Policing Sorcery

In the Upper Amazon, people believe that there are sorcerers, and that much of human suffering — sickness, death, misfortune, bad luck and trouble — is caused by sorcerers, either from the sorcerer's own malevolence, or on behalf of an embittered and resentful client.

There is little that the ordinary state apparatus can do about sorcery. Alejandro Tsakimp, a Shuar shaman, puts the thought this way: “They killed my father with witchcraft and not with a bullet…. With killings like this, through witchcraft, there aren’t any witnesses. I can talk about all this, I can go to lawyers, but nobody will believe me.” There is never any tangible proof of a crime. A person killed by sorcery may be given a medical diagnosis — acute dehydration through diarrhea, for example; but such a diagnosis does not, of course, explain why the sickness occurred.

The first recourse for aggrieved family or community members is most often to retain the services of another, and hopefully more powerful, shaman. The final recourse is often the killing of the offender — what political scientist Fernando García, in his work on indigenous law among Ecuadorian Quichua, calls muerte social. Other dispute resolution mechanisms have traditionally been unavailable.

Government intervention faces serious obstacles in controlling a sorcerer. Accusations are often vague and unsupported by physical evidence. Magistrates in such circumstances may issue a peace bond signed by the complainants and the alleged sorcerer; then, at least, when the accusations continue, as they often do, the sorcerer can be charged with having broken the peace bond and, thus, the law. The mere presence of a police garrison in a previously remote area may limit the amount of assault sorcery. However, local officials may be caught in a dilemma between, on the one hand, their reluctance to give credence to sorcery accusations, and, on the other, their own concern about offending a sorcerer.

There are, generally, three ways local authorities can bring a sorcerer under control. The first is to put the sorcerer in jail, even for a few days. Among the Napo Runa, for example, this is considered a terrible punishment for a shaman, for it cuts him off from his relationship with the forest spirits. One such incarcerated sorcerer managed to escape the jail by cutting through a window, sought refuge in a church, and petitioned for help from federal authorities.

A second sanction is to confiscate the sorcerer’s magic stones. Of course, it is difficult to know whether a stone surrendered by the sorcerer, or left in an easily discoverable place in his home, is in fact the magic stone he uses in his sorcery. Still, crushing a stone in the presence of the complainants may help to calm down an explosive community situation. A third — and surprising — sanction is to give the sorcerer an electric shock. It is believed that this will weaken and dispel at least part of the sorcerer’s power. It is understandable that local authorities are often reluctant to do this. But there can be further creativity: in one case, dating from 1942, a sorcerer was ordered, by special decree of the local political lieutenant, to believe in God. That put an end to his sorcery.

More recently, community and shaman organizations have attempted to mediate such controversies. Fernando García tells of one such mediation. The accused sorcerer had originally agreed to hand over his magic stones and other shamanic tools, but had failed to do so. Community members caught the alleged sorcerer, gave him electric shocks with a generator, and put him in the community jail, from which he — understandably — escaped.

Finally, local authorities invited all the parties to mediate, including the accused sorcerer’s elders, representatives of the Federación de Organizaciones Indígenas del Napo (FOIN), and a delegation from the shamans’ organization Asociación de Shamanes Indígenas del Napo (ASHIN). They all went to the community that had allegedly been affected by the sorcerer, where the visiting shamans drank ayahuasca to determine who was telling the truth. On the basis of this consultation, they required the accused sorcerer to heal all those he had made sick, and then to hand over his magic stones.


Shamanism and Rubber

Mestizo shamanism is found in an arc from southern Colombia and Ecuador to northern Bolivia, through the present-day Peruvian departamentos of Loreto and Ucayali, westward along the Río Marañon, and spilling over eastward into western Brazil. This distribution is the result of historical factors, one of which was the great Rubber Boom — a period of about thirty-five years, approximately from 1880 to 1914, which transformed Amazonian culture in ways both profound and irremediable.

There are a number of rubber-producing trees in the Amazon, but two genera are of primary importance. Hevea species produce a latex called siringa, and Castilloa species produce a latex called caucho. To understand the formation of mestizo shamanism, we have to understand the biology of these two types of rubber trees.

The latex of Hevea brasiliensis was considered the finest in the Amazon. Moreover, this latex will flow from shallow incisions in the bark, and the tree can therefore be tapped for years without serious damage. But Hevea trees have two significant disadvantages. First, although they are capable of growing in the uplands, they are found primarily in low-lying periodically flooded areas, where they can be tapped only half the year, during the dry season.

The ideal would therefore be to create upland plantations, where the trees could be readily tapped year round. But here there is a second disadvantage. Hevea trees are susceptible to a fungal disease called South American leaf blight, caused by the fungus Microcyclus ulei, native to the Amazon. The fungus is transmitted from tree to tree, and thus effectively precludes growing the trees close together on plantations. The latex must be tapped from wild trees, which grow widely separated in the jungle — about two trees per hectare.

A seringuero, a collector of siringa, therefore lived in a hut, perhaps with a small garden, and regularly followed a path — called an estrada — which he cut through the jungle to two hundred or so Hevea trees, tapping half on one day and half on the next. Seringueros were essentially tenant farmers, held in peonage by constantly increasing debt, subject to disease, harsh weather, poor diet, and insect pests. At some point, many gave up any hope of ever ending their bondage to the rubber trees. At the same time, since they were sedentary, and steady sources of high-quality latex, rubber bosses and overseers had economic motives to limit violence and abuse of their tenants.

On the other hand, caucho, the latex of Castilloa trees, was considerably less desirable. Since the trees grew above flooded areas, they could be exploited year round. But the trees could not be tapped, since incisions yield little latex. Rather, all the latex had to be gathered at once, with deep cuts in the trunk, branches, and roots, which produced a large amount of rubber, but killed the tree.

A cauchero was therefore constantly looking for more caucho trees to drain. Caucheros frequently worked in teams, since it is almost impossible to bleed a large caucho tree alone. Always on the move, they were in constant danger of becoming lost in unfamiliar jungle; they could not grow gardens, as many seringueros did, and thus became increasingly indebted for supplies whose price was set arbitrarily to maintain indebtedness; if they became sick, no one would bother to look for them, because their location at any moment was unknown.

The itinerant nature of caucho production required a permanently mobile labor force and constant territorial expansion. Rubber bosses had no incentive to create long-term commercial ties with seminomadic and fungible caucheros. The relative isolation of the rubber tappers allowed cauchero bosses to set up regimes of terror, using torture, mutilation, and murder to keep the collectors in line and producing as much caucho as possible — most infamously, among the Huitoto in the Colombian Putumayo, where anthropologist Michael Taussig has described a “culture of terror, space of death,” and where egregious abuses of indigenous laborers shocked even those hardened to the excesses of extractive colonialism.

Although caucho was considered less valuable than siringa, it could be gathered more quickly. A tapped Hevea tree yielded five to seven pounds of siringa annually; a seringuero might collect about 1,000 pounds of siringo in a year. On the other hand, a mature Castilloa tree could yield 200 pounds of caucho in two days, and a pair of caucheros could collect 1,000 pounds of caucho in a month.

Thus, as opposed to indigenous laborers, many of whom had been recruited to rubber tapping by correrías, slave raids, many mestizos became caucheros voluntarily, lured by the possibility of quick riches, only to find themselves enganchado, hooked, like a fish, by the system of habilitación, debt peonage. Isolated, far from family, deep in the jungle, away from their beloved rivers, when mestizo rubber tappers became sick, they went to indigenous healers, including Yagua and Shipibo shamans. In some cases, the caucheros became apprentices to those who had healed them, and upon their return served their own communities with the skills they had learned.

The rubber boom in eastern Perú saw a massive migration of mestizos from west to east, a shift from agriculture to extraction, and a move from river to jungle. Entire areas were depopulated by fifty percent or more all over the lowlands as rubber contractors removed populations for work. In the town of Moyobamba the population dropped from 15,000 inhabitants to 7,000 between 1859 and 1904; the indigenous village of Jeberos saw a population decline from 3,000 to 300 in the same period.

The rubber bust reversed these trends. The price of rubber fell precipitously on the international market; the tapping of wild trees in the jungle could not compete with Hevea plantations in Asia, where there was no leaf blight. The mestizo rubber tappers migrated westward, back to their riverine homes, their communities, and their swidden gardens, bringing with them the healing practices they had learned from the indigenous people of the jungle.


Vance Gellert

Vance Gellert, Mercado de Brujas

Photographer Vance Gellert has come back from South America with a series of striking photographs of healers and healing, currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in an exhibit entitled Smoke and Mirrors: A Journey to Healing Knowledge.

Gellert used medium- and large-format film cameras to bring out details and vibrant colors, to evoke a spirit of place; photography, he says, captures images infused with layers of meaning and nuance that give the recorded facts a human and emotional connection. His photograph of the Mercado de las Brujas in La Paz, for example, shows an herb market — plants, bones, llama fetuses, packaged remedies — through which visitors must pass to get to the modern pharmacy beyond. The photographs, he says, "were made on my quest to understand ritual and belief systems in medicinal plant usage in Bolivia and Peru. The ones presented are those I've gathered to date that best recreate the psychic and spiritual experiences of my journey."

Vance Gellert, Norma Panduro Navarro

Gellert believes many South American healers straddle the line between art and science, and an important factor in his research was, he said, “to do like art asks, to suspend disbelief, to not exclude any possibility, or any observation, no matter how strange and exotic.” Among the photographs are striking portraits of a number of healers in the Iquitos area — Guillermo Arevalo, Norma Panduro Navarro, Antonio Arevago. Other photographs in the series feature shamans and healers in La Paz and Cochabamba, Bolivia, and plants, stones, and animals used in healing ceremonies. The photographs, he says,

loosely follow my travels, beginning and ending in La Paz, Bolivia, with travels to the lowlands of the Amazon basin and the Andean highlands in between. I encountered a very wide variety of practitioners of plant and traditional medicine, from extensively published professors at the University of Cuzco and university plant researchers in Cochabamba, Bolivia to a funky ayahuasquero in the jungle hills of Bolivia. I spent much time with Carlos Prado, a dedicated medico naturalista who is establishing an international school of natural medicine in Cochabamba. I made sojourns to the Kallawaya medicine men of Curva, Bolivia and attended conference on shamanism and ayahuasca in Iquitos, Peru. Ayahuasca is the potent hallucinogenic potion of the lowlands to which is ascribed many spiritual and diagnostic powers in healing and wellness. An investigation into the plant medicines of South America is incomplete without considering the place of ayahuasca in this milieu.

Vance Gellert, Guillermo Alevero

Gellert has unique qualifications for these photographs. He has a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Minnesota. He also has an MFA in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and he was cofounder and director of the Minnesota Center for Photography until 2003, when he became a full-time photographer.

Gellert's website is here, and some photographs in the exhibit are in a folder entitled Chamane Indigeno: Ritual and Medicinal Plants in South America. A review is here. If you are going to be in Minneapolis before August 10, check it out.



On the planet Sarkovy, one of the many imagined by science fiction writer Jack Vance, the inhabitants, called Sarkoy, are experts in the art of killing by poison. An adept of this art is called a venefice, and it is believed that a Master Venefice can kill a victim merely by walking past him.

The venefices of Sarkovy are amateurs compared to sorcerers in the Upper Amazon.

Throughout the Upper Amazon, people believe that they can be made sick through ingestion of noxious substances prepared by their enemies and put surreptitiously in their food or drink — bat saliva or phlegm, the burnt bones of dead humans mixed with the entrails of water snakes, the blood of a black dog. Similarly, noxious substances can be thrown across the threshold of a house — vulture feces, for example, or cemetery dirt — or buried at a threshold or along a path where the victim walks.

Cubeo shaman

This sort of contamination shades over easily into poisoning. Indeed, throughout the Amazon, poisoning is perceived as widely practiced. Cultivated or wild plant poisons are put into the victim’s food or drink, especially at festivals. The Cubeo claim a wide variety of poisoning methods — infusing poisonous plants into the victim’s drink; placing poison in the victim’s urine stream so that it enters through the urethra; spilling or dripping poison on the skin; inserting poison on the end of a stick into the nostrils of the sleeping victim; dropping poison onto a bench, where it enters through the victim’s anus.

The Cashinahua are famous for their knowledge of poison. A sorcerer can destroy a whole village with the smoke of a poisonous leaf burned over a fire, they say; or kill a woman by hiding poison in her skirt. The great Yawanahua warrior and shaman Antonio Luis — who obtained many wives by raiding against his enemies, and was a founder of the Yawanahua people — was finally killed by a Cashinahua sorcerer who added poison to his tobacco snuff.


Strassman Redux

We earlier wrote here about psychopharmacologist Rick Strassman, and the dramatic end of his DMT research, which he abandoned in the face of personal pressures, family crises, and dismay at unexpected reports of encounters with alien beings.

Strassman, after taking some time off to work as a weaver, has now returned to hallucinogen research, joining with toxicologist and neurochemist Steven A. Barker to found the Cottonwood Research Foundation, whose projects include developing an ultra-sensitive assay to detect naturally occurring tryptamine hallucinogens in humans, in both normal and non-normal states, and an assessment of the effects of ayahuasca in a group of normal volunteers, with the goal of developing treatment protocols in collaboration with drug abuse treatment facilities.

Strassman is still struggling with his earlier findings, which he describes as truly paradigm-challenging, and which, he says, he could not adequately integrate into his scientific world view. Strikingly, he has now collaborated with anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, a pioneer in the study of mestizo shamanism, and Ede Frecska, a psychopharmacologist who has worked with ayahuasca, to produce a volume of collected essays focusing on the use of psychedelics to journey to alien worlds. Here he focuses on reports of what he calls invisible worlds experienced by his earlier DMT volunteers, including their reported contacts with alien beings. These reports, he says, went far beyond any scientific training he had brought to the research. But he has had to accept, he now says, that the reports were descriptions of things that were real — that they occurred in reality, “although not in a reality we usually inhabit.” He now hypothesizes that DMT, like a telescope or microscope, allows us access to a world previously unknown to our everyday perceptual apparatus. He is, he says, teetering dangerously on the edge between respectable and pseudo-science.

Endogenous Dimethyltryptamine

Substituting other plants for the ayahuasca vine and companion plants — chacruna, sameruca, chagroponga — is part of a quest for what are called ayahuasca analogues — duplications of the ayahuasca drink “compounded with the correct percentages of DMT and beta-carbolines,” as chemist Alexander Shulgin puts it, but using materials more readily available in North America. One of the most commonly used alternative sources of β-carbolines is the plant Peganum harmala, also called Syrian rue, which grows wild in the western states, and is available in South Asian and Middle Eastern groceries under the name esfand or harmal. Potential sources of DMT include a wide variety of plants in the genera Acacia, Desmanthus, Phalaris, and Mimosa. There are a number of neologisms for these analogues generally, such as pharmahuasca, anahuasca, and gaiahuasca, and for specific combinations, such as mimosahuasca and acaciahuasca.

Indeed, DMT is widely distributed in the natural world. DMT, as well as its even more potent cousin, 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), is found not only in mimosa (Mimosa hostilis), wattle (Acacia spp.), giant river reed (Arundo donax), bundle flower (Desmanthus illinoensis), and canary grass (Phalaris tuberosa), but also in the venom of the Colorado River toad (Bufo alvarius), and, endogenously, in human beings.

No one seems quite sure what to make of this last fact. DMT has been identified in human blood, urine, brain tissue, and cerebrospinal fluid; it apparently easily passes into the brain through the blood-brain barrier. No one knows where this DMT in the human body comes from. In fact, the human body is full of tryptamines, all chemically related to the dietary amino acid tryptophan, including melatonin and the ubiquitous seratonin. Still, the presence of DMT is surprising — as surprising as if the human body endogenously produced, say, psilocybin or bufotenin, also natural tryptamines.

Psychopharmacologist Rick Strassman thinks the source of this DMT may be the pineal gland, which is, coincidentally, the organ Rene Descartes considered the seat of the soul and the place where all our thoughts are formed. The pineal produces serotonin, melatonin, and β-carbolines, which, as we have discussed, are potent MAO-A inhibitors.

In 1988, psychopharmacologist Jayce Callaway — now well-known as a member of the Hoasca Project studying the use of ayahuasca by the União do Vegetal in Brazil — proposed that, at night, serotonin becomes converted into DMT by the pineal gland and plays a central role in activating dreams. Similarly, Strassman, himself a practitioner of Zen meditation, hypothesized that "when DMT levels get too high for normal function ... we start undergoing unusual experiences" — what he called states of "mystical/spiritual consciousness," such as during birth, just before death, during near-death experiences, and in deep meditation. He also thought that excess DMT might be a factor in some forms of hallucinatory psychosis.

As far as I know, these ideas remain speculative, and unsupported by empirical research. For example, comparison of urine in schizophrenics and non-schizophrenic controls has failed to show any systematic differences in DMT levels. I know of no research comparing, say, blood DMT levels in normal controls and subjects immediately postpartum or postmortem, or in normal controls and persons in deep meditative states, or in dreaming and nondreaming sleepers, all of which ought to be relatively simple to do.

The thought has been that the trace levels of DMT and other endogenous psychoactive tryptamines in the human body are just too low to have much effect, and are insignificant metabolic byproducts. However, scientists are now investigating what is called a G-protein-coupled, human trace amine receptor, where even trace amounts of DMT elicit a surprisingly strong response. But, with apparent paradox, trace amounts of amines at this receptor, including amphetamines and dimethyltryptamine, may produce mental states of calm and relaxation, which may account for the calming effect of amphetamines such as Ritalin at low doses.

In other words, our ignorance of the source and function — if any — of endogenous DMT remains virtually complete.

Jungle and Rainforest

There has been a lot of press lately about the discovery of a previously uncontacted tribe along the Peru-Brazil border. There are pictures of a village from the air, with painted indigenes aiming their arrows at the airplane. Quaint, childlike Indians! There is a rush now to protect them, like an exotic threatened species, the way we protect the rainforest itself, for our future use.

For five hundred years, the Amazon has been one of those “dark unruly spaces of the earth” — the phrase is that of postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha — that serve as a Rorschach test of the European imagination. The jungle, in the words of Candace Slater, a specialist in Brazilian literature, is “an emphatically nonparadisal space.” Novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes the jungle like this:

The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. The forest eats itself and lives forever.

Every space is filled with life, she says — poisonous, ravenous, copulating, strangling, biting, sucking. Poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman speaks of the rainforest as a “world of cunning and savage trees,” where she finds “a vibrant aqua-blue-and-yellow arrowhead frog” covered with poisonous mucus, “tiny but pungent with death.” German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who filmed both Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo in the rainforest west of Iquitos, says the jungle is “fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.” These are the tropes of the jungle in the European imagination: the jungle is disordered growth, unrestrained, sexual; the jungle is rank decay, cunning, savage, poisonous.

But there is also another jungle in the European imagination — Edenic, virginal, source of medicines. If the word jungle, with its connotations of dense impenetrability, is the key term for the savage wilderness, the word rainforest is the key term for the Edenic wilderness. Since the 1970s, the tropical rainforest has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, pristine, sacred land, acquiring ever stronger Edenic overtones, and has become increasingly synonymous with Amazonia; so positive is its connotation that the adjective rainforest has become a marketing tool for cosmetics, theme restaurants, “ruggedly elegant outerwear,” and gourmet ice cream. The rainforest is beautiful and radiant, a living cathedral enshrined in sumptuous coffee table books. But while the rainforest is beautiful, it is intensely vulnerable. Thus the jungle is savage and must be tamed; the rainforest is fragile and must be preserved. In either case, the land requires the intervention of European attitudes and technologies.

Here is an example, related by Candace Slater. During the early 1990s, McDonald’s Corporation put out a brochure describing the company’s rainforest policy, featuring a photograph of a shimmering grove, bright light slanting through tall trees, bare trunks soaring to the sky. The problem is that the photograph is not of a rainforest at all, but rather another kind of woodland — “actually temperate conifers completely alien to the tropics,” notes Slater. A real rainforest, with parasitic lianas and epiphytes covering the trees, the canopy blocking the sky, was apparently insufficiently radiant for corporate advertising purposes.

In any current dialogue regarding tropical forests, the Amazon Basin is usually mentioned as a vital area to be left untouched and protected; yet archeological, historical, and ecological evidence increasingly shows not only a high density of human populations in the past but also an intensively managed and constantly changing environment as well. In much of Amazonia, it is difficult to find soils that are not studded with charcoal — clearly the result of human slash-and-burn agriculture. People have have been in the rainforest for a long time, and have been actively managing their environment as well, with nothing primitive about it.

Rainforest environmentalism sees the rainforest native as sharing the purity of the rainforest — closer to nature, less affected by the evils of the world, demonstrating the integrity of the unspoiled. The native of the rainforest is a monolithic figure, the keeper and companion of the plants and animals, an instrument to criticize our own civilization. That purity becomes associated with a wisdom we once had but have lost, and which we need to recover in order to rebuild what our technology has destroyed. Thus, the native is our guide — “our guide to nature, or our guide to the prehistoric past,” as anthropologist Bernard McGrane ironically puts it. This wisdom of the rainforest was therefore ours all along, and stands ready to be reappropriated by the dominant culture.