The Future of Shamanism in the Amazon

Mestizo shamanism in the Upper Amazon is expanding and declining at the same time. It is expanding at the expense of other indigenous shamanisms, and it is declining in the face of biomedicine and the reluctance of the young to undergo the sufferings required to become a shaman.

This does not mean that there is no interest in the shamanism of the Upper Amazon, and particularly in the psychoactive effects of ayahuasca. That interest, in fact, is great. Every year since 2005, Alan Shoemaker has organized, on behalf of his organization Soga del Alma, a conference on ayahuasca shamanism in Iquitos, Perú. These gatherings have featured such heavyweights as Dennis McKenna, Luis Eduardo Luna, Pablo Amaringo, Jacques Mabit, and Benny Shanon, as well as a number of indigenous curanderos. There is no doubt that these gatherings achieve their aims. They bring together famous scholars, psychonautic enthusiasts, serious seekers, and a variety of mestizo and indigenous shamans. Everyone gains an aura of legitimacy from this interaction, and the shamans pick up some much-needed cash. But then everyone goes home, and the shamans are left without what the tradition really needs — apprentices.

One reason shamanism is declining among Indians and mestizos is because young people do not want to keep the difficult diet; young Shuar, for example, nowadays prefer to learn magia, magic, by reading books and following their instructions, rather than undergo the restricted diet and sexual abstinence required to become a shaman.

None of the four shamans with whom anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna worked twenty years ago had a successor. They all told him that young people were not interested in or were unable to endure the diet and sexual abstinence necessary for learning from the plant spirits. Their roles have been taken, they said, by charlatans who do not possess any knowledge of the plants. And things have not changed much since then.

Don Mauricio Fasabi Apuela, a shaman from Lamas in San Martín, is willing to take on young people as apprentices in ayahuasca shamanism, which requires periods of sexual abstinence. He has had no takers. "I have no disciples here, just me," he says. "In the end they prefer the girls." Shaman Casimiro Izurieta Cevallos puts it this way: "Youngsters today don't have the same curiosity." My own maestro ayahusquero now has one regular apprentice, his son. No one else in the local community is currently working with him or has asked to be his apprentice. The foreigners, he shrugs, come for a single experience; few come to learn the ayahuasca path. But, he says hopefully, “the medicine will continue.”

Many Amazonian shamans continue to have patients, especially in rural villages and poorer urban areas, such as in Iquitos or Pucallpa. But few shamans nowadays have apprentices. Without students, as one shaman put it, there is no future. And then a thing of great beauty and power will be gone.


  1. Some people have noted that one of the possible reasons why indigenous shamans are so open to teaching Northerners is that they may see them (well, us) as the only hope for their knowledge to survive and flourish. A sad state of affairs to be sure, but one which could have great validity. I was in Ecuador once with a small group of friends who were approached by an older teenager. He asked them what they were doing there and they told him that they were there to study curanderismo and Ayahuasca. They were quite startled by his response of "Why are you doing that? That's for old people".

    One of the curanderos I've studied with is of the belief that curanderismo as it has existed is dying out, and that the only hope for it's survival is occurring in the current spreading of the knowledge to the European based societies. Makes sense.

  2. I think your point is a good one. Sadly, I think many gringos are day trippers, looking for a quick enlightenment fix, or a two-week healing that will solve all their problems. When I look at the incredible plant knowledge of my teachers -- they know hundreds of plants, and know them initmately, like old friends -- I can only think of the years of study it would take me even to be a beginner. It is daunting.