Yaje and the Origins of

According to Reichel-Dolmatoff (1972), the Tukano attribute everything we would call "art" to the images that occur in the yaje dream. The striking polychrome designs that adorn the fronts of communal houses, the abstract motifs on their pottery, bark cloths, calabashes, and musical instruments—all these, they say, first appeared and consistently recur under the influence of the psychedelic drink. Not only is there consensus about the forms of these motifs, but in addition their meaning is codified, each having a fixed value as an ideographic sign.

According to the Tukano, the geometric or nonrepresentational motifs, which are interpreted in terms of exogamy, incest, fertility, and the like, appear with the onset of yaje intoxication, and are followed by scenes from the mythic world, with well-defined images of animals—especially felines and reptiles, birds and other beings, and themes whose models are familiar from the natural and social environment of the tropical forest. It would seem, then,

... that in a state of hallucination the individual projects his cultural memory on the wavering screen of colors and shapes and thus "sees" certain motifs and personages. (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1972:110)

Furthermore, there is nothing secret about the content of the dreams. The ecstatic trance experiences are shared, and their interpretation is often done publicly by the shamans and others respected for esoteric knowledge and wisdom. Thus a consensual fixing of images, and their meaning, in accordance with the common cultural pattern, could easily develop and be transmitted through time.

But that does not account completely for the striking parallels among the nonrepresentational images described and drawn by Tukano informants. The problem becomes even more complex,

... if we consider it from the perspective of artistic inspiration. It is amazing to note how frequently the [geometric] design motifs ... appear in the petroglyphs and pictographs of the region and far beyond. It would not be difficult to find parallels to these motifs in other prehistoric artifacts, such as the decorations of ceramics or the rock carvings of ancient indigenous cultures. It could be argued that we are dealing with such elementary motifs that they could have evolved independently in any place and era, for they are simply circles, diamonds, dots, and spirals, and nothing more. But are they really that elementary? (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1972:111)

The Colombian anthropologist suggests that both the corpus of nonrepresentational images and their ethnographic and archaeological parallels might have arisen from the organic effects of yaje and perhaps other hallucinogens. Considering the known antiquity of the psychedelic complex among American Indians, he writes, we might conceive of "great cultural zones" wherein, since very ancient times, a certain hallucinogen was ritually employed, giving rise to a body of symbols and motifs that gradually came to be culturally fixed or institutionalized, along with their interpretations. This is all the more plausible, he argues, in that it is typically the shamans, the bearers of the magicoreligious traditions, who are also the artists of their societies and who are ultimately responsible for the symbolic images that appear on the artifacts of the culture and on the living rock in their environment.

That different hallucinogens tend to produce similar geometric or abstract images has been recognized by some investigators of the psychedelic phenomenon since the 1920's. Recent long-term experiments at the University of California at Los Angeles also indicate an organic basis for specific sensations in fixed sequences reported by many subjects under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. What is new is the suggestion that the commonality of abstract or geometric symbolic art through time and space might likewise have a biochemical origin.

Might this be extended to include motifs we would call representational—specifically the great cats, the snakes, and the birds that recur in so many yaje dreams? Certainly feedback and projective mechanisms are at work here: feline, reptilian, and avian motifs predominate in the cosmologies, the myths, and the art of prehistoric as well as contemporary Indian societies from Mexico south. But these have to have started somewhere: might they in fact be archetypes, embedded deeply in the unconscious since very ancient times, to be released, perhaps, by biochemical stimuli? Are there, then, biopsychological explanations rather than culture-historical ones for the parallels in ancient Chinese ritual art to the feline-reptilian-avian symbol complex of the New World?* Or are both only two sides of the same coin, interdependent rather than mutually exclusive? And how is one to understand the similarities in the yaje experiences of Indians, anthropologists, and volunteers in psychotherapeutic experiments?

That something ties all these transcultural and transpersonal phenomena together seems obvious. How much is due to the chemistry of consciousness and how much to culture, however, remains a large unanswered question.

* The "dragon" is the synthesis of these three cosmic elements, as is the "Feathered Serpent" of Mesoamerica.

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