember that other psychedelic plants were used among ancient societies in the Amazon Rainforest and among other ancient civilizations across the whole globe.

While the West seemed to deny or push underground psychedelic plant use during at least the last few hundred years, indigenous Amazonian cultures appears to have been openly cultivating the shamanic arts for thousands of years. As Kahpi teacher Dr. Des Tramacchi discusses in this introductory video, ancient Greek culture seems to have more in common with Amazonian shamanism than many people would imagine:

The history of ayahuasca during the last 150 years is a complex and fascinating story that involves shamanic specialists and visions, rubber tapping barons from Europe, African Umbanda spiritual traditions, and anthropologists and scientists. Today, researchers estimate there are over 100,000 international visitors who drink ayahuasca in the Amazon Rainforest each year. There has been a rapid growth of ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon Rainforest and around the world during the previous 10 years with people from all corners of the world training from indigenous masters.

While the ancient lineage of ayahuasca drinking among indigenous people is not clear to science, one important thing to consider is how the experience of ayahuasca tends to feel incredibly ancient, deep and wise. People all across the world describe that ayahuasca connects them to a profound inner wisdom and ancient spiritual realm. The reality of these experiences are unmistakable to those who have ventured deep into the cosmic environment of ayahuasca. Yet, the reality of this cosmic environment is possibly something that science can never fully grasp with its material instruments of observation.

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Alex K. Gearin, PhD