The story of Richard Evans Schultes brings to mind plotlines of wild fictional expeditions that take us through the perils of a harsh jungle in search of the holy grail of knowledge. If you feel like you’ve watched one too many Indiana Jones movies to believe a tale of this sort, set your skepticism aside and read on, because Dr. Schultes’ story is as incredible as it is real.
His exploratory work yielded an unparalleled understanding of the Amazon rainforest flora and brought us a wealth of knowledge about its potent medicinal and shamanic plants. Having identified more 24,000 different plant species in the northwestern Amazon—about 300 had not yet been discovered by Western science—he is among the most accomplished ethnobotanists in history. More than 120 of these species now bear his name, as does the vast area he explored in the Colombian part of the Amazon. In 1992 he was awarded the gold medal of the Linnean Society of London, the highest achievement in botany.
The aspiring young botanist did his undergraduate thesis on the ritual use of peyote cactus by the Kiowa of Oklahoma.
Some of his more obscure work made Schultes famous among psychedelic users. In the late 1970s, he co-authored Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers with Albert Hofmann, the chemist and creator of LSD, about the cultural uses and biochemistry of the world’s natural psychedelic substances. The book includes anthropological, botanical, medical, chemical, historical, and geographic descriptions of 91 psychoactive plant species. Another is his own Hallucinogenic Plants, part of the US Golden Guide book series on natural, man-made, and scientific phenomena.
Richard Schultes was born in Boston in 1915. He became interested in the Amazon rainforest as a child due to a most peculiar bedtime storybook choice of his parents—Richard Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes. He grew up in Boston and did his undergraduate studies at Harvard University. He was originally going to major in medicine, but a plant biology course he took changed his mind. Oakes Ames, who taught a course titled “Plants and Human Affairs” was also the Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum and eventually became Schultes’ mentor.
The aspiring young botanist did his undergraduate thesis on the ritual use of peyote cactus by the Native American, Kiowa of Oklahoma. His PhD dissertation had a similar theme. He explored the identity and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, known as teonanácatl, and a plant by the name of ololiuqui, a species of morning glory with an active psychedelic compound similar to LSD.
Upon attaining his doctoral degree, Schultes accepted a position of research associate with the Harvard Botanical Museum and assistant professor under the guidance of his mentor, Dr Ames. As a fellow of the National Research Council, he was offered a 10-month grant to investigate curare, a plant extract used by Amazonian hunters as poison for arrows and darts. Surgeons were becoming interested in this substance due to its numbing properties, and Schultes was to head to the heart of the jungle and investigate how indigenous people acquire it. This was the moment his life took a turn from academia to adventure. In his own words:
Following in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Richard Spruce, Schultes set out to become one of the most accomplished ethnobotanists to ever draw breath on this planet and one of the most well-known and highly regarded foreigners to be welcomed warmly throughout the northwestern Amazon. He lived with various Indigenous peoples, spoke their languages, participated in their customs, and absorbed parts of their vast knowledge. Most importantly, he extensively documented and shared his findings about their culture and understanding of plant medicine with the outside world.
Eventually, thanks in great part to Dr Schultes’ research on the various plants the Indigenous peoples used to make many different types of curare, Western medicine got both an efficient muscle relaxant that is still in use during major surgeries and a better understanding of the human nervous system.
Living among indigenous peoples of the Amazon, he gained insight into their lives and ways of using medicinal plants. He chronicled the use of over 2,000 plants in the many Indigenous groups he stayed with. The area he was to explore was almost completely unknown to Westerners, cut off from the outside world by the Andes, thick jungle, and strong rivers. Entering it from any direction was a risky endeavor in terms of topography, not to mention developing relationships with Indigenous people in a part of the Amazon that had a particularly brutal history. This was the context he decided to seek plant wisdom in.
Still, Dr Schultes boldly went, hiking through virtually unpassable, muddy jungle terrain and paddling across dangerous rapids. Tall, broad-shouldered, and blue eyed, he was an alien to the Indigenous forest environment and most of its inhabitants. But although his height towered over most people of the Amazon, they were not afraid of him, nor he of them. As he stated once:
Over the decade he spent with these Indigenous groups, their mutual understanding grew into quite an affection. Schultes learned the languages of the Witoto and Makuna peoples, was well-known and welcome throughout the Indigenous communities of this part of the Amazon, and even became one of the most knowledgeable and respected curare masters in Kofán territory.
It was with the Kofán community that Dr Schultes delved deeply into understanding the ritual use of the potent psychedelic plant-mix ayahuasca. He observed the shamans prepare the medicine and use it for healing and divination. The ceremonies as we know them today, however, tend to differ from the original ones, as they have evolved to cater to the needs of Westerners. A meticulous description of sacred plant medicine use in the Amazon accompanied by some of the most interesting and important photographs of its tribal life can be found in Schultes’ book Vine of The Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia.
The Kofán were known as some of the most masterful shamans in the region. Their brews were renowned for their intricate preparation and spiritual power. They could distinguish among strains of the ayahuasca vine that looked virtually identical, and, aside from DMT-containing plants, employed a variety of admixture ingredients that served to enhance and clarify the brew’s effects. The shamans would explain their vast understanding of ways to use plants in medicinal and divinatory purposes as knowledge imparted on them by the master plants themselves, such as ayahuasca or tobacco. They would diet on these plants during their training, establishing such a connection with the spirits within them that they, in turn, would direct the shamans to the proper functions and means of preparation of the plants whose powers they were supposed to wield.
After his stay with the Kofán, Dr Schultes understood ayahuasca to be something of a rite of passage in Indigenous Amazon culture. He would often be invited to partake in ayahuasca ceremonies when arriving in a new village; doing so would earn him the trust of the tribe and respect that warranted communication and learning from the elders.
Schultes was the first explorer to scientifically and taxonomically document the preparation and use of ayahuasca. He identified the main ingredient as the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (known as ayahuasca, or aya waska, meaning “vine of the soul” or “vine of the ancestors” in the ancient Quechua language), and described many of its varieties as distinguished and referred to by the Indigenous cultures he lived with. He also catalogued some of the admixtures added by different Indigenous groups, such as the vine Diplopterys cabrerana (known as chaliponga or chagropanga) and the DMT-containing shrub Psychotria viridis (known as chacruna).
The holy grail of Schultes’ quest, however, was the scientific identification of the yoco plant.
Aside from ayahuasca and curare, we owe the discovery and documentation of a few other psychotropic plants to Dr Schultes’ relentless efforts. He described the multitude of Borrachero plants used by the Kamentsa shamans of Sibundoy for inducing effects ranging from five-hour long visions to four-day long trances. The plants used for the preparation of the various Borrachero concoctions are varieties of the Brugmansia genus, collectively known as the “angel’s trumpet” due to their hanging trumpet-shaped flowers. This genus is closely related to the datura, a family of plants also known for their toxicity and psychoactive effects.
The holy grail of Schultes’ quest, however, was the scientific identification of the yoco plant. This vine, whose bark served to produce a stimulant drink, was stocked in most homes of the Indigenous peoples he visited. The drink, made from pressing the scraped bark into water, would free the drinker of hunger and yield energy and focus for two whole days. It was a staple ingredient important to the preservation of the tribe, especially during long hunting and fishing trips. However, finding a mature, flowering plant turned out to be next to impossible.
Eventually, exhausted and with deteriorating health, Schultes went on a final sprint to find yoco just before leaving the rainforest. He recounts the experience: “Three days before the arrival of the plane, an Indian came paddling down with the news that he had located a flowering yoco. He assured me it was only four hours’ walk through the forest. I hesitated. The pains in my legs, I confess, nearly won out. But, finally, I agreed to go, half expecting to find just one more flowerless liana . . . It was a terrible pilgrimage of six or seven hours on foot, most of the time knee-deep in water and mud. On arrival, I saw an enormous liana, the tiny flowers of which were strewn far and wide on the forest floor. We had to fell seven trees before the treasure would fall into our laps . . . that collection not only enabled us to identify an interesting drug but provided me with a species new to science.”
Eventually, Dr Schultes ended up staying in the Amazon for an additional 13 years researching ways to obtain rubber from rubber trees. The Japanese occupation of the Southeastern Asian plantations during WWII saw the US looking into South America as its next main source of rubber. He learned a wealth of knowledge about wild rubber and made further discoveries of the general flora of the Amazon. After all this time, however, with the advances made in synthetic rubber production, this program was terminated by the US government. With natural rubber production deemed obsolete, the entirety of his research was lost, never to be published due to lack of federal support.
Schultes continued his academic career, working as a professor at Harvard, a curator and director of its Botanical Museum, editor of numerous botanical and Latin American cultural and medicinal periodicals, as well as a writer and co-writer of books and academic articles in the many different languages he was versed in. In 2001, at the age of 86, Schultes’ epic life came to an end where it had started in the city of Boston. His legacy will undoubtedly inspire ethnobotanists, plant-heads, and psychonauts for generations to come.
An in-depth chronicle of Schultes’ entire journey through the northwestern rainforest, complete with anecdotes, photographs and maps that complement this amazing voyage, can be read about in One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. This book was authored by his prize mentee Wade Davis, who succeeded Schultes with his own Amazon expedition, researching indigenous use and botanical properties of the Coca leaf.
A shorter, yet still quite detailed account of the journey with many additional images, illustrations, maps of tribal territory and plant distribution is available on the Amazon Conservation Team website.
Finally, a genre-bending, academy award-nominated film that is inspired by Schultes’ time in the Amazon is Embrace of the Serpent—a highly recommended watch.