Westerners 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.
While the origins of ayahuasca drinking are not clear to archaeologists, and some researchers suggest it’s 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 we still want to believe it so much? Why not just say, “We are actually not sure how far back in time it goes”. Well, like with a good aged wine, time provides an aura of authenticity and legitimacy, which is something ayahuasca drinkers struggle to get from societies that criminalize their brew.
Before we unpack this, 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.
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.
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 when taken in combination by allowing the other molecules to enter the blood in higher doses than usual. This series of effects may help explain why ayahuasca has been such a central helping-spirit in Amazonian shamanism.
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 cultures in the Amazon Rainforest, just as they were used in 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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