The Virola Tree as a Source of Snuff

But even this corrected classification did not clear up all the confusion, because snuffs were attributed by many writers to Anadenanthera, whether or not that genus actually occurred locally, and even though the observed method of preparation suggested that several different and even unrelated species might be involved. The mystery was cleared up when several species of Virola, a tree belonging not, like Anadenanthera, to the Leguminoseae (pea family) but, like nutmeg, to the Myristicaceae, were confirmed as source of some of the snuffs once attributed solely to A. peregrina. Schultes was again prominently involved in settling this problem.

Psychotria Viridis
Figure 13 Virola theidora

The principal hallucinogenic alkaloids in both Anadenanthera (peregrina and coiubrina) and in the several species of Virola (V. theidora, V. callophylla, V. callophylloidea) are tryptamines, as they are also in one species of Banisteriopsis, and in the sacred mushrooms and other ritual hallucinogens of Mexico. In A. peregrina and coiubrina, bufotenine (5-hydroxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is present in large amounts, and for a time the central nervous activity of Anadenanthera snuffs was thought to be due mainly to this alkaloid, which these leguminous trees share with the toad (Bufo spp.). Recent analyses have shown, however, that other tryptamine derivatives are also present in the seeds—such as N, N-dimethyltryptamine, N-monomethyl-tryptamine,5-methoxy-N, 5-methoxy-N-monomethyltryptamine,N, N-dimethyltryptamine-N-oxide,5-hydroxy-N, and N-dimethyltryptamine-N-oxide (Schultes, 1972a:28).

Figure 14 V. callophylla

Vii^piJt

Wurirujjf-

Figure 14 V. callophylla

Snuff prepared from Virola theidora alone, without admixtures, contains 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in concentrations of up to 8 percent, along with smaller amounts of N,N-dimethyltryptamine and related alkaloids. Alkaloid concentrations vary in different parts of the tree, but the bark generally contains the highest percentage.

Now, as we know, tryptamines require a monoamine oxidase inhibitor to become effective in man, a problem the Indians have solved in several known instances by mixing different hallucinogenic species together. For example, Banisteriopsis rushy ana is a chemical oddity among its sister species, in that in contrast to B. caapi and B. inebrians, whose active principles are beta-carboline harmala alkaloids, its active constituents are tryptamines! This explains why the Tukanoan Indians of Colombian Amazonia, for example, never take B. rusbyana by itself but mix it with B. caapi or B. inebrians into an especially potent form of yaje, a method that allows the beta-carboline harmala alkaloids of the one to function as inhibitors for the tryptamines of the other. Thus not only the harmala alkaloids but also the tryptamines are able to play their part in the ecstatic intoxication. As Schultes (1972a) observes, here again one cannot help but wonder how peoples in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, (p. 38)

Figure 15 V. callophylloidea

Now, in the case of Virola snuffs, no such activating admixture seems to be absolutely required, since two new carbolines have recently been discovered in V. theidora itself (Schultes, 1970). Nevertheless, admixtures that can themselves be psychodynamically effective are frequently employed. Schultes (1972a), who visited the Waika (Yanomamo) in 1967 with the Swedish pharmacologist Bo Holmstedt, describes their technique as follows:

There are a number of methods of preparing the snuff, which is called epena or nyakwma by the many "tribes" which I include under the generic term Waika. Some scrape the soft inner layer of the bark of the tree, dry the shavings by gentle roasting over a fire, and store them until they are needed for making the snuff. They are then crushed and pulverized, triturated and sifted. The resultant powder is fine, homogeneous, chocolate-brown, and highly pungent. Then, when the Indians desire it (but not always) a dust of the powdered dry leaves of the aromatic acanthaceous weed Justicia pectoralis var. stenophylla is added in equal amounts. The third, and invariable, ingredient is the ash of the bark of a rare leguminous tree, Elizabetha princeps. This tree is known as ama or amasita by the Waika. These ashes are mixed in approximately equal amounts with the resin, or resin and Justicia powder, to give a brownish-grey snuff.

Other Waikas follow a different procedure, at least when they are preparing the snuff for ceremonial purposes. The bark is stripped from the Virola tree, the strips laid over a gentle fire in the forest, and the copious blood-red resin is scraped into an earthenware pot. It is boiled down and allowed to sun-dry. Then, alone or mixed with the powdered Justicia leaves, it is sifted and is ready for use. (p. 43)

FSTrTCHOTfllA virtiElii. Figure 16 Psychotria viridis

J. pectoralis appears to be itself a potent hallucinogen, containing, like Virola, tryptamine alkaloids. It is in fact cultivated by some of the Yanomamo groups studied by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and his colleagues on the Upper Orinoco and employed without any active admixtures in one variety of intoxicating ebene snuff (Chagnon eta/., 1971). (It should be noted here that Justicia and another tryptamine-containing South American genus, Psychotria, occur also in Mexico, a circumstance to which I will return in connection with the recent discovery of a very ancient snuffing complex in Mexico that was apparently already long extinct at the time of the Conquest.)

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Responses

  • hilda
    Is virola dust a drug?
    1 month ago

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