The Importance of Plant Knowledge

How important is traditional plant knowledge in the Amazon? According to a recent study among the Tsimane' in Amazonian Bolivia, each standard deviation of maternal ethnobotanical knowledge increases the likelihood of good child health by more than fifty percent. And the study raises the question: What will be the cost — to the Tsimane' and other indigenous peoples — if such ethnobotanical knowledge is lost?

The Tsimane' number about 8,000 people who live in about 100 villages along the Maniqui River and the interior of the Pilon Lajas region of the Bolivian Amazon. Tsimane' villages are small, with an average of about 24 households linked by kinship and marriage. At the time of the study, no household had electricity or running water, and half the villages were inaccessible by road. The Tsimane' have traditionally lived by slash-and-burn agriculture, gathering, hunting, and fishing. However, since the 1970s, their territory has been encroached on by colonist farmers, logging firms, cattle ranchers, and oil companies. The Tsimane' now increasingly interact with the market economy through the sale of goods and wage labor, primarily on cattle ranches, logging camps, and farms.

Such integration into the market economy brings about changes in occupation, preferences, social organization, and health and nutritional status. The Tsimane' are now starting to merge into a culture that places no value on their indigenous knowledge, especially their ethnobotanical knowledge. Under this pressure, traditional knowledge of medicinal plants is starting to disappear, with little to take its place. Too often, as here, the global market holds out the offer of western medicine without providing the means to gain access to it.

Thomas McDade and William Leonard from Northwestern University set out to learn what impact the loss of traditional plant knowledge might have on the health of children. To do this, they assessed the health of 330 Tsimane' children, aged from two to ten years old, and tested their mothers and fathers on both their knowledge of local plants and their skills at using them. Local ethnobotanical knowledge was quantified using five measures — agreement with local experts on plant uses; botanical knowledge; skills in using plants; total number of plants used; and diversity of plants used. Child health was measured using three variables — concentration of C-reactive protein, a marker of infectious burden; skinfold thickness, a measure of fat stores; and stature, used to calculate height-for-age scores, an indicator of nutritional and health status.

The results were striking. For each measure of health, mothers with higher levels of plant knowledge and use had healthier children, independent of potentially confounding variables related to education, market participation, and acculturation. The Tsimane' ethnomedical tradition

may play a particularly important part in protecting health because effective commercial medicines are expensive and difficult for the Tsimane' to procure. If remedies derived from local plants are effective in preventing or treating illness, this would contribute not only to lower levels of inflammation but also to improved linear growth and body fat stores by reducing allocations of energy to fueling immunity and fighting infection.

Strikingly, although the authors infer a direct association between maternal plant knowledge and child health, it may be that this association is mediated by the children themselves. Tsimane' children spend much of their time away from parental supervision, playing and foraging in small peer groups, and the authors report seeing older children use medicinal plants both for themselves and for younger children. It may be that plant knowledge — like so much other cultural knowledge — is passed, not from adults to children, but rather from older children to younger children.

In the preservation of plant knowledge lies the destiny of the people.


Jungle Music

I was staying with my teacher don Rómulo Magin in his hut in the jungle. He was playing an ancient transistor radio for me, barely bringing in the scratchy music of a distant station. The music was infectiously lively, and I asked him what it was. La música de la selva, he told me, grinning. Jungle music.

Cumbia is a popular music of Colombia, especially along the northern Caribbean coast. A form of cumbia is also found in Perú, called chicha, named after the popular fermented drink, usually made of maize. Peruvian chicha took Colombian cumbia rhythms and instrumentation and added the Andean elements of popular huayño music; and in turn chicha spun off two variants — tecnocumbia, which added synthesizers and other electronica to the mix, and cumbia amazónica. Jungle music.

Cumbia amazónica developed in the 1960s in the larger Upper Amazonian towns such as Iquitos, Moyobamba, and Pucallpa, where the accordions of chicha were replaced by cheap, loud, portable garage-band instruments such as Farfisa organs and big-reverb guitars, and local bands played cumbias amazónicas for oil workers as a display of regional pride — what one commentator has called “eastern Peruvian wild west Amazon mining town jump up music.” They sang about partying, oil prospecting, and jungle life, often with wry tongue-in-cheek humor: My grandfather has died, ayayay, drinking liquor, ayayay, my grandfather has died, ayayay, drinking masato, ayayay. Their sense of their music’s regional and ethnic roots was encapsulated in the phrase poder verde, green power.

Two long-surviving groups, Juaneco y Su Combo and Los Mirlos, are primarily associated with this music. The original Juaneco y su Combo was formed in 1966 in Pucallpa; it consisted of singer Wilindoro Cacique; guitarist Noé Fachín, called El brujo because it was said his melodies came to him during ayahuasca visions; and saxophonist Juan Wong Paredes, leader and principal composer, the original Juaneco. When Paredes’s son Juan Wong Popolizio took over the band, he traded in his accordion for a Farfisa organ.

The group put on their first public concert in Iquitos in 1967. The concert has spawned legends — that the crowd was so large that the army had to be called out; that the venue was too small for the crowd and the band played out in the street; that Fachín’s guitar was so erotically charged that rioting broke out, people ripping their clothes off. Half of the group, including Fachín, died in 1976 in a plane crash; Wong died in 2004. The group continues under the leadership of Mao Wong Lopez, the founder’s grandson. The only survivor of the original trio, Wilindoro Cacique, lives in a taxi garage in Pucallpa, and does occasional gigs under the name Wilindoro y la Leyenda Viva de Juaneco, Wilindoro and the living legend of Juaneco. The original name, with a new lineup, lives on.

Most distinctive about Juaneco y su Combo was their adoption of the symbols of indigenous Amazonia. While band members were mostly poor mestizos, their pride in local tradition led them to wear Shipibo cushmas and feather coronas onstage. “They think of it as their culture, even though they are not Shipibo,” says Olivier Conan, a New York musician who has been key to their revival. “It is a very important part of their whole music.”

Their song lyrics also embraced distinctively Amazonian themes and legends — Vacilando con ayahuasca, Floating with ayahuasca; El hijo de la runamula, Son of the spirit mule; El llanto de ayaymama, The weeping of the ayaymama bird; Mujer hilandera, Woman spinning. Here is a video of Vacilando con ayahuasca, which will give you an idea of the musical and performance conventions of the genre. The orgasmic female moaning for ayahuasca has always been part of the song, and no doubt contributed to its breakthrough popularity.

Los Mirlos was founded in 1973 by Jorge Rodriguez Grandez, who enlisted two of his brothers and a cousin to form the group. Many of their songs — Sonido amazónico, Amazonian sound; El milagro verde, The green miracle; Muchachita del oriente, Jungle girl; Fiesta en la selva, Party in the jungle — refer to the area of Moyobambo, in the departamento of San Martín, where Rodriguez was born, although he moved to Lima when he was very young. Guitarist Danny Johnson gave the band a darker sound — music critic Francisco Melgar Wong calls it “sinuous and reptilian” — which differentiated the group from its more cheerful contemporaries. Rodriguez has been outspoken about his regional roots. “I have spoken to my jungle,” he has said, “to all immigrants from Peru.” The following video of Muchachita del oriente gives a good idea of the kind of good-time party music Los Mirlos is still capable of putting out:

Both these groups have had a remarkable revival beginning in the 1990s, as their countercultural style appealed to a new generation of young people in Lima. Despite its recent embrace by the middle class, chicha remains an outsider music — an expression of migrants, nostalgia for home, hope for a better life. It is, above all, party music, a concept operationalized by the ubiquitous scantily-clad callipygian bailarinas who dance onstage while the band plays. The term chicha, very much like the term hip-hop in the United States, has come to refer to a broad range of limeño underclass culture — inexpensive folk housing, tabloid newspapers, outdoor concerts and dance parties in venues, such as empty parking lots, called chichodromos.

Cumbia amazónica brought an indigenous world to the attention of those who had previously been only dimly aware of it. Juaneco y su Combo and Los Mirlos achieved their primary success in the mid-70s, the time of the Amazon oil boom. Prior to that period, the axis of Peruvian indigenous discourse had run between Lima and Cuzco, and thus between Spanish and Inca culture. Indeed, the term indigenismo traditionally had little to do with indigenous peoples of the jungle; it was, instead, an identification that the upper-class light-brown trigueño elite in Cuzco made of themselves in connection with their own purported Inca heritage. Jungle Indians were chunchos, not worth thinking about.

Although there undoubtedly have been culturally exploitative currents in cumbia amazónica — take a look, for example, here — it was, in fact, revelatory. There had long been a profound social divide between urbanized mestizos and indigenous peoples of the jungle. But, according to music critic Ricardo León Almenara, when Juaneco y su Combo began to appear in Shipibo cushmas, it seemed for the first time that there might be something in common between the two worlds, if only a species of good-time jump-up bar music; and for the first time, says anthropologist César Ramos, mestizos and Shipibos would drink beer from the same glass at a festival.

An outstanding recent collection of classic cumbias, including songs by Juaneco y su Combo and Los Mirlos, entitled The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru, compiled by Olivier Conan on his Barbès Records label, can be found here.


Best New Product of 2009

Anyone who has traveled in Peru knows about Inca Kola, the strangely phosphorescent carbonated drink that tastes like melted bubblegum. You may not know, of course, that Inca Kola has its own Facebook fan page with 2,790 fans, as well as a Facebook group, Inca Kola Lovers, with — I am not making this up — 10,475 members. There is also a diet version, Inca Kola Light, without sugar, which I must confess I have never tried. For me, the intense sugar rush of the original Inca Kola is part of its mystique.

Peruvians have a deep emotional attachment to Inca Kola. They drink it with everything, including el chifa, Chinese food, and it is served in the fanciest restaurants. It is considered a cultural heritage, and is often named as the one thing Peruvians miss most when living abroad. The slogan Es Nuestra!, It's Ours!, captures some sense of the national pride in a home-grown drink that outsells Coca-Cola in Peru.

Therefore, I think it is important for everyone to know that there is now an Inca Kola ice cream. It took more than nine months of negotiations, but the D'Onofrio ice cream company and Inca Kola agreed to invest $5 million in the new popsicle, which is to cost 1.20 soles. The news release states that the two companies agreed there was no competition on the market for this flavor of ice cream. I think that is entirely correct.

No, I don't know where to get Inca Kola ice cream in the United States.

Pierre Clastres

The basic political unit of traditional Amazonian society is the village, larger than an extended family, but still never larger than a few hundred inhabitants. These villages are politically autonomous entities, often widely separated, several days walk from each other. When the population of a village grows too large, a portion will split off and form its own village elsewhere in the jungle.

These village political units share two striking features. First, they have no chiefs. Village members in apparent leadership roles actually have very little authority over anyone else. Second, they have historically spent much of their time fighting each other, in armed conflict that is often protracted, bloody, bitter, and cruel.

The warfare consisted — and not infrequently continues to consist today — primarily of stealthy nocturnal raids on another village, with the goal of slaughtering the inhabitants in their hammocks, except those who manage to flee into the jungle. The dispersed survivors then gather, often change the location of their village, and plot a revenge raid of their own. Anticipating such raids, many Amazonian peoples have maintained several distant gardens to which they might flee, and slept with their most important possessions close to hand.

Such Amazonian warfare appears to be very old. The Spanish invaders — professional soldiers with a sharp eye for such things — frequently remarked on the skill and ferocity of the Amazonian warriors they encountered. Ethnohistorian Linda Newson has described internecine Amazonian warfare as endemic at the time of first contact. Village raids and killings have continued into the present. As one Huaorani told anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and James Yost, "That is how we lived in the old days. Back and forth we killed. Back and forth, back and forth. Together we died."

Why should this be?

French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, who died in 1977, spent two years in the early 1960s living with the Guayaki in eastern Paraguay, who were wiped out shortly after his departure — "eaten away by illness and tuberculosis, killed by lack of proper care, by lack of everything," their women and children hunted for slaves by white settlers. His oddly disturbing ethnography, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, was translated into English, as a labor of love, by famed novelist Paul Auster. The ethnography mirrors many of Auster's own novels, in which innocent protagonists, like Clastres himself among his cannibal and infanticidal hosts, find themselves by chance in a world where they slowly discover that the rules have changed in hidden and dangerous ways.

Clastres was a founding thinker in the discipline now commonly called political anthropology, and he wrote two books — Society Against the State and The Archeology of Violence — which forced a new direction in French anthropology and a rethinking of the nature and function of violence in indigenous cultures.

Clastres ties the lack of chiefly authority and constant warfare to a theory of the State, which he defines as a "separate organ of power" — that is, as social power that has been separated from society. Instead of horizontal egalitarian decisionmaking, the State splits society into masters and subjects, dominators and dominated. The State, he writes, "is the total sign of division in society, in that it is a separate organ of political power: society is henceforth divided into those who exercise power and those who submit to it. Society is no longer an undivided We, a single totality, but a fragmented body, a heterogeneous social being."

Amazonian society has been described as stateless, as if it were afflicted by a failure to evolve a historically necessary form of social organization. On the contrary, Clastres says, Amazonian society represents a deliberate choice to keep power dispersed and prevent the formation of what he calls the cold monster, the nightmare, the State. Amazonian society is determined to prevent any monopoly on the use of force. As Clastres has said:

Yes, the State exists in the most primitive societies, even in the smallest band of nomadic hunters. It exists, but it is ceaselessly warded off. It is ceaselessly prevented from becoming a reality. A primitive society directs all its efforts towards preventing its chief from becoming a chief (and that can go as far as murder). If history is the history of class struggle (I mean in societies that have classes), then the history of a classless society is the history of their struggle against a latent State. Their history is the effort to encode the flows of power.

There are two ways that a stateless horizontal indigenous society resists the centralization of power — first, by limiting the agency and authority of village chiefs; and, second, by waging war.

Thus, among indigenous Amazonian peoples, a leader does not exercise power over others. Leadership is rather a matter of technical competence in discrete fields — oratorical talent, expertise as a hunter, ability to coordinate martial activities — as well as the persuasive power of constantly renewed generosity. Clastres writes that "the chief has no authority at his disposal, no power of coercion, no means of giving an order. The chief is not a commander: the people of the tribe are under no obligation to obey." Should a leader overstep these bounds, he may be violently removed — murdered, or abandoned to die alone in battle.

For example, among the Huaorani, as described by anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and James Yost, there were no chiefs, no village council, and no specialized leadership. Raids were in most cases initiated by a man in his twenties, who would lead only those whom he could persuade to join him. Clastres sharply distinguished prestige from power. While successful warriors might gain prestige, they were precluded from turning that prestige into political power.

A number of motives have been offered by scholars to account for Amazonian warfare — revenge, social status, slaves, women, animal resources, human body parts for trophies. Following Marshall Sahlins's then-recent Stone Age Economics, Clastres maintained that competition for scarce resources cannot account for Amazonian violence and warfare, since indigenous peoples lived, not in the scarcity posited by Marx, but rather in overabundance. Indigenous peoples, he said, have no markets because they have no surplus; but the lack of a surplus — pejoratively labeled a subsistence economy — was due not to an inferior technology, but to a technology that was precisely calibrated to give the society just what it needed. "In other words, far from exhausting themselves in the attempt to survive," Clastres writes, "primitive society, selective in the determination of its needs, possesses a machine of production capable of satisfying them."

What indigenous people have a surplus of, Clastres says, is leisure. The indigenous hunger for metal tools is not in order to produce more, but rather to produce the same amount in even less time. What Sahlins called the first affluent society is not driven to warfare by competition for scarce resources; the explanation of Amazonian warfare is not economic but political. Just like the constraints on chiefly power, warfare is a strategy to prevent the concentration of dispersed power — to prevent, in other words, the emergence of the State. Only through war, Clastres says, can each village political unit maintain dispersion and therefore autonomy. "The dispersion of local groups, which is primitive society's most immediately perceptible trait," he writes, "is thus not the cause of war, but its effect, its specific goal."

What is the function of primitive war? To assure the permanence of the dispersion, the parceling, the atomization of the groups. Primitive war is the work of a centrifugal logic, a logic of separation, which expressed from time to time in armed conflict. War serves to maintain each community's political independence. As long as there is war, there is autonomy: this is why war cannot cease, why it must not cease, why it is permanent.

It is important to bear in mind that Clastres had his own political motivation for this analysis. Like Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was once his mentor, Clastres wanted to use his ethnographic data as a critique of contemporary society — to exercise what sociologist Fuyuki Kurasawa has called the ethnological imagination. Clastres was a Parisian intellectual, director of L’École des Hautes Études in Paris for six years, and an anarchist. What the Amazon taught, he said, was that the State is not intrinsic to social life, and that stateless egalitarian societies can actively resist the development of state coercion and oppression, through acts of deliberate fragmentation.

To this analysis we can add that, in the Upper Amazon, accusations of sorcery function very much in the way Clastres describes warfare, always involving the potential for social fragmentation and dispersion.

Among the Arakmbut, for example, accusations of sorcery are directed at those the accusers fear or dislike, and therefore represent current lines of political cleavage. But those lines can shift. In one Arakmbut village, after the death of a prominent and respected shaman, sorcery accusations were originally directed at non-Arakmbut outsiders. But, within months, the accusations turned toward persons with prestige, influence, and position in the opposite halves of the village. Such sorcery accusations within the community usually indicate that a political situation has reached a breaking point, leading to bitter recriminations, physical attacks, and even the death of an accused sorcerer. When relations break down in this way, one party usually moves away.

It has been noted that, in the Upper Amazon, sorcery accusations increase when distribution of wealth becomes more unequal. Among the Shuar, for example, a contemporary increase in accusations of sorcery apparently correlates with increasing urbanism, consumerism, and inequality in the distribution of goods. Thus sorcery accusations may encourage the dispersed settlement patterns and frequent splitting found in such Amazonian societies as the Shuar and Arakmbut. If sorcery challenges inequality, then sorcery, accusations of sorcery, and gossip about sorcery may — like warfare — function to maintain what Clastres calls the logic of separation.

Clastres stood against several philosophical strands that had been deeply woven into French culture before the 1970s — the Rousseauan idea that indigenous societies existed in a natural condition of noble innocence; the Marxist idea that indigenous societies lived in a condition of scarcity and were destined to turn into states; the Hegelian idea that an inevitable master-slave dialectic drives societies forward towards the end of history. Most of all, according to historian Samuel Moyn, he opposed the fashionable communist allegiances of postwar French intellectuals, and was one of the leaders in the 1970s critique of fulfillment through the totalitarian state. The Amazon had made him the first Nietzschean anthropologist.


Entheogen: The Movie

On Friday, January 30, at The Wild Project in New York, Reality Sandwich, Souldish, and Critical Mass Productions will present a screening of the film Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within. Following the film there will be a panel discussion featuring the film's co-director Nikos Katsaounis, Reality Sandwich Contributing Editor Adam Elenbaas, and holistic health and philosophy instructor Tatiana Forero Puerta. An interview with Nikos Katsaounis is here.

Since at least the 1970s, a tenacious meme has circulated among a generally progressive youthful demographic, some of whom have now carried that meme with them into their elderhood. The meme states that there is a connection between our ecological crisis and our loss of earth-connected spirituality — a connection to both earth and spirit that we once possessed but have now lost, and which is still preserved for us by some indigenous peoples. Still, the meme says, there is hope. A spiritual awakening is coming, associated with the Age of Aquarius, or the fifth pachakuti, or the culmination of the Mayan calendar in the year 2012.

This shift is away from ego, self-importance, greed, racism, capitalism, consumerism, and left-brain linearity, and toward a recovery of our primal connectedness with nature. The signs of this shift are everywhere — in the rise of neoshamanism, technoshamanism, rave culture, and in the recovery of archaic techniques of ecstasy. Psychoactive substances, both natural and artificial, are an inherent part of this shift. Such entheogens — the term is taken to mean something like awakening the divine within — were the basis of a primal universal human spirituality and, indeed, may have been the basis of the very process of our becoming human. Today, entheogens not only reconnect us with our past but point us toward the future, where we will all be shamans — interconnected, peaceful, creative, and deeply in touch with spirit and the earth.

There. That's the plot of the movie.

Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within is a 70-minute documentary about ecological awareness, the evolution of consciousness, electronic dance culture, technoshamanism, the revival of shamanism — and, of course, entheogenic substances. In an interview, co-director Rod Mann said: "The film Entheogen is about discovering the ways in which we participate with the dance and flow of life — and how to maintain that flow. The film also gives us context from our history — from the evolution from indigenous tribes through shamanism through world religions throughout the course of history." He continues:

I think that entheogens offer us a window into the deeper dimensions of our Self, our psyches, our behaviors, our subconscious patterns, and we may use these substances in the proper context of course, to do the necessary work, the individuation, bringing a sense of awareness to ego inflation and self importance so that through that process we may gain a stronger sense of our community and our families, and also regarding other species, plants, etc. — how we fit into the sempiternal interconnected web of life which sustains the whole of existence.

The film features Charles Tart, Stanley Grof, Marilyn Schlitz, Ralph Metzner, Alex Grey, Terrence McKenna, John Markoff, Daniel Pinchbeck, Jeremy Narby, Barabara Marx Hubbard, Kat Harrison, and other carriers of the meme, discussing the relationship between the current ecological crisis and the re-emergence of archaic techniques of ecstasy, between dance festivals and the collective consciousness, and between the disenchantment of the modern world and the next leap in the evolution of the planetary mind.

And, if you can't make it to New York for the screening and panel discussion, you can buy the DVD here, or you can watch the entire film without leaving your computer:


Magic Stones

Vance Gellert, Victor Ventos' Stones (2005)

Significant among the tools used by shamans in the Upper Amazon are piedras, or piedras encantadas, magic stones, sometimes called just encantos, charms; such stones are called inkantos by the Machiguenga and Shipibo. My teacher doña María Tuesta told me that her father was a tabaquero who kept two magic stones, one male and one female, in a jar filled with a mixture of tobacco and water. When doña María was about eight years old, while her father still lived with the family, she saw him work with the stones twice. She could see the spirits of the stones: they both had very dark skin and long black hair. The male spirit of the stone had dark red eyes like huayruro seeds. His mouth was painted red, the color of brujería, sorcery — magia roja, red magic, the worst kind. He could stick his tongue out all the way to his chest, as is typical of sorcerers; his flema, magical phlegm, was filled with scorpions, snakes, and toads.

In addition, doña María, in the dream journey that constituted her coronación as a prayer healer, dreamed that she passed by a stream in which piedritas, magical stones of all kinds, large and small, were singing to her: “Welcome, welcome, maestra, doctora.” Doña María counted such magic stones among her animal protectors, since the imanes, spirits, of the stones became black boas, yellow boas, condors, and macaws in order to protect her.

Black flint

Magic stones may — but need not be — striking in appearance: color, shape, and texture may indicate that a stone is, in fact, encantada. The stone may be shaped like a person or animal, like a snake or a jaguar claw, or have an unusual color, or be visually attractive, or just be rare. The stone may turn up in an unusual place or behave oddly; among the Aguaruna, a magic stone is often found in the stomach or crop of an animal as it is being cleaned. The stone may speak to the shaman, or the spirit of the stone may appear in the shaman’s dreams, or in an ayahuasca vision. Cocama shaman don Juan Curico says that encantos are stones that with time have taken the shape of jungle animals or human body parts. He himself has stones in the shape of a snail, the head of an anaconda, the head of a crocodile, a human hand and head.

Crystals particularly are prized; they are, says one mestizo shaman, luz solidificada, solidified light, with a celestial origin. Ordinary piedra pedernal, flint — “like a crystal, but black,” doña María explained to me — may be a powerful magic stone, perhaps in part because it is not native to the Amazon. Such stones come from Lima, I was told; they are about three inches long. If you put the stone in a glass jar of water, and then drink the water, the stone takes away shame, sorrow, anxiety.


The doctrine of signatures applies to stones as well as to plants. Don Francisco Montes Shuña says that a shaman can tell what stones have power, and what power they have, by looking at their shape and color. A stone of white marble can be an arcana, protection, because it purifies, cleanses, and protects the body; a red stone can nourish the blood; translucent crystals give vision and clarity. A stone in the shape of a human hand can take away pain from the body part on which it is placed.

Magic stones will stick for several hours to the place on the body where sorcery has struck, suck out the harm — the dart, the insect, the scorpion, the phlegmosity — and then drop off. Stones can also be used to rub the place where the sickness is located, to loosen the intrusive pathogenic object, so that the shaman can suck it out from the suffering flesh.

Just as the shaman drinks the plants in order to master them, the shaman drinks the magic stones. The shaman leaves the stones in water for a day, observing la dieta, blowing tobacco smoke over them, telling the stone what the shaman wants to know, and finally drinking the water. The spirit of the stone will then appear in a dream and teach the shaman what the shaman seeks. The spirit of the stone can also be seen when drinking ayahuasca; the stones can also be kept in a tobacco infusion, and the tobacco drunk. “It is something admirable,” says don Juan Curico, “to share the wisdom of millions-year-old beings.”

Vance Gellert, Victor Ventos, Stone Healer (2005)

Beliefs about magic stones are widespread in the Upper Amazon. Among the Waiwai, a magic stone, called ñukwa, appears in the mouth of the apprentice shaman during a dream; holding the stone in his mouth, the apprentice learns to sing the magic songs. Similarly, Warao shamans acquire magic stones which descend into their mouths during dreams. Among the Aguaruna, magic stones are generally used for a variety of purposes — hunting, seduction, planting, warfare. These stones have souls, and can assume human form in dreams; they can drink blood, eat souls, and run away if not properly fed. Rock crystals among the Desana are invested with complex cosmological and sexual symbolism. The stones are fed on tobacco, and stored in water infusions of tobacco; these nicotine-rich infusions are drunk in order to communicate with the spirits of the stones.

Yagua shamans keep two kinds of magic stones — small stones called soul-stones or invisible stones, which are kept safe in the stomach; and visible stones, which are kept in a bag hung around the neck. No shaman ever shows these visible stones, saying that they would then lose their power. Blowing tobacco smoke on these stones increases their size a hundredfold. When small, they may be used as weapons, just like darts; when enlarged with tobacco smoke, they became a barrier of protection. Shamans can also keep pieces of glass, called transparent stones, in their stomach, which they can regurgitate and place in the beer gourds of their victims; when swallowed, the glass cuts up the body from the inside.

The Machigengua apprentice receives stones from an invisible celestial being who appears in the apprentice’s ayahuasca vision. The stones must be fed regularly with tobacco smoke; when they are thus nourished, they turn into jaguars. Machigengua shamans acquire these stones — light-colored or transparent, especially quartz crystals — during initiation or from the shaman’s father or other close relative. These stones are considered the body, or residence, or material manifestation of the spirits. The shaman carries the stones in a small bag and feeds the stones tobacco daily; if the shaman fails to do so, the spirits will leave the stones, and the shaman will die. Canelos Quichua believe that the spirits in their magic stones are those of dead shamans. If you gently blow on such a stone, you will see condensation appear on its surface; this shows that the stone “has breath,” that it is a powerful shaman.


Fire on the Mountain

The documentary Fire on the Mountain: A Gathering of Shamans was filmed in 1997 at a ten-day gathering of tribal elders, wisdom keepers, and medicine women from five continents, who had travelled to Karma Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in the French Alps, to discuss their concerns with the Dalai Lama and representatives of the world's religions.

The project had begun when Lama Denys Teundroup, the spiritual director of Karma Ling and Honorary President of the European Buddhist Union, was traveling in Ecuador, giving Buddhist teachings, and was invited by poet Alexis Naranjo to journey with him into the jungle to visit the Shuar. There Teundroup met Shuar shaman don Hilario Chiriap, and the two men quickly became friends. Teundroup was struck by the Shuar reverence for nature and its similarity to the Buddhist concern for the welfare of all sentient beings.

Don Hilario voiced his concern about the impact of deforestation and oil and mineral exploration on the rainforest, and expressed his wish for an international gathering where indigenous shamans from around the world could meet each other, present a united message to representatives of the world's organized religions, and challenge them to take up the environmental cause on spiritual grounds.

Six months later, Teundroup sent out the first invitations for an interfaith gathering "to explore the common themes of peace, compassion, and solidarity which underlie the world's faiths, and to draw attention to the endangered spiritual traditions of Indigenous Peoples, whose holistic ecological wisdom and social insights have so much to offer the modern world."

One of the first to accept the invitation was the Dalai Lama. "From my personal experience, I believe such a gathering should have two major objectives," he wrote. "The first is that the world's principal traditions consider how to participate in the improvement of the world and of Humankind as a whole, by promoting fundamental human values such as compassion and ethics. The second objective is that each of these major traditions consider how to contribute to the preservation of different ancient traditions which are working for the well-being and survival of their own communities."

The brochure for the Gathering said: "The monotheistic religions descended from Abraham, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, together with Hinduism and Buddhism, now communicate with each other through a deepening interfaith dialogue that is actively engaged in the development of peace and the promotion of universal values. If these religious traditions, through some of their representatives — in their differences, oppositions, or rivalries — become factors of war, then their dialogue in respect of the difference of each one, is on the contrary the true source of a profound peace."

The gathering, which ran from April 26 to May 2, 1997, was offically held as part of the United Nations 1995–2004 Decade of Indigenous Peoples. The ceremonies included Buddhist and Bön rituals from Tibet, a tree blessing by a shaman from Tuva, a healing ceremony by a woman shaman from the Buryat Republic, a Voudoun ceremony from Benin, shamanic rituals by a Shuar shaman, prayer rituals by the elder wisdom-keeper of the endangered Rendille nomads of Kenya, a night-time celebration where a Purupecha medicine man of the Native American Church performed the Ceremony of the Four Colors, and other ceremonies performed by representatives of the North American Tlingit, Onondaga, Apache, Mohawk, and Cherokee peoples.

As these indigenous spiritual leaders performed their ceremonies, they realized how much they had in common — a loving respect for the natural world, belief in the importance of dreams, the persecution and suffering of their people, and a determination that the old ways be preserved for future generations.

This private part of the gathering was followed by a public event where the Dalai Lama and the shamans shared their conclusions with high-level representatives of the world's organized religions, in front of an audience of five thousand people who had spent the previous four days listening to the Dalai Lama's teachings on the Four Noble Truths. The official photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson. A book has been published about the gathering — Le Cercle des Anciens: Des hommes-medecine du monde entier autour du Dalai Lama, by Patrice Van Eersel and Alain Grosrey.

The documentary film was produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker David Cherniack, and is available for purchase from Mystic Fire Video. The documentary has been made available on the Web in its entirety.


Long-Term Peyote Use

I talked here and here about a 1996 study of long-time users of ayahuasca in the União do Vegetal church, which showed that drinking ayahuasca hundreds of times over decades of participation had no adverse impact on personality, and was in fact associated with significantly higher scores on measures of concentration and short-term memory.

In 2005, a similar study of long-term peyote-using members of the Native American Church reported similar results. The study was funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Members of the Native American Church may attend ceremony as often as two or three nights a week or as infrequently as once a year, but most members attend, on average, one ceremony a month. Many ingest peyote hundreds or thousands of times in their lifetime.

The study involved three groups of Navajos aged 18 to 45 years old — 61 Native American Church members who reported ingesting peyote on a least a hundred occasions; 36 recovering alcoholics, sober at least two months, who reported a history of drinking more than fifty twelve-ounce beers or their equivalent per week for at least five years; and a comparison group of 79 persons reporting minimal lifetime use of peyote or any other substance.

All the participants were given a battery of ten nonverbal neuropsychological tests as well as the Rand Mental Health Inventory, a standard instrument used to diagnose psychological problems and determine overall mental health, including subtests that examine anxiety, depression, life satisfaction, and behavioral and emotional control. No significant differences were found between the peyote group and the comparison group on any of the neuropsychological measures. The peyote group also showed no significant differences from the comparison group on most scales of the RMHI, except that they scored significantly better than the comparison group on two scales that measure general positive affect and psychological well-being.

Moreover, within the peyote group, log-transformed lifetime episodes of peyote use showed no significant associations with neuropsychological measures, and were associated with significantly better scores on several RMHI measures. In other words, the more that people had participated in peyote ceremonies, the better were their mental health scores.

Of course, as with the União do Vegetal study, these results are associated with two potential causal factors — peyote use on the one hand, and, on the other hand, attendance at more than a hundred religious ceremonies. The study does nothing to disentangle these. But, again as with the União do Vegetal study, the results demonstrate that long-term peyote use in a ceremonial context certainly has no adverse effect on cognition or overall mental health. As the study states, "These findings suggest that long-term use of this hallucinogenic substance, at least when ingested as a bona fide sacrament, is not associated with adverse residual psychological or cognitive effects."

The study includes a caution that these results cannot be generalized to other hallucinogens. "It is not clear whether our findings with peyote would apply to other types of hallucinogens," the article states. "We cannot exclude the possibility that long-term use of chemically different hallucinogens (such as LSD or psilocybin) might produce adverse residual effects, even if peyote does not." One of the authors of the study, in an interview, explained this concern. "The hallucinogens that are typically abused on the street by substance abusers are LSD and psilocybin, which is the principal component of mushrooms," he said. "Those are indole molecules, and an indole is a different type of molecule from mescaline, which is the hallucinogenic component of peyote. So even if it is true that peyote has no long-term neuropsychological toxicity, you still cannot leap to the conclusion that indoles lack such toxicity."

Of course, dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogenic component of the ayahuasca drink, is just such an indole. Yet the peyote study surprisingly makes no reference to the União do Vegetal ayahuasca study, which, since it was published nine years earlier in the prestigious Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, seems hard to miss, and which might have gone some way toward addressing that concern.


Ayahuasca and Cancer

In 1998, a man named Donald Topping wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies entitled Ayahuasca and Cancer: One Man's Experience. Topper was a retired professor of sociology and linguistics at the University of Hawai’i, a proponent of drug policy reform, an advocate for medical marijuana, and a founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i. He had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer and been treated, apparently successfully, with surgery. But, in September 1996, he was told that the cancer had metastasized to his liver; the next month, the right half of his liver was surgically removed. A long-time believer in alternative medicine, he refused follow-up chemotherapy.

The article he wrote two years after this diagnosis tells an extraordinary story. Beginning four months after his surgery, he drank ayahuasca four times — twice in ceremonies of the Santo Daime church, and twice with an unidentified person who claimed to have studied ayahuasca with shamans in Peru. A week after his fourth ayahuasca session, he was given a blood test for carcinoembryonic antigen, a cancer marker, and the following week the oncologist told him that his CEA count was completely normal. "You're one of the lucky few," the oncologist told him. Topping attributed his recovery to ayahuasca.

A year later, in 1999, he followed up with another article in the Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies entitled Ayahuasca and Cancer: A Postscript. Here he said that "the metastasized cancer appears to be in complete remission." He said that he has no scientific understanding of how ayahuasca had the effect it did, but he suspects that it had something to do with ayahuasca realigning his cells.

Topping died of his cancer on June 29, 2003, at the age of 73, apparently having continued to refuse chemotherapy. Fewer than ten percent of patients with metastatic colorectal cancer survive for three years after the initial diagnosis; fewer than four percent survive for five years. There is no question that Topping's seven-year survival was remarkable. The question is whether it had anything to do with his having drunk ayahuasca four times shortly after his diagnosis, and — this is unclear — at various times after that. There seems to be very little reason to believe that it did.

No scientist or physician ever considered Topping's ingestion of ayahuasca to have anything to do with his remarkable survival. No study — indeed, as far as I know, not even a case report published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal — has ever associated ayahuasca with cancer remission. No constituent of the ayahuasca drink has ever been associated with anticancer activity.

I have found very few additional claims by cancer patients of having been cured by ayahuasca. In a 1996 interview, a woman named Anna reports having been cured of malignant breast cancer by a Peruvian shaman during a single very intense ayahuasca session, during which she was also given an infusion of the bark of a tree she calls capipa, which she says is a traditional cancer remedy, and which I have been unable to identify. The story has very few medical details. Another story, interestingly, tells of how an increase in the cancer protein marker Ca125 led the writer to fear a recurrence of her earlier — and apparently successfully treated — ovarian cancer. She was reassured by a vision during an ayahuasca session that she had no cancer, and, upon retesting, her Ca125 level had in fact returned to normal. Sadly, the reassurance proved false. A year after her ayahuasca experience, her Ca125 levels again began to rise, several small tumors were discovered, and she began chemotherapy again.

A number of curanderos claim that they can cure cancer, although, for reasons discussed below, it is often not clear that they are claiming to do so by using ayahuasca rather than other traditional healing plants. Ayahuasquero don Juan Tangoa Paima claims, for example, that he can heal cancer, as well as AIDS, epilepsy, heart disease, stomach and intestinal conditions, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, drug addiction, mental disorders, migraines, anxiety, and obesity — indeed, the "complete and total healing of any and all afflictions." Dr. Roberto Incháustegui Gonzalez , who is the drector of the Hospital de la Luz in Iquitos, or perhaps director of the Instituto de Medicina Tropical de Loreto, has been said to cure cancer with ayahuasca, although elsewhere he claims to cure Parkinson's disease, diabetes, psoriasis, and various forms of cancer using hierbas de la selva, jungle plants, among which ayahuasca may or may not be included.

Thus, apart from a few anecdotes and apparently inflated claims, I am aware of no scientific basis to believe that ayahuasca can cure cancer. Now this is an entirely different question from the idea that ayahuasca can bring healing in the sense of acceptance, reconciliation, or life-affirming joy. It is an entirely different question from whether any profound spiritual experience can have an effect on cancer survival — a proposition that is itself deeply controversial. And it is an entirely different question from whether some other jungle plants that are traditionally used for the purpose, such as uña de gato, Uncaria tomentosa, might have anticancer properties.

Robert Forte is a scholar of the history and psychology of the ancient and modern use of psychedelic drugs. Over the last thirty years he has worked with Stanislav Grof, Albert Hofmann, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Claudio Naranjo, and many other figures in the modern psychedelic movement. He edited the collections Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In. He holds a master's degree in the psychology of religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School, was a director of the Albert Hofmann Foundation, and taught at the University of California–Santa Cruz. He is currently adjunct faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and advisor to the Purdue University Library Special Collection on Psychoactive Substances.

On December 11, 2008, Forte posted a notice on the message board of the CancerCompass website, where he says:

There are several very compelling reports of ayahuasca — a medicine used throughout South America — combined with rigorous diet, and a profound spiritual and psychological component, being helpful in treating cancer.... I have been studying ayahuasca for several years and have received a small grant to explore its uses in its native context. I'd like to invite one or two people who have cancer to embark on a journey to Peru, for one month and see if these natural remedies work. I can show you, and perhaps introduce you to people who have done this.... I've posted here with the hope to find someone who might be up for an adventurous healing journey.

The message contains only two references. The first is to the second of the two articles by Donald Topping, which we discussed above; and the second is to Forte's own book, Entheogens and the Future of Religion, whose writings, he says, "reflect my approach to these practices." Already one person, suffering from angiosarcoma of the breast, has expressed interest.

I think what we are observing here is the slow imposition of a western idea on traditional shamanic practice in the Upper Amazon — the idea that ayahuasca is a particularly powerful healing plant. The power of its healing is then apotheosized as being a cure for cancer, the ultimate disease — intractable, unpredictable, disfiguring, deadly.

But this is not how ayahuasca is thought of in the Upper Amazon. I am aware of no ayahuasca-using culture of the Upper Amazon in which ayahuasca is considered to be autonomously healing of anything, including cancer. Rather it is viewed as a tool for diagnosis and prescription.

Shamans in the Upper Amazon do not drink ayahuasca to heal; they drink ayahuasca to get information — as Cocama shaman don Juan Curico puts it, “to screen the disease and to search the treatment.” Mestizo shaman don Manuel Córdova says the same thing: “Ayahuasca, it tells you how, but by itself it cures nothing.”

If a patient comes to an Upper Amazonian shaman to be healed of, say, cancer, the traditional purpose of drinking ayahuasca is not to heal the cancer, but rather to determine both the etiology and the treatment of the disease. The ayahuasca tells the shaman where to suck, and what healing plants to use after the carcinogenic projectile has been removed. The ayahuasca reveals to the patient the person ultimately responsible for this intrusion and the resulting cancer — the identity of the sorcerer who projected it, the faithless spouse or false business partner or offended stranger who instigated the attack.

Then other medicines, empowered by magic song, are used to heal.


In Search of the Divine Vegetal


For some time, Thomas McKinnon and AyasminA — that's her name — have been working on a still uncompleted documentary film, entitled In Search of the Divine Vegetal, about the healing power of ayahuasca. AyasminA describes the project as exploring "the nexus between Western and Indigenous cosmologies in relation to plant intelligence." The goal, she says, is to "help nurture a species of hybrid consciousness consisting of Western science, Indigenous magic, phytospirituality, and the Great Unknown." The film features Dennis McKenna, Jacques Mabit, Casimiro Mamallacto, Alex Polari de Alverga, and other experts and healers.

Tom McKinnon

McKinnon is an established visual artist with over twenty-five years of experience as a sculptor, painter, and media and performance artist. He has a BFA in Sculpture and Art History from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and an MFA in Multi Media from the University of Windsor. He has been featured and reviewed in ArtForum and Art in America. AyasminA is a professional translator, interpreter, legal advocate, and documentarian, fluent in six languages.

The project began as a radio documentary, with the same name, which first aired on November 19 and 26, 2007, on the Canadian Broadcating Company Radio One program Ideas with Paul Kennedy. Due to popular demand, it was rebroadcast on May 16 and 23, 2008. A two-CD recording of the original broadcast is available here. Or you can listen to the two-part podcast version right here:

AyasminA and McKinnon are now in the process of converting the radio documentary into a film, which they plan to finish during 2009. In the meantime, they have prepared a demo-length version, which you can see here:

The film is being produced by McKinnon and AyasminA, with camera work by McKinnon and Carlos Tanner, editing by Kevin Burton, and music by sound healer Richard Grossman. I wish I could figure out a way to encourage them to finish it.


New Book on Amazonian Shamanism

I am delighted to announce that my new book, Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, is going to be published by the University of New Mexico Press. I am particularly gratified by this acceptance because the University of New Mexico Press has traditionally had a strong list in shamanism, Native American studies, and Latin American studies.

Indeed, the University of New Mexico Press has published some of my own favorite books: Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache; Claire R. Farrer, Living Life's Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision; Bonnie Glass-Coffin, The Gift of Life: Female Spirituality and Healing in Northern Peru; Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya; and two groundbreaking anthologies — Stacy B. Schaefer and Peter T. Furst, People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival and E. Jean Matteson Langdon and Gerhard Baer, Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. I feel that I am in distinguished company.

Here is a description of the book:

In the Upper Amazon, mestizos are the Spanish-speaking descendants of Hispanic colonizers and the indigenous peoples of the jungle. Some mestizos have migrated to Amazon towns and cities, such as Iquitos and Pucallpa; most remain in small villages, their houses perched on stilts on the shores of the rivers that are their primary means of travel. Here in the jungle, they have retained features of the Hispanic tradition, including a folk Catholicism and traditional Hispanic medicine. And they have incorporated much of the religious tradition of the Amazon, especially its healing, sorcery, shamanism, and the use of potent plant hallucinogens, including ayahuasca. The result is a uniquely eclectic shamanist culture that continues not only to fascinate outsiders with its brilliant visionary art but also to attract thousands of seekers each year with the promise of visionary experiences of their own.

Ayahuasca shamanism is now part of global culture. The visionary ayahuasca paintings of Pablo César Amaringo are available to a world market in a sumptuous coffee-table book; international ayahuasca tourists exert a profound economic and cultural pull on previously isolated local practitioners; ayahuasca shamanism, once the terrain of anthropologists, is the subject of novels and spiritual memoirs. Ayahuasca shamans perform their healing rituals in Ontario and Wisconsin.

Singing to the Plants sets forth, in accessible form, just what this shamanism is about — what happens at an ayahuasca healing ceremony, how the apprentice shaman forms a spiritual relationship with the healing plant spirits, how sorcerers inflict the harm that the shaman heals, and the ways that plants are used in healing, love magic, and sorcery. The work emphasizes both the uniqueness of this highly eclectic and absorptive shamanism — plant spirits dressed in surgical scrubs, extraterrestrial doctors speaking computer language — and its deep roots in shamanist beliefs and practices, both healing and sorcery, common to the Upper Amazon. The work seeks to understand this form of shamanism, its relationship to other shamanisms, and its survival in the new global economy, through anthropology, ethnobotany, cognitive psychology, legal history, and personal memoir.

The book is due to be published in October. I will keep everyone advised on its progress through the press. Everyone is invited to the launch party!


Extreme Celebrity Ayahuasca

Three celebrities

It's actually not a bad idea for a television reality show. Get several very minor celebrities, pack them off away from their home comforts, and subject them to a range of programs that claim to enhance inner peace, happiness, and understanding. That at least was the premise of a short-lived BBC program called, naturally enough, Extreme Celebrity Detox, on which the guest celebrities performed t'ai-chi exercises in the Slovenian Alps, practiced Taoist sexual yoga in Thailand, did body-cleansing hatha yoga in the Himalayas — and drank ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon.

In each case, the goal appears to have been to discomfit the celebrities, in the name of personal growth, by having them practice genital weightlifting, drink their own urine, achieve whole-body orgasms, and, in the case of ayahuasca, get crazy. "While under its influence," the announcer tells us portentously, "they could well hallucinate."

Mina smokes mapacho

The three celebrities shipped off to Peru were Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records; Mina Anwar, comedy actress; and Jo Guest, former glamour model, a term I did not understand until I looked up her name in Google Image Search with SafeSearch turned off. Do not do that at work.

The result of the expedition, however, was, to my astonishment, a remarkably accurate and sympathetic portrayal of three ayahuasca tourists and their attitudes and experiences. Their motives differed — although one may guess that none of them shunned the chance for television exposure — and in many ways were probably more vague than is typical of such tourists. Tony: "I thought it sounded like a very interesting thing to do." Mina: "I was very keen on the idea of a spiritual odyssey and of finding myself." Jo: "I wanted to find out something more about myself."

The three celebrities were also deeply fortunate to have been given over to the care of my good friend Howard Lawler and my own maestro ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho Jurama.

Howard Lawler

Here is a little background. Lawler is a herpetologist by training, author of more than fifty papers and articles on ecological, wildlife, and conservation topics, who first came to the Amazon to study its reptiles. As have others before him, he fell in love with the land and the people, but his interest centered on jungle curanderismo, the healing practices of the mestizo shamans and their use of medicinal and sacred plants. He is a naturalized Peruvian citizen who lives in Iquitos with his wife and two children. He devotes his entire energy to making sure that his clients get the full benefit of their experience, and he has also worked to improve the lives of the indigenous peoples with whom he works. "You are not going to die," he reassures a panicked Mina. "Just take a deep breath, and embrace life."

The entire 24-minute segment is worth watching.


Jacques Mabit

We spoke here, briefly, about Takiwasi, the Center for the Treatment of Drug and Alcohol Addiction and the Research of Traditional Medicines, located in Tarapoto, and its techniques for healing addiction using ayahuasca and other traditional Amazonian medicines. Takiwasi — the name means House that Sings — was founded and continues to be directed by French physician Jacques Mabit. Whatever you may think of his methods or his claimed results, there is no doubt that Mabit is a fascinating guy.

According to his biography on the Global Giving website, Mabit was born in New Caledonia in Melanesia, spent much of his early childhood in Algeria and Djibouti, and then moved to France, where he completed his studies in general medicine. He pursued additional studies in tropical medicine in Belgium and then traveled to Peru.

From 1980 to 1983, he served as director of a hospital in the province of Lampa, in the high plains region of Puno, under the sponsorship of Doctors Without Borders. Here he conducted research on environmental, cultural, and social factors in the design of an appropriate health care strategy in the central Andean plains, for which he received a research doctorate from the University of Medicine in Nantes in 1984. He received a further diploma in natural medicine from the University of Paris in 1986 — the year, coincidentally, in which he had his first ayahuasca experience.

Although he maintains his French nationality, Mabit has lived and worked in Peru much of the time since 1980. He has also traveled widely in Asia and Africa and worked in various medical capacities in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh. In fact, it was during a visit to Calcutta in 1984 that Mabit witnessed the spiritual tranquility of a dying man under the care of Mother Teresa — an experience that led him to examine the contributions that traditional healing practices could make to contemporary medical understanding and care systems.

In a 1997 interview with Nicholas Saunders and Anja Dashwood, Mabit describes his first ayahusca experiences:

In 1986 I had my first ayahuasca session. I was terrified by what I might experience, but nothing happened! So I took it a second time and within five minutes I was inside the experience. I experienced death — I was fighting giants and snakes and I was being pulled inside a very deep black hole... I was fighting for my life and it forced me to see what life really was. At one point I accepted that I would have to die and everything was finished and I had been very stupid to come to the jungle to die but it was time and, in the end, Jacques is not important. But at that moment everything changed and suddenly I understood many things, saw a lot of connections, and in that one moment ten years of previous psychoanalysis became clear. Two days later I was taking ayahuasca again.

I had had about ten sessions when the spirit of the plant told me that I was to work with drug addicts. Before that I had never had any interest in that area at all.... It was a total surprise and at that moment I had no idea what to do. But this ayahuasca revelation was so strong, it felt more real than ordinary reality. From 1986 to 1989 I didn't do anything about drug addiction and just carried on doing ayahuasca and diets and fasting, following the way of learning to cure myself.

In 1989, during another ayahuasca session, the ayahuasca spirit told him that it was time to begin. Soon after that session, he returned to France to seek support for the project, traveling as well to the United States, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Belgium, and Denmark. He found inspiration at a Buddhist temple in Thailand where they cured drug addicts with plants and a strong spiritual practice.

Most important, he lived with and learned from traditional Amazonian healers and shamans in Colombia and Peru. Speaking to BBC Radio's Crossing Continents he said: "The idea was the result of my experience as a medical doctor, when I saw how limited traditional [Western] treatments were.... I met spiritual healers — shamans — and realised they had resources unknown in the West." In 1992, three years after he began his quest, he founded Takiwasi.

The following video is an extended discourse by Mabit, recorded by Jerónimo Mazarrasa Muñoz, which gives a good idea of his personality and ideas.

Terence McKenna on Hope

I think it is worthwhile to celebrate the fact that, for the forty-third time, the United States will execute the peaceful transfer of power from one President to the next. Given human frailty and passion, I think that is remarkable. There is a lot of talk about hope in the air, and I thought we might listen to the inimitable and irreplaceable Terence McKenna give us his unique perspective on the subject.

Terence died on April 3, 2000, at the age of 53, of glioblastoma multiforme, a very aggressive brain cancer that afflicts primarily men in their forties and fifties. A friend of mine died from this disease, and it is a hard way to go. As far as I know, it has nothing to do with drug ingestion. As far as I know, too, the course of Terence's disease was absolutely typical of glioblastoma. Most important, he lived out his own message of optimism to the very end. In an interview shortly before his death, Terence said:

I always thought death would come on the freeway in a few horrifying moments, so you'd have no time to sort it out. Having months and months to look at it and think about it and talk to people and hear what they have to say, it's a kind of blessing. It's certainly an opportunity to grow up and get a grip and sort it all out. Just being told by an unsmiling guy in a white coat that you're going to be dead in four months definitely turns on the lights. It makes life rich and poignant.

The world got a lot gloomier when he died.

Good Blogs: Psychedelic Research

Matthew Baggott is a graduate student in neuroscience at UC Berkeley and a research associate at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute. He is interested in the mechanisms and effects of MDMA and hallucinogens, and in what they can tell us about the working of the brain and consciousness. His ongoing research includes measuring the cognitive, social, and emotional effects of MDMA, LSD, and methamphetamine in humans. Links to some of his relevant publications can be found here.

Baggott also writes an outstanding blog, Psychedelic Research, which focuses on the intersection of two contemporary research trends — the resurgence of human research with psychedelics, begun in the mid-1990s by Rick Strassman, Franz Vollenweider, and others; and the serious study of consciousness by prominent neuroscientists such as Francis Crick. "These two research areas are starting to converge in interesting ways," Baggott writes. "This website aims to track this convergence and point out interesting findings."

If you are interested in following the latest findings of neuroscience relating to psychoactive substances and consciousness, this blog is indispensable.


An Experiential Typology of Sacred Plants

I want to think about three sacred plants — the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom. These plants — well, actually, one of them is a fungus — are often discussed in terms of their single active molecule — dimethyltryptamine, mescaline, and psilocybin respectively.

Sacred plants such as these are commonly categorized by the chemical structure of their single active molecule. Thus peyote is categorized by the phenethylamine core of its mescaline molecule; ayahuasca and teonanácatl are categorized by the tryptamine cores of their dimethyltryptamine and psilocybin molecules. This classification also relates the plants to their putative physiological effects. The action of peyote is categorized as catecholaminergic, because the phenethylamine core of mescaline resembles the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine; the action of ayahuasca and teonanácatl is classified as serotonergic, because their tryptamine core is the same as that of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

But the relationship between structure and effect is far from clear. A very rapid tolerance, known as tachyphylaxis, is produced on repeated administration of mescaline and psilocin, the psychoactive metabolite of psilocybin; yet no such tolerance develops for the hallucinogenic effects of DMT. So, despite their similar tryptamine cores, there are significant physiological differences between psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine. At the same time, cross-tolerance occurs between mescaline and psilocybin, but not between either of these and DMT. So, despite their differing tryptamine and phenethylamine cores, there are significant physiological similarities between psilocybin and mescaline.

Moreover, most academic research on these plants ultimately derives from experimentation with lysergic acid diethylamide-25. LSD was, after all, clearly a single active molecule, very potent, and more or less readily available. But LSD is also atypical in many ways. Although usually classified as a tryptamine, it is structurally anomalous, containing both phenethylamine and tryptamine structures. Moreover, as opposed to both phenethylamine and tryptamine hallucinogens, in which the C—N—N chain is conformationally flexible, the C—C—N chain of LSD is incorporated into a more complex and rigid ring structure. Because of this hybrid structure, LSD, unlike the other tryptamines, binds not only to serotonin receptors but to dopamine and epinephrine receptors as well. Some researchers therefore have proposed a special class of ergolines, as opposed to simple tryptamines, which would include LSD and a few very closely related compounds.

Despite all this, there has been a pervasive assumption among academic researchers that the psychedelic experience is paradigmatically that of LSD, and that the experience of dimethyltryptamine, mescaline, and psilocybin can be lumped together with that of LSD under such rubrics as altered state of consciousness. Such terms refer vaguely to what the experiences of taking LSD, mescaline, dimethyltryptamine, and psilocybin — and maybe DOM and MDMA, but maybe not — presumably have in common. That there is such a common experience is simply assumed. Of current researchers, apparently only Richard Glennon has attempted a typology, based primarily on animal drug discrimination studies, which classifies these substances as hallucinogenic, central stimulant, or other, with some substances occupying more than one category.

I think we need a better typology than that. The goal should be to understand the phenomenology of the sacred plants under their ceremonial conditions of use, not when their single active molecules are ingested under experimental or recreational conditions. These three sacred plants seem like a good place to start thinking about such an experiential typology.

I think it is pretty clear that the effects of the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom are phenomenologically distinct. I think that one way to capture those differences is to think of their effects — indeed, the effects of all sacred plants — as lying within a three-dimensional space defined by three distinct axes, which I will call here hallucinogenic, empathogenic, and entheogenic. Within this three-dimensional space, of course, there can be gradations and combinations; it is as if each sacred plant had three slider bars, labeled hallucinations, empathy, and insight, which could be adjusted independently.

It seems to me that ayahuasca is paradigmatically high on the hallucinogen axis, peyote on the empathogen axis, and teonanácatl on the entheogen axis. While all three sacred plants share certain effects, predominantly visual distortions and often brightly colored geometric illusions, the experience of each lies at a unique point in this three-dimensional experiential space.

The ayahuasca drink produces visual experiences of objects and people that are solid, detailed, three-dimensional, animated, interactive, and embedded in ordinary perceptual space; and auditory experiences which are immediate, external, directional, locatable in space, and often coordinated with visual experiences. Ayahuasca, then, can reasonably be said to paradigmatically hallucinogenic. Although LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin — what we can call the classical psychedelics — have also been called hallucinogens, there is a general consensus that this term is inappropriate.

Thus, in many studies of these classical psychotropics, hallucinations — that is, perceptions "to which the subjects reacted as real" — were rarely reported and were considered a minor consequence; the vivid, mostly geometric visual illusions that are one of the hallmarks of the classical psychedelics “are seldom perceived as having real outside existence.” Researchers Peyton Jacob and Alexander Shulgin went so far as to say that, for these classical psychedelics, the term hallucinogen is today “allowed as a euphemism, although that term is also inaccurate because hallucinations are not part of the usual syndrome.” Another researcher, David Nichols, agreed: “Hallucinogen is now, however, the most common designation in the scientific literature, although it is an inaccurate descriptor of the actual effects of these drugs.”

Jonathan Ott, R. Gordon Wasson, and others famously proposed the term entheogen for these classical psychedelics, instead of the term hallucinogen, because, as Ott explicitly stated, the "shamanic inebriants did not provoke hallucinations." Rather, said Ott, the classical psychedelics produced "transcendent and beatific states of communion with deity." The term entheogen, meaning something like realizing the divine within, was intended to refer to the primarily cognitive depth- or insight-producing nature of the LSD experience.

These entheogenic experiences are frequently characterized by the psychoanalytic term oceanic feeling — as a dissolution of ego boundaries, a peak experience, a mystical experience, oceanic boundlessness, a temporal and spatial expansion of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries. Such experiences often give a sense of having attained a deeper understanding or new revelation concerning some important topic, such as the nature of existence or the qualities of God. Daniel Freedman, in an influential paper published in 1968, speaks of the experience in terms of portentousness — “the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify, to experience boundlessness and ‘boundaryless’ events, from the banal to the profound.” Just as ayahuasca is paradigmatically hallucinogenic, the teonanácatl mushroom is paradigmatically entheogenic in just this sense.

Descriptions of such entheogenic experiences are clearly different from those given for ayahuasca. It may be worth adding that the famed Amazonian ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes drank ayahuasca scores of times, but claims never to have had a “mystical experience.” Rather than any earth-shaking experience, he once told William S. Burroughs, “all I saw was colors.” Even making allowances for Schultes's rather dry Harvard wit, the distinction is clear.

In the same way, in 1983, Ralph Metzner coined the term empathogen — as opposed to both hallucinogen and entheogen — to denote the designer drug MDMA and some of its phenethylamine relatives, whose effect is primarily to induce feelings of empathy. In 1986, David Nichols proposed the alternative term entactogen, meaning something like producing a touching within. His motives were primarily tactical: he believed that empathogen sounded too much like pathogen. He also thought the earlier term was too limiting, since clinical use of MDMA was intended to go beyond the enhancement of empathy.

Interestingly, the phenethylamine core of mescaline is most closely shared, not with the other classical psychedelics, but rather with MDMA, the exemplary empathogen. Indeed, some users maintain that, as a class, the phenethylamines are more sensual, emotional, and interpersonal than the more cognitive, abstract, and ideational tryptamines. Such empathogens create feelings of warmth, sympathy, and closeness with other people. While the experience of the peyote cactus includes entheogenic components, a significant part of the experience, especially in a social setting, as in a ceremony of the Native American Church, is emotional and relational rather than cognitive — paradigmatically empathogenic.