This article was the keynote address at ICEERS’ Third World Ayahuasca Conference, May 31-June 2, 2019 in Girona, Catalonia.
It’s truly an honor to have been invited to share a few thoughts to open this international conference dedicated to the wonder of ayahuasca, caapi, yagé. Who could imagine? An event that is but one manifestation of a global movement dedicated to the power and promise of sacred plants, a resurgence of research and passion that is both profoundly hopeful and long overdue.
Often I’m asked, as no doubt you are, whether I’m optimistic about the fate of the world. Pessimism an indulgence, despair an insult to the imagination.
In my lifetime women have gone from the kitchen to the board room. People of color from the woodshed to the White House. Gay people from the closet to the altar. Reverence for the earth has become a new religion. Fifty years ago, just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was an environmental victory. Nobody spoke of the biosphere or biodiversity. Now those terms are a part of the vernacular of school children.
But as we consider this wave of luminosity that has swept over the world in just a generation or two, the one ingredient in the recipe of social change that has been expunged from the record is the fact that millions of us have laid prostrate before the gates of awe having taken a psychedelic.
Sometimes when being interviewed, listening to my own words, I find myself asking how on earth a child raised in a modest family in a quite ordinary suburb of Montreal came to think such thoughts! Certainly education played an important role, but psychedelics were instrumental, cracking open the sky, flinging wide the windows of the mystic.
I wouldn’t speak the way I do, write as I do, see the world as I do, understand cultural relativism, embrace the natural world, had I not taken psychedelics. Back in the day our parents tried to warn us: “Don’t take these drugs, you’ll never come back the same.” They of course didn’t understand that not coming back the same was the entire point of the exercise.
Listen to Wade Davis’ keynote address here or continue reading it below.
When I first took ayahuasca, it was largely unknown outside of a small cadre of ethnobotanists and explorers. Obviously, The Yage Letters between William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg had been picked up along the Gringo Trail. By the early 70s, roadside shamanism—serving the international gringo trade, but also serving just ordinary working class and rural Latinos from throughout the continent—had already come up along the road between Sibundoy and Mocoa. Still it remained obscure, even at the height of the psychedelic era.
It was obscure, in part, because it wasn’t particularly pleasant. When Burroughs, a veteran of a thousand strange scenes, finally took the potion in Mocoa he became completely paranoid, certain that the shaman specialized in killing gringos. He popped a dozen downers and got out of there.
When you talk to the shaman or the Indigenous people, they don’t see it as a pleasant experience. They use metaphors like “you’re nursing from the breast of a jaguar woman, and then she tears you from her breast and flings you into a pit of vipers.”
I mentioned that the potion really could be terrifying. They all responded that this was the very point.
I once took ayahuasca with the Cofan, with a friend of mine, Randy Borman, who was the chief at the time. In the wake of a traditional ceremony, men alone isolated in a hut built for the occasion in the forest, we had a spontaneous debriefing. I mentioned that the potion really could be terrifying. They all responded that this was the very point. As Randy noted, it’s not for the faint hearted.
Had I been asked in 1974 to name the South American entheogen that would catch the wind of the zeitgeist, inspire so many and attract 1,400 people to an international conference in 2019, I have to confess that yagé would have not topped the list.
And yet today those of a new generation describe their experiences in very positive terms, as if the substance was gently transcendent and benign. In some remarkable way, the cultural set that envelops the use of the medicine has shifted. The chance to understand how and why this happened more than anything drew me to this conference, and I am very grateful to be here, and I look forward to learning from you.
Many who experience ayahuasca do so in places like Iquitos and Pucallpa, in commercial settings set up to cater to the traveler, both local and foreign. Iquitos alone is said to have as many as 120 lodges catering to the trade; there are even restaurants with specialized menus catering to the dietary needs of the seekers. Those leading these retreats range from the spiritually inspired to the mail order mystics that give the business a bad name.
Others have been introduced to the medicine through the UDV and Santo Daime, modern syncretic movements of faith and discipline, a spiritual structure that clearly serves the needs of the acolytes but has little in common with the traditional use of yagé by the Barasana, Makuna, Tukanos, and other Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Amazon.
This is the world I would like to explore this morning.
When in 1541 Francisco de Orellana, along with the Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal, became the first Europeans to travel the length of the Amazon, they encountered not an empty forest but riverbanks dense with settlements, and on the horizon what they took to be distant cities. The Amazon at the time of European contact was an artery of civilization that was home to hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of human beings.
By the time anthropologists entered the Amazon in numbers in the 1950s, the main trunk of the river and the lower reaches of its principal tributaries had been settled by Europeans for more than 400 years. Indeed, a unique world had emerged, a riverine peasantry of caboclos, men and women of mixed heritage whose entire subsistence base was derived from indigenous antecedents and adaptations.
Anthropologists, ethnographers in particular, naturally were drawn to the extant peoples, the “real” Indians. Many of these societies lived along the eastern flank of the Andes, in the remote headwaters at the periphery of the basin in a wide arc that reached along the margin of the Amazon basin from Bolivia in the south to Colombia in the north, and then across southern Venezuela, the headwaters of the Orinoco and the southern side of the Guiana Shield.
To a remarkable extent, this cultural scenario became the filter through which anthropologists understood indigenous life in the Amazon. Societies, it was implied, clung precariously to a perilous existence, constrained always by the environment and its limitations, marrying amongst themselves, often living in open conflict with their neighbors.
Anthropologists today recognize that our understanding of these ancient worlds has been for too long filtered through our experience with the marginal societies that survived what was in fact a holocaust. To understand the prehistory of the basin through this lens is rather like attempting to reconstruct the history of the British Empire from the perspective of the Hebrides after London had been wiped out by a nuclear bomb. Within a century of contact, disease and slavery had swept away millions of Indigenous lives.
Is there any place in the Amazon where echoes of the great civilizations may still be heard?
The question lingers. What with the ravages of the rubber era scattering native peoples, sending them deeper and deeper into the forest, and the original devastating impact of diseases, is there any place in the Amazon where echoes of the great civilizations may still be heard?
The answer is yes, in the remote reaches of the Northwest Amazon of Colombia, in the homeland of the Barasana, Makuna, Tanimukas, and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.
When I first visited the remote region in 1975 it was still completely dominated by church and Christian missionaries. One sensed that all of these extraordinary cultures were destined to be lost. This was the familiar lament of anthropologists of the day. Wherever we went, we encountered what we assumed to be disappearing worlds.
But then, long after my first visits to the Northwest Amazon, something remarkable occurred. In 1986, newly elected Colombian president Virgilio Barco appointed anthropologist Martin Von Hildebrand as Head of Indigenous Affairs and told him to do something for the Indian peoples.
Martin, who had lived for years among the Tanimukas and first paddled the length of the Río Piraparaná as a young graduate student, did more than something. In five extraordinary years he secured for the Indians of the Colombian Amazon legal land rights to an area of some 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of the United Kingdom, establishing 162 Resguardos altogether—titled lands that were encoded by law in the 1991 Political Constitution of the country. Nothing like this had ever been done by a nation-state.
In the years that followed, as Colombia endured the ravages of war throughout the 1990s and early days of the new century, a veil of isolation fell upon the Northwest Amazon. And behind this veil, as Martin explained when he invited me in 2006 to return with him to the Río Piraparaná, an old dream of the earth was reborn.
For the Indians of the Vaupés, rivers are not just routes of communication; they are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors traveled at the beginning of time. The Indians’ origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River from the east by enormous anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants — coca, manioc, and yagé, gifts of Father Sun.
On the heads of the anaconda were blinding lights, and in the canoes sat mythical heroes in hierarchical order: chiefs; wisdom-keepers who were the dancers and chanters; warriors; shamans; and finally, in the tail, servants. All were brothers, children of the sun. When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls.
Each river welcomed a different canoe, and in each drainage, the five archetypal heroes disembarked and settled, with the lowly servants heading upstream, and the chiefs occupying the mouth. Thus the rivers of the Vaupés were created and populated, with the Desana people coming into being on the Río Papuri, the Barasana and Tatuyos on the upper Piraparaná, the Tucano on the Vaupés, the Makuna on the Popeyacá and lower Piraparaná, the Tanimukas and Letuama on the Miriti and Apaporis.
In time, the hierarchy described in the myths broke down, and on each of the rivers the descendants of those who had journeyed in the same sacred canoe came to live together. They recognized each other as family, speakers of the same language; and to ensure that no brother married a sister, they invented strict rules. To avoid incest, a man had to choose a bride who spoke a different language.
Today, when a young woman marries, she moves to the longhouse of her husband. Their children will be raised in the language of the father but naturally will learn their mother’s tongue. The mother, meanwhile, will be working with the children’s aunts, the wives of their father’s brothers. But each of these women may come from a different linguistic group.
In a single settlement, therefore, as many as a dozen languages may be spoken, and it is quite common for an individual to be fluent in as many as five. Yet curiously, one never hears a child practicing a distinct tongue. They simply wait, listen, and one day begin to speak.
One inevitable consequence of this unusual marriage rule—what anthropologists call linguistic exogamy—is a certain tension in the lives of the people. With the quest for potential marriage partners ongoing, and the distances between neighboring language groups considerable, cultural mechanisms must ensure that eligible young men and women come together on a regular basis.
These celebrations promote the spirit of reciprocity and exchange on which the entire social system depends.
Thus the importance of the gatherings and great festivals that mark the seasons of the year. Through sacred dance, the recitation of myth, and the sharing of coca and yagé, these celebrations promote the spirit of reciprocity and exchange on which the entire social system depends, even as they link, through ritual, the living with their mythical ancestors and the beginning of time.
The night before flying out of Mitú, Martin and I huddled on the cement floor of our modest lodgings, taking coca and tobacco, as Ricardo Marin, a Barasana shaman, identified on a large map the sacred sites we were about to see from the air and visit by river and trail.
Martin and his colleagues at Fundación Gaia Amazonas, a grassroots NGO working with the 50 or more ethnicities of the Colombian Amazon, had codified in two dimensions what Ricardo knew to exist in multidimensional space.
In Barasana there is no word for time, and the sacred sites are not memorials or symbols of distant mythic events. They are living places, as Ricardo explained, that eternally inform the present. For his people, the past is the present, and the sacred sites are to this day inhabited by mythic beings.
The following morning our small plane rose into the clouds and then burst over the canopy like a wasp, minuscule and insignificant. The forest stretched to the horizon, with little initially to betray that people had ever set foot on the land.
Ricardo sat in front of me, and I watched him intently as he took in the vista, wanting to see what he saw. We flew that morning for four hours, circumnavigating the entire world of the Peoples of the Anaconda, heading east from Mitú over the Río Papuri and then south along the Taraira and the ancient ridges that separate Colombia from Brazil.
Reaching the confluence of the Río Caquetá and the Apaporis, we turned west over the great cataracts of Yuisi and Jirijirimo to the mouth of the Kananari, which we followed north across sandstone escarpments that predate the birth of the Andes.
To the west I could see the distant silhouette of Cerró Campaña, small on the horizon, and the immense flat-topped ridges of Sierra de Chiribiquete, uplifted tablelands massive and impossibly remote. Clouds swept over the canopy, and at one point a perfect rainbow arched across the sky, touching the forest on both sides of the Río Apaporis, which flowed beneath it like a serpent through a silent and unchanging forest.
We landed late in the day at the dirt airstrip at San Miguel, the Catholic mission I had visited in 1977. I recognized the fields, the setting of the great longhouse, or maloca, and the white sands along the river where children and women bathed in the black waters of the Piraparaná.
For the first time I heard the haunting sound of the sacred yurupari trumpets. That their sound was still here, suggested powerfully that the culture was very much alive.
But otherwise, things seemed very different. A mission I recalled as a rather sad place of desuetude was gone. On our first night a hundred or more people gathered in the maloca, men in feather regalia, to dance, chant, and take sacred medicines, coca and tobacco, chicha and yagé. Shamans huddled over calabashes of spirit food, whispering and softly singing spells.
For the first time I heard the haunting sound of the sacred yurupari trumpets, created by the ancestors at the dawn of time. Long condemned by Catholic priests as symbols of the devil, these mythic instruments had been crushed and burned during the years of the mission. That their sound was still here, inspiring new generations of Barasana, Makuna, Tatuyos, and other peoples of the river, suggested powerfully that the culture was very much alive.
Over the course of nearly a month, guided by Martin and Ricardo and other Barasana and Makuna leaders such as Maximiliano García and Reinel Ortega, we traveled the rivers, attended ceremonies, and visited sacred sites, cataracts where culture heroes had done battle with the forces of darkness and brought order into the world, domes of black stone that held up the sky, waterfalls that ran red with the menstrual blood of Romi Kumu, the Great Mother and progenitor of the earth.
Flying in to join us midway through our sojourn was Stephen Hugh-Jones, former head of anthropology at Cambridge, who with his wife Christine first lived among the Barasana in the late 1960s. He returned now as a respected elder, the only academic scholar fluent in the language.
“The only thing that disappeared were the bloody missionaries!”
Stephen has dedicated much of his professional life to understanding the cosmology of the Barasana and their neighbors. His presence turned the journey into an ongoing tutorial of spirit and culture, an endless series of revelations that each day brought a deeper understanding of a subtle philosophy that was dazzling in its sophistication and profoundly hopeful in its implications. He was blown away by what he saw in that maloca. In the early 1970s he had been part of the BBC film series “Disappearing Worlds,” and he had on camera with immense regret predicted the slipping away of Barasana culture. Now he could not believe his eyes. He jumped on the satellite phone, called his wife Christine in Cambridge and said, “The only thing that disappeared were the bloody missionaries!”
There is no beginning and end in Barasana thought, no sense of a linear progression of time, destiny, or fate. Theirs is a fractal world in which no event has a life of its own, and any number of ideas can coexist in parallel levels of perception and meaning. Scale succumbs to intention. Every object must be understood, as Stephen told me, at various levels of analysis.
A rapid is an impediment to travel but also a house of the ancestors, with both a front and a back door. A stool is not a symbol of a mountain; it is in every sense an actual mountain, upon the summit of which sits the shaman. A row of stools is the ancestral anaconda, and the patterns painted onto the wood of the stools depict both the journey of the ancestors and the striations that decorate the serpent’s skin. A corona of oropendola feathers really is the sun, each yellow plume a ray.
The infinite elements of the Barasana world spin like a carousel in the mind, and there is no one obvious point of departure for even a modest attempt to explain the profundity of the peoples’ intuitions about the meaning of being alive—save perhaps the maloca, the longhouse, which is both a physical space in which the people live and a cosmic model of the entire universe.
If civilizations are measured, however crudely, by the scale of their monumental architecture—just as we measure the stonework of the Inca, the temples of the Maya—then the maloca is proof of the stunning achievements of the ancient peoples of the Amazon.
These structures are enormous, their internal dimensions all-encompassing. Forty meters in length, perhaps 20 abreast, with vaulted ceilings rising to 10 meters above a dirt floor hardened by ten thousand thunderous dance steps as well as the quiet passage of children at dawn, the maloca is the womb of the kindred, the dark and cool shelter of the clan, the communal space in which occurs, and out of which emerges, every societal gesture of the spirit.
The symmetry of the structure is exquisite: eight vertical posts spaced evenly in two rows, with two smaller pairs near the doors, crossbeams, and pleated rows of thatch woven over a grid of rafters. The house posts are named for the clan ancestors. The painted designs on the front facade depict the spirit beings and the patterns of color and visions unleashed in the mind by yagé, the sacred preparation.
On a mundane level, the space is divided between the genders, with the front of the longhouse being reserved for visitors and men. This is the social axis where, in the flare of resin and beeswax torches, coca is prepared at night and tobacco taken in such concentrations that sweat comes to the fingertips and the world spins wildly, yet always in harmonic resonance.
The women control the opposite end of the space, where the clay griddle rests on the four corner posts of the world, and cassava, a deadly poisonous plant, is each day transformed by the mothers into food, the daily bread of the people. The sustenance emerges at one stage of its preparation from a carefully woven sieve that is itself the mouth of the anaconda.
The roof of the maloca is the sky, the house posts the stone pillars and mountains that support it. The mountains, in turn, are the petrified remains of ancestral beings, the culture heroes who created the world. The smaller posts represent the descendants of the original serpent. The ridgepole is simultaneously the path of the sun, the river of the sky, the Milky Way, the artery that separates the living from the limits of the universe.
The floor is the earth, and beneath it runs the River of the Underworld, the stream of death and sorrow. Thus a celestial river crosses the sky as its inverse, a chthonic path of death, traverses the underworld. Each day the sun travels the sky from east to west, and each night it returns from west to east following the river of the underworld, which is the place of the dead.
The Barasana bury their elders in the floor of the maloca, in coffins made of broken canoes. As they go about their daily lives, living within a space literally perceived as the womb of their lineage, the Indians walk above the physical remains of their ancestors.
Yet inevitably, the spirits of the dead drift away, and to facilitate their departure the maloca is always built close to water. And since all rivers, including the River of the Underworld, are believed to run east, each maloca must be oriented along an east–west axis, with a door at each end, one for the men and one for the women.
Thus the placement of the malocas adjacent to running streams is not just a matter of convenience. It is a way of acknowledging the cycle of life and death. The water both recalls the primordial act of creation, the river journey of the Anaconda and Mythical Heroes, and foreshadows the inevitable moment of decay and rebirth.
If the longhouse envelops the community, securing its eternal presence, celebrating its mythical origins, the earth itself is protected by a universal maloca that hovers over the land, anchored by the sacred sites. The world of the Barasana and their neighbors is as flat and round as the clay griddle the women use to make manioc bread. As clay blocks prop up the griddle, so the actual sky, the roof of the cosmic maloca, is supported by a distant ring of hills, through which pass four sacred gateways.
The doors of the North and South are the Rib Doors that link the body of humanity to the cosmos. The gateway to the West is the Door of Suffering, the destiny of the dead, and the axis through which destructive forces enter and stain the world.
The Water Door to the east leads to the mouth of the Milk River, the point of origin where earth fuses with sky and the sun is born. For the Barasana and Makuna, these gateways are actual places, and traveling with Ricardo Marin we saw them from the air.
The world begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari—these are all physical points of origin, a mythic geography written upon the land.
In the beginning, before the creation of seasons, before the Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, opened her womb, before her blood and breast milk gave rise to rivers and her ribs to the mountain ridges of the world, there was only chaos in the universe.
Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. Romi Kumu responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. As Woman Shaman she then gave birth to a new world: land, water, forest, and animals.
In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes—the Ayawa, the primordial ancestors, also known as the Thunders—came up the Milk River from the east, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls.
Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed toward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca.
At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life.
Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of the Woman Shaman, they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens to become thunder and lightning.
Realizing that she was pregnant, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls, and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna, and all their neighbors.
Each of these physical and geographical points of memory remains vibrant and alive, the sacred nexus where the Ayawa released to humans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation.
Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.
Thus, for the people living today in the forests of the Piraparaná, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.
This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful—the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.
It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. Contrary to popular lore in the West, the shaman of the Barasana never uses or manipulates medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.
Among the Barasana, such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers.
To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants, and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation.
There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death.
Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.
These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate 30 or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some 20 varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass.
For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all.
Like all food it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman.
Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life—moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a female, transitional moments when the human being by definition is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.
When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity.
The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.
Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.
The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.
All of these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth. Of the 45 game animals available to the Barasana and Makuna, for example, only 20 are hunted with any regularity. Of some 40 species of fish, perhaps 25 are consumed.
The complex food restrictions result in a highly diversified subsistence base, which is concentrated on the lower end of the food chain. Tapir, though highly prized, is rarely hunted and is reserved at any rate for the elders. Meat in general, though important to the identity of the hunter, is far less important as a source of protein than fish or insects. Ants, larvae, and termites, along with cassava bread, are the foundations of a diet and a cuisine that is both delicious and highly sophisticated.
Since virtually every bend and rapid in a river, every stream crossing, and every stone is associated with a mythic event, the entire landscape is mapped in the mind of the shaman. Hunters avoid salt licks. Fishing is prohibited in places toxic with the blood of the ancestors, beaches and side channels that also happen to be spawning habitat.
Entire stretches of the Piraparaná, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man and nature as one.
Where this all comes alive is in ritual. Before leaving the Piraparaná, we attended a fertility ceremony in honor of Cassava Woman, an event that lasted for two days and nights, attracting hundreds of men and women and families from up and down the river to the maloca at Puerto Ortega.
Our host was Reinel Ortega García, a Barasana shaman. The chief of the maloca was Patricio; his wife Rosa was Cassava Woman, symbol of fertility and continuity.
All of the hierarchical leadership was in place—the chanter and the dancers; the wisdom-keeper and the chief; the shaman; and the kumu, the priest. Stephen Hugh-Jones described the roles of these distinct religious figures with a curious metaphor. The shaman, he said, is like the minister of foreign affairs; he deals laterally with the forces of nature.
Meanwhile, the kumu, or priest, deals vertically, through time, with the ancestors. He does not improvise. His language, like that of the chants, is liturgical, archaic, beyond the understanding of all but those who have been taught its inner meaning. His is a canon of deep religious knowledge, and he does not deviate or improvise. To do so would be as inappropriate as a Catholic priest changing the language and prayers of the Eucharist.
Intensity of devotion was most evident in the men responsible for weaving the feathered coronas to be used in the dance. They had been isolated in the maloca for several weeks, forbidden to eat meat or fish, or to be with their wives.
To create the brilliant yellow plumes, they had plucked the feathers of living birds and applied a paste of frog venom and toxic berries to the breasts of the parrots, causing the new plumage, normally deep red, to emerge the color of the sun. The regalia is not decorative. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings to the divine.
As the ritual begins, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day: dawn, dusk, and midnight. In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men become the ancestors; just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey.
He changes from fish to animal to human being and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey of the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 1,600 kilometers down the Amazon to the east where the great civilizations once thrived.
White people, Ricardo told me, see with their eyes, but the Barasana see with their minds. They journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature, as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight, the realization that animals and plants are only people in another dimension of reality.
This is the essence of the Barasana philosophy. Consider for a moment what this implies, and what it tells us about the culture and its place in history.
It is a tradition based on knowledge acquired through time and intense priestly study and initiation. Status accrues to the man of wisdom, not the warrior.
Their malocas rival in grandeur the great architectural creations of humanity. They have a complex understanding of astronomy, solar calendars, intense notions of hierarchy, and specialization.
Their wealth is vested in ritual regalia as elegant as that of a medieval court. Their systems of exchange, infinitely complex, facilitate peace, not war.
Their struggle to bring order to the universe, to maintain the energetic flows of life, and the specificity of their beliefs and adaptations, leaves open the very remarkable possibility that the Barasana are the survivors of a world that once existed—the complex societies and chieftains that so astonished Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Orellana, the lost civilizations of the Amazon.
Perhaps, in the adaptation and cultural survival of the Barasana and Makuna and all the Peoples of the Anaconda, we can glimpse something of the beliefs and convictions that allowed untold millions to live along the banks of the world’s greatest river.
When the Barasana today engage in ritual and take yagé, an astonishing potion, and say that they travel through multiple dimensions, reliving the journey of the Ayawa, alighting on the sacred sites, accomplishing all of these remarkable spiritual deeds, it is because they really do.
When we say that the Barasana and their neighbors both echo the ancient pre-Columbian past and point a way forward, embodying a model of how human societies can live and thrive in the Amazon basin without laying waste to the forests, it is because they really can.
Note: Mr. Davis dedicates this publication of his presentation to Naziha Mestaoui, 1975-2020, an artist of light and love.
- The Kaleidoscopic Forest of Amazonian Shamans - May 15, 2020