Interest in ayahuasca has spread around the world. But tales of the history and origins of the ayahuasca ceremony often conflict. This might be expected from something which is used by numerous distinct cultural groups – often with widely divergent histories. And which has been, arguably, for several thousand years of history…
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a plant-based visionary brew which has been used among various groups indigenous to the Upper Amazon for several thousand years. It is and was broadly used in healing ceremonies and other traditions associated with spiritualism, artistic inspiration, divination and even warfare.
The brew is traditionally prepared by a shaman and consists of at least two components. The first is the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine. This vine is not responsible for the main psychoactive effects of the brew. Instead, the vine inhibits the processes in the human body – specifically monoamine oxidase (MOA) in the stomach – which would otherwise prevent the psychoactive ingredients from reaching the bloodstream and eventually the brain.
The second ingredient is either psychotria viridis, psychotria carthaginensis or diplopterys cabrerana. These have the psychoactive properties – specifically the visionary molecule DMT (dimethyltryptamine) – which cause drinkers of the brew to experience hallucinations and other effects.
It is also often referred to as ayawaska, yajé, yagé or caapi.
The origins of the ayahuasca ceremony
The use of ayahuasca in the indigenous shamanistic traditions of South America appears to date back several thousand years. Others have argued that its rise was far more recent, but based on more ancient traditions.
The most popular claims point to a 5000-year history of ayahuasca use. But this has been contested. Largely because the peoples of the Amazon did not use written language and there is a complete lack of any other archaeological evidence supporting it. This leads to two intriguing questions:
- How did people without the benefits of modern medical technology discover that an MOA-inhibitor mixed with a DMT-containing plant would create a such an effect?
- When did they discover it?
Sadly, the origins of the ayahuasca ceremony are lost to the mists of time. There is, however, evidence that certain groups in different regions of South America inhaled or smoked DMT-containing plants (these methods of intake bypass the MOA in the stomach so there is no need for an inhibitor) as far back as 900 BC.
Many shamans say that the rituals started when the plants, specifically the ayahuasca, started communicating with the shamans in modified states of consciousness such as dreams and visions. This is where they received the information to combine the two plants and prepare the ayahuasca brew.
It has also been suggested that the two types of plants – the caapi vine for its purgatitive and emetic properties and a DMT-containing plant smoked for a visionary effect – were used medicinally in combination with each other by accident by certain peoples, specifically natives of Tiwanaku, and an increase in the efficacy of the latter noticed.
Recent evolution or ancient rite?
The debate in scholarly circles regarding the brewing of ayahuasca for shamanistic purposes revolves around one question:
Is brewing ayahuasca an ancient tradition passed down through perhaps fifty centuries of history, or an evolving practice arrived at by lively groups participating in cultural exchanges which evolved much more recently?
Scholars arguing for a more recent evolution based on older practices have pointed out:
- Absence from historical sources: the Incans were keen botanists and cultivated almost all well-known plants in their territories which had interesting properties. They ruled parts of South America where ayahuasca should have been used, yet they never detail it. That is as recently as 1400. Equally, the first Europeans interested in botany arrived in South America in the 1500s and, while they mention many psychoactive snuffs in their writing, ayahuasca brewing is strangely absent.
- Its arrival within living memory: some groups in South America only started using ayahuasca within living memory.
It has been claimed that the exchange of knowledge (which has been a common feature of the responsibilities of shamans in most regions) was exacerbated by the way the conquistadors forced many native groups to live together in mixed communities. This means that the brewing of ayahuasca as it is understood today could be a relatively recent expansion based on several much older traditions.
The modern ‘incarnation’ would then perhaps be several hundred years old rather than several thousand. But with roots which can be traced to the ancestral knowledge of several peoples stretching back thousands of years.
First appearances in ‘Western’ sources
That the natives of particular parts of South America used a brew which “serves for mystification and bewitchment” in some of their ceremonies was first recorded by Jesuit Missionaries – Pablo Maroni and later Franz Xavier Veigl – visiting from Spain and Portugal in the 1700s.
It would take another 100 years and more before Richard Spruce – one of the great Victorian explorers and botanists of the 1800s – would visit the Brazilian Amazon and actually attempt to define the scientific properties of the plants involved.
He sent caapi vine samples back to England, where they languished in obscurity for another century before interest in them rose in the 1960s.
Ayahuasca and the Beat Generation
Richard Evans Schultes is considered by many to be the first modern ethnobotanist. He wrote about many plants used by indigenous peoples in South America, most particularly in his book The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Properties in 1979.
It was primarily through the work of Schultes that several influential ‘western’ thinkers started to travel to the Amazon in order to seek out ayahuasca. Several would then go on to mention it in their writings. Most notably, these writers included William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. These would both later be credited as leading figures in the Beat Generation, the post-war literary movement which rejected standard narratives and conformity in return for spiritual quests and an exploration of the human condition.
The traditions of ayahuasca were a natural fit for such thinkers, though it was ayahuasca’s rumored ability to cure or reduce cravings in addicts which most interested Burroughs. At least, according to the Yage Letters, the record of a series of written exchanges between Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 1950s while Burroughs was traveling in South America.
Use by indigenous and non-indigenous people
Traditional usage – no matter how recently the origins of those traditions origins may lie – continues amongst many groups in the Amazon region. But participating in an ayahuasca or iowaska ceremony or going on an “ayahuasca trip” has become a popular idea among non-Amazonian people too.
The responses of Amazonian communities and individuals to this interest varies. Some have found non-native interest in their local knowledge can be profitable. Others have been wholly opposed and resistant. As a further complication, several syncretic religions – often combinations of Afro-Brazilian, European and Amazonian native beliefs – have now been using ayahuasca as a sacrament for almost a century.
But there are also native practitioners who see it as their responsibility to educate non-Amazonian users. They have correctly observed that foreign practitioners are going to be doing it anyway. Thus, they argue, these non-natives should be taught how to do it properly.
Because for many neo-ayahuasqueros (as some devoted modern practitioners trained by native practitioners term themselves) an ayahuasca experience is a deeply spiritual one. Something to be treated with respect. Some neo-ayahuasqueros are even qualified in modern clinical fields. But they still see the wisdom which can be gained from cultures very different from their own.