The Magic Drink Of The Amazon

There is a magic intoxicant in northwes ternmost South America that the In dians believe can free the soul from corporeal confinement, allowing it to wander free and return to the body at will. The soul, thus untrammeled, liberates its owner from the realities of everyday life and introduces him to wondrous realms of what he considers reality and permits him to communicate with his ancestors. The Quechua term for this inebriating drink—Ayahuasca ("vine of the soul")—refers to this free ing of the spirit. The plants involved are truly plants of the gods, for their power is laid to supernatural forces residing in their tissues, and they were divine gifts to the earliest Indians on earth.

Ayahuasca has many native names: Caapi, Dápa, Mihi, Kahi, Natema, Pin dé, Yajé. The drmk, employed for prophecy, divination, sorcery, and medical purposes, is so deeply rooted in native mythology and philosophy that there can be no doubt of its great age as a part of aboriginal life

Two closely related species of the malpighiaceous genus Bamstenopsis— B. caapi and B. inebrians—zre the most important plants used in preparing Ayahuasca. But other species are apparently used locally on occasion: B. quitensis; Mascagma glanduhfera, M. psiiophylla var. antifebnhs; Tetrapteris methystica and T. mucronata. All of these plants are large forest lianas of the same family. Banisteriopsis caapi and B. inebrians are frequently cultivated in order to have a supply close at hand for use.

Many plants of diverse families are often added to the basic drink to alter the intoxicating effects. The most commonly used admixtures are leaves of Diplopterys cabrerana and of the rubiac-eous Psychotria earthaginensis or P. vir-idis. Other known psychoactive plants, such as Brugmansia suaveolens, Brun felsia chincaspi, and B. grandiflora, may also be added. Among the many plants employed are Tobacco; MaloueVa tamaquanna and a species of Tabernac-rrmntaná of the Apocynaceae; the acan-thaceous Tehostachya lanceolata var. crispa or' oé negra\kalathea veitchiana of the Maranthaceae; the amaranthac eous Alternanthera lehmannii and a ■secies of Iresine; several ferns including Lygodmm venustum and Lomariopsis japurensis• Phrygylanthus eugenio'.des of the Misteltoe famil« the American Basil Ocimum micranthum; a species of the sedge genus Cyperus; several cacti including spec is o|f Opuntia and Epi-phyllum; and members of the families Clusiaceae and Guttiferae.

he natives often have special names for diverse "kinds" of Ayahuasca, al though the botanist frequently finds them all representative of the same species. flfs usually difficult to understand the aboriginal method of classification; some may be age forms; others may come from different parts of the liana; still others may be ecological forms growing under varying conditions of soil, shade, moisture, and so on. The natives assert that these "kinds" have a variety of effects, and it is conceivable that they may actually have different chemical compositions. This possibility is one of the least investigated yet most significant aspects in the study of Ayahuasca.

Among the Tukano of the Colombia Vaupes, for example, six "kinds" of Ayahuasca or Kahi are recognized. Botanical identification has not yet been possible in all cases, but the "kinds" have definite native names. Kahi-riama, the strongest, produces auditory hallucinations and announces future events. It is said to cause death if improperly employed. The second strongest, Me-ne-kal -ma, reputedly causes visions of green snakes. The bark is used, and it is also said to cause death, unless cautiously taken. These two "kinds" may not belong to Bamste :opsis or even to the family Malpighiaceae.

The third in strength is called Suana-Kahi-ma ("Kahi of the red jaguai"), producing visions in red. Kahi-vai Bucura-rijoma ("Kahi of the monkey head") causes monkeys to hallucinate and howl. The weakest of the hallucinogenic * kinds" of Kahi or Ajuwri-kahi-ma has little effect but is used in the drink to help the Men^-Kahi-ma. All |f these "kinds" are referable probably to Banis-

Above right: The shoots of the Ayahuasca liana.

Top: The Chacruna shrub (Psychotria viridis) is the second most important ingredient in the Ayahuasca drink.

Above right: The shoots of the Ayahuasca liana.

Left: A Shipibo Indian with an Ayahuasca liana that he has cultivated m his garden.

Page 124 above: The Ayahuasca liana (Banisteriopsis caapi) is a powerful and vigorously growing tropical vine.

Page 124 below:The pieces of branch are the base of the Ayahuasca preparat.on.

"Ayahuasca, medicine, enrapture me fully! Help me by opening your beautiful world to met You also are created by the god who created man! Reveal to me completely your medicine worlds. I shall heal the sick bodies: These sick children and this sick woman shall I heal by making everything good!"

—Ayahuasca Song of the Shipibo

Sabicea Amazonensis
Above left: The British plant explorer Spruce collected the first botanical specimens of Banisteriopsis caapi in 1851 He sent material from the same plant for chemical analysis. The material was located in the Museum at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1969

Above right: Among the Kofan of Colombia and Ecuador, special medicine men prepare Curare and Yaje. There is an association between these two plant products, and Yaje is taken before hunting in the belief that the visions will reveal the hiding places of the animals to be sought,

Far right: To make Ayahuasca or Caapi, the freshly stripped bark must be vigorously pounded before being boiled in water or kneaded thoroughly in cold water.

Page 127left: The numerous Tukanoan tribes of the Vaupes River basin in Colombia and Braz" practice a male-oriented ancestor ceremony The Yurupari dance, in which Caapi is a major element, enables the participants to communicate with spirits of the dead.

Page 127right: Linp dancing with intricate steps and gourd rattles accompa nying chants is typical of Barasana ceremonies in which Caapi is taken, Piraparana River.

tenupsi- caapi. Kahi somoma or Kahi uco ("Kahi that makes you vomit"), a shrub the leaves of which are added to the drink, an emetic agent, is undoubtedly Diplopterys cabrerana. the same plant known among the western Tukanoan Siona of the Colombian Putu-roayo as Oco-yaje

Although not so famous as Peyote or the sacred Mexican mushrooms, Ayahuasca has received popular attention because of news articles extolling the so-called telepathic powers of the drink. In fact, in the chemical investigation of Banisternpsis, the first alkalc'd isolated was named telepathine.

The hallucinogen may be prepared in diverse ways. Usually, bark is scraped from freshly harvested pieces of the stem. In the western areas, the bark is boiled for several hours, and the bitter, thick liquid is taken in small doses In other localities, the bark is pulverized and then kneaded in cold water; much larger doses must be taken, since it is less concentrated.

The effects of the drink vary accord-ng to the method of preparation, the setting in which it is taken, the amount ingested, the number and kinds of admixtures, and the purposes for which it is used, as well as the ceremonial control exercised by the shaman.

Ingestion of Ayahuasca usually in duces nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and leads to either a euphoric or an aggressive state. Frequently the Indian sees over powering attacks of huge snakes or jaguars. These animals often humTate him because he is a mere man. The repetitive-ness with which snakes and jaguars occur n Ayahuasca visions has intrigued psychologists. It is understandable that these animals play such a role, since they are the only beings respected and feared by the Indians of the tropical forest; because of their power and stealth, they have assumed a place of primacy in aboriginal religious beliefs. In many tribes, the sha man becomes a feline during the intox ~a tion, exercising his powers as a wild cat. Yekwana medicine men mimic the roars of jaguars. Tukano Ayahuasca-takers may experience nightmares of j aguar jaws swallowing them or huge snakes approaching and coiling about their bodies. Snakes in bright colors climb up and down the house posts. Shamans of the Conibo-Shipibo tribe acquire great snakes as personal possessions to defend themselves in supernatural battles against other powerful shamans.

The drug may be the shaman's tool to diagnose illness or to ward off impending disaster, to guess the wiles of an enemy, to prophesy the future. But it is more than the shaman's tool. It enters into almost all aspects of the life of the people who use it, to an extent equaled by hardly any other hallucinogen. Partakers, shamans or not, see all the gods, the first human beings, and animals, and come to understand the establishment of their social order.

Ayahuasca is, above all, a medicine— the great medicine. The Ayahuasca lea der among the Campa of Peru is a religious practitioner who, following a strict apprenticeship, maintains and increases his shamanistic power through the use of Tobacco and Ayahuasca. The Campa shaman under Ayahuasca acquires an eerie, distant voice and a quivering jaw that indicates the arrival of gpod spirits who, splendidly clad, sing and dance before him; the shaman's singing is merely his own voice echoing their song. During the singing, his soul may travel far and wide—a phenomenon not interfering with per formance of the ceremony nor with the shaman's ability to communicate the wishes of the spirits to participants.

Among the Tukano, the partaker of the drug feels himself pulled along by powerful winds that the leading shaman explains as a trip to the Milky Way, the first stop on the way to heaven Similarly, the Ecuadorean Zaparo experience a sensation of being lifted into the air. The souls of Peruvian Conibo Shipibo shamans fly about in the form of a bird; or shamans may travel in a supernatural canoe manned by demons to reconquer lost or stolen souls.

The effects of the drink are greatly al tered when leaves of Diploterys cabrer-cma or of Psychotria are added. The

The Chemistry of Ayahuasca

In the belief that they were new discoveries, the first alkaloids isolated from Banisteriopsis were called telepathine and banisterine. Further chemical investigations revealed that these preparations were identical with the alkaloid harmine, previously isolated from Syrian Rue, Peganum harmala. Furthermore, the secondary alkaloids of Paganum, harmaline and tetrahydrohar-mine, also occur in Banisteriopsis. The active principles are indole alkaloids found in several other hallucinogenic plants.

The drink made from Ayahuasca is a unique pharmacological combination of Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana that contains harmaline, and Chacruna (Psychotria viridia) leaves, which contain DMT. Harmaline is an MAG inhibitor; it reduces the body's production and distribution of monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO normally breaks down the vision-inducing ingredient DMT before it can cross the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system. Only with this combination of ingredients can the drink have its consciousness-expanding effects and trigger visions.

Plants Containing the MAO-lnhibiting ß-Carboline Alkaloids:

Banisteriopsis spp. Kochia scoparia (L.) SCHRAD. Passiflora invoiucrata Passiflora spp Peganum harmala L.

Strychnos usambarensis GILG Tribulus terrestris L.


Harmine, Harmane ß Carboline

Harmine, Harmane, etc.

Harmine, Tetrahydroharmine,

Dihydrcharmaline, Harmane, Isohar-

mine, Tetrahydroharmol, Harmalol,

Harmol, Norharmine



Harmine, among others

Magic Hallucination

"Practically all decorative elements ... are said . . .

to be derived from hallucinatory imagery. ..

The most outstanding examples are the paintings executed on the front walls of the malocas . . . sometimes . . . representing the Lord of

Game Animals .. . When asked about these paintings, the Indians simply reply: 'This is what we see when we drink Yaje . .

—G. Reichel-Dolmatoff

tryptamines in these additives are believed to be inactive when taken orally, unless monoamine oxidase inhibitors are present. The harm.ine and its derivatives in B. caapi and B. 'nebrians are in hibitors of this kind, potentiating the tryptamines. Both types of alkaloids, however, are hallucinogenic.

Length and vividness of the visual hal lucinations are notably enhanced when these additives are present Whereas visions with the basic drink are seen usually in blue, purple, or gray, those induced when the tryptaminic additives are used may be brightly colored in reds and yellows

The Ayahuasca intoxication may be a very intense experience with visions of light setting in with the eyes closed after a period of giddiness, nervousness, profuse sweating, and sometimes nausea. A period of lassitude initiates the play of colors—at first white, then mainly a hazy, smoky blue that later increases in intensity; eventually sleep, interrupted by dreams and occasional feterifihness, takes over. Serious diarrhea, which continues after the intoxication, is the uncomfortable effect most frequently experienced. W'th the tryptam' lie additives, many of these effects are intensified, but trembling and convulsive shaking, mydriasis, and increase of pulse rate are also noted. Frequently, a show of recklessness, sometimes even aggressiveness, marks advanced states of the inebriation.

The famous Yurupari ceremony of the Tukanoans is an ancestor-communication ritual, the basis of a man's tribal society and an adolescent male initiation rite. Its sacred bark trumpet, which calls the Yurupari spirit, is taboo to the sight o: ;vo-men; it symbolizes the forces to whom the ceremony is holy, favorably influencing fertility spirits, effecting cures of prevalent illnesses, and improving the male prestige and power over women. The Yurupari ceremony is now little practiced One of the most detailed reports of a recent dance describes it as follows.

"A deep boom'ng of drums from within the maloca heralded the appearance of the mystic Yurupari horns. With only very slight urging from one of the older men, all females from babes in arms to withered, toothless hags betook themselves to the fringing forest, to hear only from afar the deep, mysterious notes of the trumpets, sight of which is believed to spell certain death for any woman . . . Payes shamans and older men are not above aiding the workings of the mystery by the judicious administration of poison to any overcurious female.

"Four pairs of horns had been taken from places of concealment, and the players now ranged themselves in a rough semi-circle, producing the first deep, lugubrious notes . . .

"Many of the older men had meanwhile opened their tangatara boxes of ceremonial feathers and were selecting great care brilliant feather ruffs, jih were bound to the mid-section e longer horns . . . ^|our oldsters, with perfect rhythm dramatic timing, paraded through the maloca, blowing the newly decorated horns, advancing and retreating with short dancing steps. At intervals, a couple danced out of the door, their horns raised high, and returned after a brief turn, the expanding and contracting feather ruffs producing a beautiful burst of translucent color against the stronger light. Younger men were beginning the first of the savage whippings, and the master of ceremonies appeared with the red, curiously shaped clay jar containing the powerful narcotic drink called Caapi. The thick, brown, bitter |:quid was served in pairs of tiny round gourds; many drinkers promptly vomited . . .

"Whipping proceeded by pairs. The first lashes were applied to the legs and ankles,, the whip flung far back in a deliberately calculated dramatic gesture; the blows resounded like pistol shots Places were immediately exchanged. Soon the wb'ps were being freely applied, and all the younger men were laced ^ : h bloody welts on all parts of the body. Tiny lads not more than six or seven years old would catch up the abandoned whips, merrily imitating their elders. Gradually the volume of sound diminished, until only two lone performers remained, enchanted with

Top: Many species of Passion flower (Passiflora spp.) contain the active substances harmlne and harmaline.

Above right: Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) with fruit capsules.

Page 128 above: The mural In the Cuzco Airport (Peru) reveals the visionary world of Ayahuasca.

Page 128 below: Shinibo Indians in traditional costumes decorated with Ayahuasca patterns (Yarinacocha, Peru).

Shipibo Fabric BlackBelts Welts Bloody

Left: A beer mug of the Conibo-Shipibo Indians that has been completely painted with the Ayahuasca pattern

Right: Shipibo women communally paint a ceramic with Ayahuasca patterns their art, bowing, advancing, and retreating, with great delicacy and grace in the center of the maloca. About a dozen of the older men were outfitting themselves with their finest diadems of resplendent guacamayo feathers, tall, feathery egret plumes, oval pieces of the russet skin of the howler monkey, armadillo-hide disks, prized loops of monkey-hair cord, precious quartzite cylinders, and jaguar-tooth belts. Bedecked with these triumphs of savage art, the men formed a swaying, dancing semi-circle, each with his right hand resting on his neighbor's shoulder, all shifting and stamping in slow unison.

Leading the group was the ancient paye. blowing Tobacco smoke in benediction on his companions from the huge cigar in its engraved ceremonial fork, while his long, polished rattle-lance v'Vated constantly. The familiar, dignified Cachiri ceremonial chant was intoned by the group; their deep voices rose and fell, mingling with the mysterious booming tones of the Yurupari horns."

The Tukano believe that when, at the time of creation, humans arrived to po pulate the Vaupes region, many extraordinary happenings took place. People had to endure hardship before settling the new regions. Hideous snakes and

Endure Hardship

dangerous fish lived in the livers; there were spirits with cannibalistic proclivities; and the Tukano received in trepidation the basic elements of their culture.

There lived among these early Tukano a woman—the first woman of creation—who "drowned" men in visions. Tukanoans believe that during coitus, a man "drowns"—the equivalent of seeing vii'ons. The first woman found the sensual, to a mystical union with the mythic era, the intrauterine stage, is the ultimate goal, attained by a mere hand ful but coveted by all "

All or much of Indian art, it has been proposed, is based on visionary experience. Colors, similarly, are symbolically significant: yellow or off-white has a seminal concept, indicating solar fertilization; red—color of the uterus, fire,

Above: Many species of the genus 6a nisteriops's. like this B. muricata from southern Mexico, are rich in MAO-Inhibiting |3 carbolines. Because of this, they are particularly suited in the preparation of Ayahuasca analogs herself with child. The Sun-father had impregnated her through the eye. She gave birth to a child who became Caapi, the narcotic plant. The child was born during a brilliant flash of light. The woman— Yaje—cut the umbilical cord and, rubbing the child with magical plants, shaped its body. The Caapi-child lived to be an old man zealously guarding his hallucinogenic powers. From this aged child, owner of Caapi or the sexual act, the Tukanoan men received semen. For the Indians, wrote Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, "the hallucinatory experience is essentially a sexual one ... to make it sublime, to pass from the erotic, heat—symbolizes female fecundity; blue represents thought through Tobacco smoke. These colors accompany Ayahuasca intoxications and have precise interpretations. Many of the complicated rock engravings in the river valleys of the Vaupes region are undoubtedly based upon drug experiences. Likewise, the stereotyped paintings on the bark wall of Tukanoan communal houses represent themes from Ayahuasca hallucinations.

Pictures and decorations on pots, houses, basketry, and other household objects fall into two categories: abstract design and figurative motifs

Above left: A Shipibo woman paints a piece of fabric with her traditional Ayahuasca pattern

Above right: The jungle pharmacy of the Shipibo Indians. Countless medicinal plants aie taken with Ayahuasca, which strengthen the effects.

"The caji plants (Ayahuasca) reveal them selves to the experiencer, it grows, becomes green, blooms, and ultimately vanishes. The moment of the blossoming is valued as the apex of the experience."

—Flonan Deltgen (1993)

The Indians know the difference between the two and say that it is due to Caapi intoxication. "Someone watch;ng a man at work or finding a drawing would say: 'Th:> is what one sees after three cups of Yaje,' occa 'onally specifying the kind of plant that had been used and thus giving an indication of the nature of the narcotic effects they attributed to different concoctions," speculated G. Re;chel-Dolmatoff.

It would seem that such an important drug would have attracted the attention of Europeans at a very early date. Such was not the case. In 1851, however, the English botauist Spruce, who was collecting among Tukanoan 1 ibes in the

Hallucinogenic Motifs

Above: A Barasana Indian traces In sand near his maloca patterns seen during the course of Caapi intoxication. It has been suggested that many of the design motifs induced by Caapi are, on the one hand, culture-bound and, on the other hand, controlled by specific biochemical effects of the active principles in the plant.

Above: A Barasana Indian traces In sand near his maloca patterns seen during the course of Caapi intoxication. It has been suggested that many of the design motifs induced by Caapi are, on the one hand, culture-bound and, on the other hand, controlled by specific biochemical effects of the active principles in the plant.

Rio Vaupes region of Brazil, met with Caapi and sent material for chemical study to England. Three years later, he observed Caapi use agaii among the Guahibo Indians along the upper

Orinoco. Later, he encountered Aya huasca among the Zaparo of Ecuador and identified it as the same hallucinogen as Caapi.

"In the course of the night," Spruce wrote of Caapi, "the young men partook of Caapi five or six times, in the intervals between the dances; but only a few of them at a time, and a very few drank of it twice. The cup-bearer—who must be a man, for no woman can touch or taste Caapi—starts at a short run from the opposite end of the house, with a small calabash containing about a teacupful of Caapi in each hand, muttering 'Mo-mo-mo-mo-mo' as he runs, and gradually sink;ng down until at last his chin nearly touches his knees, when he reaches out one of his cups to the man who stands ready to receive it . . . In two minutes or less after drinking it., the effects begin to be apparent. The Indian turns deadly pale, trembles in every limb, and horror is in his aspect. Suddenly contrary symptoms succeed; he bursts into perspiration and seems possessed with reckless fury, seizes whatever arms are at hand . . . and rushes to the door, while he inflicts violent blows on the ground and doorposts, calling out all the while: 'Thus would I do to mine enemy [naming him by name] were this he!' In about ten minutes, the excitement has passed off, and the Indian grows calm but appears exhausted."

Since Spruce's time, this drug has been mentioned often by many travelers and explorers, but little has been accomplished until recently In fact, it was not until 1969 that chemical analysis of Spruce's material, collected for such examination in 1851, was carried out.

Much remains to be learned about Ayahuasca, Caapi Yaje. There is little time before ;ncreasing acculturation and even extinction of whole tribes will make it forever impossible to learn about these age-old beliefs and uses.

Le/'r.'This beautiful engraving on a granite rock at Nyi on the lower Piraparana River in Colombia is obviouslyancient The rapids at this point on the river are at the earth s equator, a zone vertically related to the rising and setting constellations. It has been suggested that this turbulent area of the river was the place where the Sun Father married Earth Mother to create the first Tukanoans. The Indians interpret the triangular face as a vagina and the stylized human figure as a winged phallus.

Yando Peru

Above■ The talented Peruvian artist Yando, the son of an Ayahuasquero from Pucallpa, drew this fyahuasca vision Notice that the complexities of the hallucinations are treated in an imagery in which microscopic and macroscopic dimensions are skillfully blended.

Right, 'rt^J^ultivated Chacruna (fyclmiria viridis)

Ahovt: Farmer's tobnccB (Nicotians m::fit) is one of II ic M important •.h man plants in Smith America

Ayahuasca Ingredients fji-

A selection of plants used in the preparation of the Ayahuasca drink to give it its desired healing powers or specific qualities Ai euro Euphorbia sp.

for better singing

Ahovt: Farmer's tobnccB (Nicotians m::fit) is one of II ic M important •.h man plants in Smith America

I icdldr. r The fruit 01 , pedes of The veil:, ceded Cabalmgi, hianca is added to Aj/nhuesca to protoci ihe drinker fam ,.i licious-Bpirits.

healing powers or specific qualities Ai euro Euphorbia sp.

for better singing


Capsicum frutescens



Erythrína spp.


Angei's Trumpet

Brugmansia spp.

to treat delusions illnesses caused by magic arrows


and enchantment


CouroLipita guianensis

strengthens the body


Fsychotna sp.

for cooling and reduction of visions


Thevetia sp.

protects against spirits


Hura crepitans


Cat's claw

Uncaría tomentosa

strengthens; used to treat allergies kidney problems, stomach ulcer, venereal disease


Brunfelsía spp.

for fever, rheumatism, ana arthritis


Malouetia tamaquarina

to enable a better diagnosis


Virola spp.

strengthens the vision


lochroma fuchsioides

strengthens the vision


llex guayusa

for purification and treatment of vomiting


Alchornea castanaefol¡a

to treat diarrhea

Kan a

Sabicea amazonensis

sweetens" the Ayahuasca drink

Kapok tree

Ceiba pentandra

diarrhea, intestinal problems


Chorisia inslgnis

to treat intestinal problems


°faffía iresinoides

sexual weakness


Ocimum micranthum


Piri piri

Cyperus sp.

fright promotes spiritual development; for abortions


Calathea veitchiana

to stimulate visions


Lygodium venustum

to strengthen the Ayahuasca drink

Remo caspi

Pithecellobium laetum

strengthens the Ayahuasca drink


Tabernaemontana sananho

poor memory for spiritual development;

arthritis, rheumatism


Himatanihus sucuuba

to extract magic a> rows


Nicotiana rustica

for poisoning


Ipomoea carnea

strengthens the vision

í.-TheChiricwspi bush (Brunfelsia grandiflora spp. schultesii) is an important shaman plant in the northern regions of South America.

2: Cat's Claw (Linearía tomentosa) is one of the important medicinal plants for treating chronic illnpsses among the Peruvian Indians. 3

4: The bindweed Ipomea carnea contains potent psychoactive alkaloids and i j used in the Peruvian Amazon basin as an ingredient in Ayahuasca.

5: The Sanango leaves (Tabernaemon-tana sananho) strengthen the memory.

6: The Palo de Borracho "tree of drunkenness" (Chorisia insignis) is a world tree In the cosmology of the shaman. Its astringent bark is added to Ayahuasca.

7: A leaf cutting from Psychotria diridis (grown in California).

Shaman Yaquii Tribe

Continue reading here: Ayahuasca Analogs

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    Does ayahuma alter the brain?
    9 years ago