the word is from the Quechua language; it means "vine of
the soul," "vine of the dead," or "the vision vine." Known
by various names among 72 native ayahuasca-ingesting cultures
in Peru, Columbia, and Ecuador, this legendary, industrial-strength
hallucinogen is used by curanderos, or witch doctors, to
heal the sick and communicate with spirits. Many rainforest
shamans simply refer to ayahuasca as el remedio, "the remedy."
Revered by indigenous people
as a sacred medicine, a master cure for all diseases, it
is without a doubt the most celebrated hallucinogenic plant
concoction of the Amazon.
Long ago, South American Indian
medicine men and medicine women became adept at manipulating
an array of ingredients that were mixed and boiled into
ayahuasca or "yage," as it is often called. An elaborate
set of rituals governed every step of the process, from
gathering leaves, roots, and bark, to cooking and administering
Ayahuasca is unique because
its powerful psychopharmacological effect is dependent on
a synergistic combination of active alkaloids from at least
two plants: the Banisteriopsis caapi vine containing the
crucial harmala alkaloids, along with the leafy plant Psychotria
virdis or some other hallucinogenic admixture that contains
dimethyltryptamine (DMT) alkaloids.
Most curious is the fact that
when taken orally, DMT is metabolized and deactivated by
a particular gastric enzyme. But certain chemicals in the
yage vine counter the action of this stomach enzyme, thereby
allowing the DMT to circulate through the bloodstream and
into the brain, where it triggers intense visions and supernatural
Contemporary researchers marvel
at what chemist J.C. Callaway describes as "one of the most
sophisticated drug delivery systems in existence." Just
how the Amazon Indians managed to figure out this amazing
bit of synergistic alchemy is one of the many mysteries
The ayahuasqueros, the native
healers who use yage, will tell you that their knowledge
comes directly from "the plant teachers" themselves. Hallucinogenic
botanicals are viewed as the embodiments of intelligent
beings who only become visible in special states of consciousness
and who function as spirit guides and sources of healing
power and knowledge.
According to indigenous folklore,
ayahuasca is the fount of all understanding, the ultimate
medium that reveals the mythological origins of life. To
drink yage, anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff once
wrote, is to return to the cosmic uterus, the primordial
womb of existence, "where the individual 'sees' the tribal
divinities, the creation of the universe and humanity, the
first couple, the creation of the animals, and the establishment
of the social order."
The great cleansing
Ayahuasca was never used casually
or for recreational purposes in traditional societies. Only
a ritualistically clean person who maintained a strict dietary
regimen (low on spices, sugars, and animal fat) for several
weeks or months was deemed ready to partake of the experience.
Shamanic initiation rites entailed a lengthy period of preparation,
which included social isolation and sexual abstinence, before
novices got to ingest yage with the curandero.
A connoisseur of the chemically
induced trance-state, the curandero provides guidance to
those who wish to embark upon a "vision quest." But rainforest
shamans typically "resist the heroic mold into which current
Western image-making would pour them," anthropologist Michael
Taussig says. Instead, they often exude a bawdy vitality
and a funny, unpretentious, down-to-earth manner.
More of a trickster than a
guru or saint, the curandero is unquestionably the master
of ceremonies, the key figure in the ayahuasca drama. After
nightfall, the bitter brew is passed around a circle from
mouth to mouth, and the shaman starts to sing about the
visions they will see. Listening to his chant, the novices
feel some numbness on their lips and warmth in their guts.
A vertiginous surge of energy
envelops them. And then all hell breaks loose: wretching,
vomiting, diarrhea - an unstoppable, high colonic that penetrates
the innards, sweeping through the intestinal coils like
Liquid Draino of the soul, cleansing the body of parasites,
emotional blockages, long-held resentments. It is for good
reason that Amazonian natives refer to la purga when speaking
"One cannot help be impressed
by the remarkable health-enhancing effects attributed to
the purging action of the vine," writes Sonoma-based psychologist
Ralph Metzner, editor of Ayahuasca, an anthology of scholarly
and first-person accounts of the yage experience. Metzner
notes that there have been anecdotal reports of the complete
remission of some cancers after one or two ayahuasca sessions.
The rejuvenating impact of la purga would help to explain
the exceptional health of the ayahuasqueros, even those
of advanced ages.
Space time travel
After the unavoidable episode
of purging, the senses liven up and the initiate experiences
a kind of "magnetic release from the world," as Wade Davis
put it, followed by an onslaught of spectacular visions,
a swirling pandemonium of kaleidoscopic imagery that changes
faster than the speed of thought.
While under the influence
of ayahuasca, it is not uncommon for people to feel as though
they have been lifted out of their bodies and catapulted
into a strange, aerial excursion. During this voyage to
far-off realms, they see gorgeous vistas and enchanted landscapes
that suddenly give way to harrowing encounters with fierce
jaguars, huge iridescent snakes, and other predatory beasts
intent on devouring the novice.
William Burroughs described
the sensation of long-distance flying when he took ayahuasca
during an expedition to South America in 1953. "Yage is
space time travel," he wrote in a letter to Allen Ginsberg.
"The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian,
Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Ployglot Near East, Indian
- new races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations
not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible
journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains.... A
place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet
in a vibrating soundless hum."
It is not known why the visions
provoked by ayahuasca often involve Amazon jungle animals,
even when people from other continents swallow the acrid
tonic. Stories of anacondas the length of rivers and electric
eels that light up the night sky are classical elements
of the yage experience. Heinz Kusel, a trader living among
the Chama natives of northeastern Peru in late 1940s, recounted
how an Indian once told him that whenever he drank ayahuasca,
he had such beautiful visions that he "put his hands over
his eyes for fear that someone might steal them."
Drug wars in the New World
Indeed, there was a time when
people did try to steal the visions. Ever since the European
invaders came to the New World more than 500 years ago,
they scorned and demonized ayahuasca and other hallucinogenic
substances that were employed by native peoples in their
Western knowledge of yage
ceremonies was first recorded in the 17th century by Jesuit
missionaries who condemned the use of "diabolical potions"
prepared from jungle vines. The ruthless attempt to eradicate
such practices among the colonized inhabitants of the Americas
was part of an imperialist effort to impose a new social
order that stigmatized the ayahuasca experience as a form
of devil worship or possession by evil spirits. But the
ingestion of yage for religious and medicinal purposes continued,
despite the genocidal campaigns of the conquistadores.
It wasn't until the 1930s
that Richard Evans Schultes, director of Harvard University's
Botanical Museum, provided a scientific analysis of the
complex ethnobotany of yage and many other psychoactive
plants in the Amazon region. By this time, the shamanic
use of ayahuasca had spread from remote jungle areas to
South American urban centers, where mestizo curanderos added
a Christian gloss to archaic Indian ceremonies. Several
Brazilian churches started to administer ayahuasca as a
sacrament in a syncretic fusion of Catholicism and shamanism.
The two largest of these church
movements - Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal - utilized
yage in their religious services without interference by
the Brazilian government until the mid 1980s, when U.S.
officials pressured Brazil's Federal Council on Narcotics
to put the Banisteriopsis caapi vine on a list of controlled
substances. The ayahuasca churches protested and a government
committee was appointed to investigate the matter. After
examining the churches' use of yage and testing it on themselves,
the members of this committee recommended that the ban on
ayahuasca be lifted. The Brazilian government acted upon
this recommendation and legalized the sacramental use of
yage in 1987, much to the dismay of the U.S. embassy.
The revival of shamanic rituals
found a fertile ground particularly in areas where wealthy
plantation owners and multinational corporations displaced
peasants from the land. For these poor and desperate people,
ayahuasca was a gift that helped them cope with the expansion
of the market economy into the frontier. As their subsistence
society unraveled, so, too, did their sense of sanity and
well-being. Consequently, a growing number of mentally ill
individuals and uprooted wage-laborers sought out curanderos,
who were forced into a new role. In addition to curing the
sick and communicating with the spirit world, many witch
doctors began using ayahuasca to mediate class conflict.
As one Putumayo medicine man told Taussig, "I have been
teaching people revolution through my work with plants."
The more big business encroached
upon native turf, the greater the resurgence of shamanism.
And in another ironic twist of globalization, the sacred
beverage of the Amazon made its way to Europe and the United
States, sending law enforcement into a tizzy.
The Santo Daime religion has
taken root in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, where
yage sessions are held in secret. This ayahuasca church
also has branches in several other countries, including
Great Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands,
the Czech Republic, and Japan.
In October 1999, successive
police raids targeted Santo Daime members in Amsterdam,
Paris, Marseilles, and Germany. The crackdown prompted church
representatives throughout Europe to mobilize. They are
seeking official recognition of their religion, and they
want the sacramental use of ayahuasca to be legalized.
Predictably, U.S. narcotics
control officials are opposed to ending the prohibition
against yage, despite Peruvian medical studies that indicate
ayahuasca can be an effective treatment for cocaine addiction.
The fact that yage tastes so awful - to the point where
some people can't even bring themselves to swallow it -
provides an additional safeguard against those who might
use it in a cavalier fashion.
Who owns yage?
In recent years, the U.S.
pharmaceutical industry seems to have developed a rather
unhealthy interest in ayahuasca. Loren Miller of the International
Plant Medicine Corporation tried to obtain a patent for
Banisteriopsis caapi, which would have given her exclusive
rights to create and sell new varieties for profit. Miller
had pulled out a yage plant from the garden of an Ecuadorian
family without asking permission, hurried back to the United
States with the vine, and then applied to the U.S. Patent
and Trademark Office.
Upon learning what had transpired,
the Ecuador-based Coordinating Committee of Native Organizations
of the Amazon Basin denounced Miller and her company as
"enemies of the native peoples" and proclaimed they were
unwelcome in indigenous territories. Because of this scandal,
the Ecuadorian government refused to sign a bilateral agreement
on intellectual property rights with the United States in
1996, which would have made U.S. patent law applicable in
Ecuador. Washington countered by threatening Ecuador with
Miller's patent application
was eventually rejected by the U.S. government. But if her
company manages to produce a synthetic version of yage,
then a patent could be granted. Thus far, the U.S. Senate
has refused to ratify the U.N. Convention on Biological
Diversity that recognizes the property rights of native
people. More than 100 countries have signed this treaty,
While U.S. corporations seek
to plunder the natural treasures of the Amazon, the destruction
of the rainforest continues at an accelerated pace. "I feel
a great sorrow when trees are burned, when the forest is
destroyed," Pablo Cesar Amaringo, a Peruvian painter, explained.
"I feel sorrow because I know that human beings are doing
something very wrong. When one takes ayahuasca, one can
sometimes hear how the trees cry when they are going to
be cut down. They know beforehand, and they cry. And the
spirits have to go to other places, because their physical
part, their house, is destroyed."