Do you want to know more about ayahuasca? Are you interested in its history and rituals?
Ayahuasca is a popular herb from Amazon in South America. However, it’s difficult to trace its history as to when it was exactly discovered. This article aims to guide you with the timeline of this powerful brew and how it was traditionally used by the South American locals thousands of years ago.
Ayahuasca is popular for its healing properties and ability to change one’s perspective and life. It became very popular with many likening it to psychoactive drugs because it can alter one’s mental state with some experiencing hallucinations. Many seek this magical brew today to help them deal with depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma and more. But even before Westerners discovered it, the indigenous peoples from the Amazon had already been using it for thousands of years due to its potent properties and powerful results.
The Amazonian people have associated ayahuasca with shamanism and some also linked it to evil powers. But a lot of things have already changed about it especially that it has become a multi-million industry today. Continue reading to understand how this Amazonian brew flourished in the past years.
Ayahuasca also called caapi, yaje or yage is a hallucinogenic drink made from the stem and bark of the tropical liana Banisteriopsis caapi and other botanical ingredients. It is first formulated by indigenous South Americans of the Amazon basin, but it has been used in many parts of the world. The most popular plants used are banisteriopsis caapi vine or b caapi.
The history of ayahuasca is not easy to trace, it’s actually intertwined with the Quechua, the language of South American Indians living in the Andean highlands from Ecuador to Bolivia, according to Gayle Highpine(1)http://www.ayahuasca.com/amazon/botany-ecology/unraveling-the-mystery-of-the-origin-of-ayahuasca/ . The indigenous tribes in Peru also use the same dialect. Quechua is the unifying language of the Inca Empire 600 years ago that’s why it is also called the “language of the Incas.” Quechua has many regional varieties.
The very word ayahuasca or “aya-waska” is Quechua and it is closely associated with shamanism. This word is used in their mother tongue discourse and songs.
It is believed that ayahuasca may have originated with the Incas or spread by the Incas. There is no direct evidence that the Incas ever used it, but they had an intense interest in local plant life everywhere they went. However, their interest was less in medicinal plants than in local varieties of edible crops.
If the Incas used ayahuasca, it was probably restricted to the elite ruling classes and would have been business as usual because the elite class had many private ceremonial practices. It’s also possible that they didn’t like it because Incas reportedly had a distaste for anything too wild, chaotic, and uncontrollable.
Regardless, there is no evidence that the highland Indians are the first to use it, but the people around Cuzco or Inca region in Peru have been cashing in on ayahuasca tourism.
“Even after five hundred years of reports on shamanism, its core remains a mystery. One thing that has changed, however, is the gaze of the observers. It has opened up. And understanding is starting to flower” (Narby and Huxley 2001:8).
Meanwhile, another source claimed that the history of ayahuasca dates so far back that anthropologists and researchers have yet to trace its origins. But the shamans claim that the plants, themselves, told them it was during a Middle World shamanic journey.
The ayahuasca brew that the people know today is a mixture of Banisteriopsis caapi and a DMT-containing plant such as Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. There are many plants from the Psychotria family that were used as purgatives on their own.
Purging was and still is held in high regard in some tribes of the Upper Amazon as an efficient means of detoxifying the body of parasites that was why there were assumptions that the DMT-rich species P. viridis was first added to create a more potent emetic.
However, according to previous reports, the DMT-containing plants were added to the brew because they bring light and clarification of the visions already held in the ayahuasca vine. The monochromatic, shapeless apparitions that come from the vine-only concoction channeled by the DMT mixture take on glorious meta-dimensional forms.
Historical Ayahuasca Tribes
The Shipibo, an ancient tribe from the Amazonian rainforest in Peru were credited for holding the traditions of entheogenic brew ayahuasca. But the indigenous peoples from the tribe have changed due to colonialism, resource extraction and influence of missionaries.
Despite the changes, the Shipibo people still keep their tradition especially their long history of using ayahuasca. With the widespread of ayahuasca retreat centers, religious groups and ceremonies across the globe, some Shipibo shamans trained outsiders, including Westerners, to learn how to use ayahuasca.
The outsiders introduced the powerful brew in their local area and it became a huge hit that many churches, even in the U.S., include this in the rituals because it is legal for spiritual ceremonies. The use of ayahuasca in the religious sector isn’t new as the brew has always been associated with ayahuasca shamanism in South America.
However, the traditional use of the brew has slowly changed because outside the Shipibo culture, it is used primarily by the patients or participants. Traditionally, only shamans consume it, but the Westerners were willing to pay to experience it. Eventually, the way the brew was consumed changed to meet the demand.
Also, many retreat centers and churches have opened and offer those people looking for alternative medication to try this vine. But the boom of ayahuasca tourism also caused some concerns.
There were claims that Banisteriopsis caapi vine has become difficult to source and that it isn’t regulated by the government. Meanwhile, some felt that using it for business fails to respect the sanctity of the plant. Some also felt that it exploited indigenous peoples’ knowledge.
“It’s our culture; the Amazon’s culture,” Francisco Montes Shuna, a curandero running the Sachamama Botanical Garden, told The Guardian. “These foreigners are coming here and stealing our knowledge”
The first Wester report on ayahuasca dates from some Jesuits traveling the Amazon in 1937. They described it as a “diabolic potion.” Ethnobotanist Richard Spruce wrote an elaborate letter about the ayahuasca ceremony he observed with the Tukano tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.
The English botanist first encountered B. caapi in 1851. His next encounters with ayahuasca were in 1858 when he observed the Guahibo Indians of Colombia and Venezuela and the Zaparo Indians of Peru where they partook the same substance known as Tukano. He collected plant samples but did not publish any of his findings until 1873.
In the interim, Manuel Villacencio, a Peruvian geographer, published his ayahuasca experience in 1858. A travel guide was also published in 1936 by Finnish scholar Dr. Rafael Karsten. In his book, Karsten gave an account of the people he encountered in the Western Amazon.
In the same year, he sent a sample of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and at the time, they had no idea what to do with it.
In the 1960s, ayahuasca or the “vine of the soul” captured the Westerners’ attention due to the writing of William S. Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg. They had separately traveled to the Putumayo region (the border of Colombia and Peru) to search for the magic brew.
They corresponded about their adventures in the Yage letters in 1963. At about the same time, Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes visited the region and described a variety of indigenous ceremonies he observed or participated in.
Richard Evans Schultes was an American biologist and he was considered the father of ethnobotany. He was well known for his studies of the uses of plants by indigenous people. He also worked on entheogenic or hallucinogenic plants, particularly in Mexico and Amazon.
At the beginning of that century, several ayahuasca churches emerged in Brazil. The first was the Santo Daime in the 1930s. Barquinha split off in 1945, and in 1961 the União de Vegetal (UDV) was established. They were part of a larger process of urbanization of ayahuasca during the 20th century – the brew was no longer reserved for indigenous shamans and their tribes but also for the curanderos in the wider populations started to organize sessions that incorporated ayahuasca drinking.
In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists began to take interest in ayahuasca. Columbian anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, began writing about his ayahuasca experience in 1970. Two years later, another oft-cited anthropologist Dr. Marlene Dobkin de Rios published her book “Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon.”
It was only until 1969 that the material was rediscovered and analyzed. As knowledge of ayahuasca’s psychotropic effects spread in the late 20th century, Peru experienced an influx of tourists seeking the drink. Ayahuasca tourism began and it continued to grow until today because of the amount of money it brings to the Amazon people.
When the westerners learned about the potential benefits of ayahuasca brew, more and more started to travel to Latin America and South America. Many fly to Peru, Ecuador and Colombia because these places are well known for the use of ayahuasca. From the 1990s onwards, ayahuasca churches have started to spread outside the region and those who are into ayahuasca have invited shamans to travel to Europe or America to conduct ceremonies. Some of them were even initiated to develop their own hybrid spiritual or therapeutic practice.
In 2002 the number of international tourists who visited Colombia to try ayahuasca was only 547,000. In 2012, the figure rose up to 2,175,000, BBC(2)https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27203322 reported.
According to Jessica Barrett, even if the Westerners have only come to learn ayahuasca as a medicinal plant or brew in the last 50 years, it has already become a multimillion-dollar industry in Central and South America. The locals in the Amazon basin made tens of thousands for offering ayahuasca retreat ceremonies and many are willing to pay over $3,000 USD for the experience.
Ayahuasca boosted the economy in Amazon with the flock of tourists visiting the South American region for an ayahuasca experience. Carlos Suárez Álvarez, author of Ayahuasca, Iquitos, and Monster Vorax has learned that the 10 biggest ayahuasca retreats in Iquitos bring about $6.5 million USD annually to the local economies.
Ayahuasca retreat centers have become a trend worldwide that many new centers have been launched in different countries, including the United States. In fact, there are already retreat centers in San Francisco, Kentucky, California and more. So, people may not need to travel to the Amazonian region to experience the power of spiritual vine.
Ayahuasca Preparation in Historical Setting
In this section, I will discuss how the brew is prepared traditionally and how the people get themselves ready for the ceremony. There are certain preparations to make before the ceremony starts. Apparently, they prepare their bodies and mind before the retreat. Ayahuasca is sacred, powerful and magical because it helps them solve most of their problems, so they prepare big time for it.
How the traditional Ayahuasca brew is prepared
The traditional brews are made with Banisteriopsis caapi (b caapi) as an MAOI, while dimethyltryptamine(3)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) sources are added as admixtures and they vary from region to region.
Yes, the mixture contains DMT which causes vivid hallucinations and altered sense of self. The ayahuasca vine alone doesn’t do much, but when it is boiled along with the leaves of chacruna, the resulting concoction delivers the same effects as psychoactive drugs.
The caapi vine is macerated and boiled alone or with the leaves of other plants like chacruna (Psychotria viridis), chaliponga or chagropanga and Mimosa tenuiflora. The ingredients could vary depending on the shaman. The resulting brew contains powerful psychedelic drug DMT and MAO inhibiting harmala alkaloids which are necessary to make the DMT orally active.
DMT admixture plants are becoming a common component in the brew with the boost of ayahuasca tourism. It came as a response of the indigenous communities to the visionary expectations from the brew. Untrained shamans and gringo visitors would not be able to see visions and encounter a life-changing experience without the addition of DMT training wheels that’s why shamans include P. viridis and D. cabrerana as standard admixtures.
The traditional Ayahuasca preparation follows a ritual process that requires the user to pick the lower chacruna leaf at sunrise and say a prayer. The vine is also cleaned meticulously with wooden spoons and pounded with wooden mallets until it’s fibre.
But one can also make brews without DMT by replacing chacruna with plants like Justicia pectoralis(4)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justicia_pectoralis, Brugmansia(5)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brugmansia. Sacred tobacco also known as mapacho (Nicotiana rustica) is also a good replacement. The brew may vary from one batch to the next in potency and psychoactive effect. Other factors that affect the quality of the brew are the shaman’s skill, the admixtures used, and the intent of the ceremony.
The actual preparation of the brew takes several hours and often takes over the course of more than one day. After adding the plant material to a large pot of water, it is boiled until the water is reduced by half in volume that’s why it takes hours. The individual brews are combined together and brewed until reduced significantly. The mixture is what is served to the participants in ayahuasca ceremonies.
Caapi comes in a number of varieties, colors, potencies, uses and effects. Below are some of the admixtures used when mixing the brew.
• Psychotria viridis (Chacruna) – leaves
• Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga, Chagropanga, Banisteriopsis rusbyana) – leaves
• Psychotria carthagenensis (Amyruca) – leaves
• Mimosa tenuiflora (M. hostilis) – Root bark
Other common admixtures
• Justicia pectoralis • Brugmansia (Toé) • Nicotiana rustica (Mapacho, variety of tobacco)
• Ilex guayusa, a relative of yerba mate
Common mixtures associated with ceremonial values and spirits.
• Lopuna blanca
• Punga amarilla
• Remo casp
• Wyra (huaira)
• Uchu sanango
It is very important that the mixture is carefully brewed to make it more effective in delivering visions and to ensure the guests’ safety and health because a poorly prepared brew could result in unwanted interaction, headache, stomachache or diarrhea.
How Indigenous People Prepare for Ayahuasca Ceremonies?
The indigenous people follow certain dietary guidelines and food restrictions before they do the ayahuasca ceremony. They avoid certain food because the ayahuasca diet recommends flavorless food, so they limit their salt and sugar intake. They also avoid spices including hot peppers, onions and garlic. In the shamanic perspective, intensely-flavored food creates the cutipado effect that obstructs the energy of the plant medicine.
They also tend to avoid pork, red meat, aged cheeses, fermented foods, yogurt, alcohol and more. Moreover, they wait for a couple of hours from their last meal before taking ayahuasca.
That’s probably to give their bodies enough time to digest what they eat because of the purging process. Also, it’s to ensure that the body is pure and ready ahead of the ceremony. When the body is prepared, one has a slimmer chance of dealing with hours of headaches, hypertension, nausea and vomiting.
Aside from eating clean, the indigenous usually prepare mentally, emotionally and spiritually days before the retreat. In fact, old school ayahuasqueros would go into the forest for solitude and to seek the help of the plants. They would use their surviving skills like hunting and foraging. Others also avoid contraindicative herbal supplements, caffeine, processed foods, overstimulating and violent media content, marijuana, and sex.
The same practice still applies today. Those who want to attend ayahuasca retreats are advised to prepare for the experience weeks before the actual ceremony by doing the same activities mentioned above. Aside from a healthy diet, participants are advised to meditate to prepare emotionally and mentally because when one is under the spell of the plant the experience can be overwhelming with others claiming to see demons and other horrible creations.
Ayahuasca Traditional Use
Over 70 indigenous tribes in a large geographical area from Colombia to Bolivia have been known for the use of ayahuasca. They use about 40 names for it, including caapi, natem and yagé.
Those who first use ayahuasca turn to it for non-traditional context align themselves with the philosophies and cosmologies associated with ayahuasca shamanism which the indigenous people have been practicing. Others use ayahuasca for its medicinal properties because it can heal any illness.
Shamans function as medicine doctors and generally maintain intimate personal relationships with a broad range of plants which they perceive as spiritual entities. The plants are supposed to have their own consciousness and character. The shamans, who are familiar with the plants’ multiple uses and preparation procedures, prepare the brew and lead the ceremony.
It’s a decoction created by prolonged heating or boiling of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. However, there can be a variety of other plants in the decoction for different traditional purposes. The active chemical in ayahuasca is DMT (dimethyltryptamine).1 It also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).2
Ayahuasca is traditionally used to heal all kinds of illnesses. For healing, it is regularly used to treat physical illnesses and mental problems. Taking the brew can also help with social anxiety and spiritual crises. It’s likely that the shaman is acquainted with a range of different healing techniques traditions and integrates them in his or her practice. It is also believed that Mother Aya can help them
In most indigenous societies, ordinary community members rarely partake in ayahuasca. Some of them tried it out of curiosity but found the experience grueling and too much for them that they didn’t want to try it again.
But in some cases, patients are advised to take ayahuasca when their condition is serious. The purging would help the patient to release the toxins inside their body whether it is physical, spiritual or physiological. Also, shamans take ayahuasca for divination and clairvoyance to diagnose the patients’ illnesses or conditions and help find cure.
The people believe that if you ask Mother Aya for healing, it will provide whatever you seek. According to several reports, this powerful brew has healed thousands of cases of physical, emotional and mental disorders. There is still so much to investigate when it comes to its healing properties but thousands of people claim ayahuasca healed their addiction to cancer.
2. Witchcraft and sorcery
Aside from healing, it is believed that the spirit of the magical vine can also inflict harm. Some shamans reportedly used it for sorcery or to counterattack another who started a curse. The wage against the medicine-men usually involved a person believed to be suffering from a certain illness or condition.
Some used ayahuasca to send evil sorcery, others used it to defend their patients. The indigenous people believed that the most serious illnesses could be attributed to the dark magic of evil brujos or sorcerers. The shamans would drink ayahuasca brews to determine the brujo who sent the tsentsak or magical dart and attempt to send it back to heal the patient.
Father Franz Xavier Veigl somehow touched this topic in 1768 when he reported that the “bitter reed […] serves for mystification and bewitchment” and was used “only for superstitious practices and witchcraft.”
However, in the present, there is little to no mention of sorcery and witchcraft. Of course, who would want to sign up for an ayahuasca retreat if the shaman is associated with witchcraft. That would scare people away and would not attract participants.
Instead, shamans are usually portrayed as saint-like, enlightened and wise. They are healers and leaders and have the power to heal. However, one should note that brujeria is a real aspect in the Amazon.
3. Spiritual ceremony
Aside from physical, emotional and mental healing, ayahuasca can help one spiritually. In the 1970s, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios studied the use of ayahuasca among the inhabitants of the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon.
The slums of Iquitos are populated by destitute mestizos and indigenous people who came from the forest and experienced poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and crime dominated social life when they moved to the urban area.
Many of the slum dwellers seek the traditional ways of dealing with the myriad problems they encounter which makes ayahuasca popular among them due to its curative powers. The urbanization caused their land and prey to dwindle forcing them to move to the cities and most of them had a hard time adjusting to their new lives with some experiencing massive psycho-spiritual damage.
Those who struggled after leaving their old way of life would seek out help from local shamans who organize ayahuasca ceremonies much like the form of what one observes in the present day in retreat centers. It’s usually set up as group healing sessions. Rios called it the “folk psychotherapy with the harmine drink, ayahuasca” where the participants would get a chance to gain some insights and wisdom to overcome their predicament.
Aside from healing, ayahuasca is used for initiation and rite of passage. It is viewed as an important teacher for those who aspire to be a shaman. The initiation usually includes a special diet with the plant for a prolonged period of time sometimes for over a year.
But it’s not exclusive for shamans. In Dr. de Rios’ study, she learned that this magical plant is also used to mark an important event in one’s life, especially when an individual transcends to adulthood. The indigenous societies would employ the use of hallucinogens, including ayahuasca, to mark the passage from youth to adulthood.
“The plants were used for their hyper-suggestible properties, in order to create a state in which the moral and social values of the tribe would be easier to accept and assimilate. The visions or dreams were subsequently interpreted by the elders of the community in a way that agreed with the specific beliefs and values of the society – which reinforced in the young ideals of society to make them more fit to survive in their culture,” she wrote.
5. Religious ceremony
Ayahuasca is also popularly used as a central element of religious ceremonies for healing and personal growth. The members of the Brazilian syncretic churche serve it for religious aims and not for therapeutic purposes.
Using ayahuasca for the ceremonial experience creates a safe and supportive environment that allows one to address their unresolved emotions which leads to healing, a process that is unavoidable when situations are difficult.
“I think that ayahuasca can be very illuminating in giving somebody a perspective on their spiritual life just as a whole no matter what tradition the person is in or not in a tradition at all,” said Vanessa Caldarelli(6)https://doubleblindmag.com/ayahuasca-benefits/, owner of Posada Natura, a wellness retreat center that hosts ayahuasca ceremonies in Costa Rica.
“It can be very illuminating in finding one’s own path, in finding one’s own sense of direction, one’s own sense of relationship of what’s important in that sector of their life.”
6. Clairvoyance or divination
The brew can also be used for clairvoyance or divination. Shamans believe that ayahuasca gives them the wisdom to perceive the source of illness or other forms of bad luck and understand how they relate to the patient’s life.
According to a study in 2016, there is a Peruvian tradition called vegetalismo that regards ayahuasca as one of the teacher plants that convey knowledge to humans. The priest healers drink the brew to cross over into spirit realms and attain powers of divination where they communicate with the spirits to learn a variety of information that is not readily available in reality like learning what to plant, when to harvest or hunt, what’s best for the community, what’s the treatment for an illness, where a missing object or person is, what ailment the patient is suffering from and more.
By conveying the said information, shamans develop clairvoyance. They could guide their tribe in the right direction, help one heal, enjoy better health, grow spiritually and live abundantly. The clairvoyance is among the reason’s shamans are held as revered figures in indigenous cultures.
Peru’s government recognized ayahuasca’s status as “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon people.” It claimed that the consumption of the “teacher” or “wisdom plant” constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secret that’s why traditional Amazon medicine has been structured around the ayahuasca ritual.
“I took ayahuasca with a fourth-generation shaman to explore its ability to provide ‘visions’ that could give my readers further clarity on their vocational calling,” said career coach Jeremy Behrman who took ayahuasca in Colombia in 2013.
“Many travelers I met took it because they’d been told it had effects similar to other drugs like LSD which are often used recreationally. In my experience people should only seek the medicine and the well-trained shamans who hold the ceremonies with the intention of engaging in a serious spiritual upheaval. My experience was hugely enlightening, but ultimately very challenging.”
How Was Ayahuasca Ceremony Historically Performed?
A shamanic ritual is a practice that usually involves a shaman who reaches altered states of consciousness in order to interact with the spirit world. Shamans are intermediaries between the human world that we live in and the invisible spirit world. They are someone respected for providing spiritual leadership medicinal care.
Shamans are usually community leaders or medicine men who are wise, pure and influential in the tribe. They achieve a certain trance during rituals where they can connect with entities and spirits from other dimensions that give them the wisdom to treat illnesses, heal people, and solve other problems in the community.
Ayahuasca ceremonies have become very popular and many fly to Amazon to experience it there, where the traditional ayahuasca ceremony originated. However, unknown to many, the traditional way is very different from what the people have been practicing today.
Traditionally, only the shamans consume ayahuasca. The main purpose of the consumption is communion with the spirits, magic divination, diagnosis and healing.
The shaman would start the ceremony by singing and will drink the brew to invoke the presence of spirits. According to Jesuit historian Jose Chantre y Herrera, the brew would have an intense effect on the shaman and would make him aggressive and sometimes he would pass out during a catatonic trance.
They believed that his soul would leave his body and the summoned spirit would deliver the message to him by speaking through him and the shaman would disclose what he learned through the journey to the world.
Many want to experience the divination and spiritual awakening that the shamans go through during the ceremony that’s why the people start drinking the brew. The trend eventually changed with the people now consuming ayahuasca.
Also, one should note that modern ayahuasca retreats are not always traditional as they are marketed especially that the tradition is always changing. Again, in the Brazilian Amazon, ayahuasca ceremonies would traditionally be conducted with the entire community chanting the sacred medicine chants together.
However, at present, the same tribes consume ayahuasca and sing icaros with guitars, ukuleles and flutes. These practices are not traditional and the older shamans are also adjusting to the way new shamans lead the current ceremonies.
Don’t get too hung up on traditional ayahuasca. When you hear “traditional” it only indicates that the ceremony format includes some of the practices from the indigenous tribes like singing songs or icaros, but the whole ceremony might not be the same.
The use of ayahuasca to solve physical, mental, spiritual and emotional issues has become very popular in central and South America. The South American people were believed to be the first ayahuasca users, they came up with the brew using the plant B caapi and added plants with DMT which gave the mixture psychoactive effects.
The indigenous peoples turned to the powerful vine to address various health problems and it worked. The use of ayahuasca goes beyond healing as shamans also use it for divination and initiation. It gives them clairvoyance to see the future, find answers to their questions and solutions to their predicament.
Initially, only the shamans took the brew and they only advised a patient to take it if necessary. But due to the enlightenment, spiritual and life-changing encounters from the concoction, Westerners were willing to pay for the experience and when the ayahuasca tourism boomed. Its popularity went beyond South America and it also changed the way the B caapi concoction was consumed. Nevertheless, it delivers the same results – healing, clairvoyance, peace, transformation, and wisdom.
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