Friday

El Dorado, Part 1


When Europeans first came to South America, they were awed by the grand civilizations of the Andes. The jungle, on the other hand, was for Europeans a place of dark and savage mystery, inhabited by primitive and ferocious warriors. Two interlocking assumptions about the Amazon have persisted to this day. The first is that the Amazon is a place of virgin wilderness, untouched by human cultivation or management; the second is that the people of the Amazon have always been — as they were found to be by twentieth-century anthropologists — small bands living by gathering, hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture.

Still, stories of El Dorado — a grand and complex civilization in the jungle, the equal of the great Andean cities — have circulated since Europeans first arrived. One eighteenth-century Portuguese mercenary and gold-seeking bandeirante wrote in his memoirs, kept in the manuscript department at the National Library of Brazil, how he had discovered, in the heart of the jungle, "a large, hidden, and very ancient city." Such accounts have been assumed to be be untrue. After all, what civilization could have emerged in such harsh subsistence conditions?

These assumptions may be slowly changing.

Anna Roosevelt

Archeologist Anna Curtenius Roosevelt — a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt and a winner of the MacArthur "genius" award — is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She began working in the Amazon in 1983, and spent several years collecting evidence from a cave called Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Cave of Painted Rock, at Monte Alegre in the uplands of Brazil, overlooking the Amazon River. The cave contained the remains of buried fruits from nearby rainforest trees; mussel shells and fish bones from the river; drops of the red pigment used to make the paintings on the cave walls; and, in the same layer of deposit, stone projectile points buried near the mouth of the cave.

Apparently the cave was occupied several times a year by people who camped in the main cavern, cooked meals, knapped stone spear points, and made paintings, including what may be calendrical or astronomical calculations.

Caverna da Pedra Pintada

In 1996, in an article in the journal Science, Roosevelt reported that a combination of carbon-14 dating for the organic matter and thermoluminescence dating for the stone artifacts and sediment showed that humans had lived in the cave as early as 11,200 years ago — twice as long ago as scientists had previously estimated human presence in the Amazon.

That report caused quite a stir. The most widely accepted theory of the peopling of South America is that, 11,000 years ago, over a period of 3,000 years, Paleoindians from the Siberian steppes followed big-game herds across the Bering Strait to Alaska on a land bridge that has since been submerged, and then migrated through what is now the western United States and Central America into South America, settling along the Andes. These migrants brought with them distinctive and beautifully worked spear points, known as the Clovis tradition, with which they hunted large game in the open, temperate, upland habitats in the interior of North America. Paleoindians in the Andes and those in North America had similar cultures. They avoided the humid rainforests of the Amazon.

That is why Roosevelt's claim was so unsettling. "This really changes the picture of migrations and ecological adaptations of early Americans," Roosevelt says. "People were not even supposed to be in this part of the hemisphere at this time."

Cave paintings

An important piece of evidence for Roosevelt's theories is a spear point found in the Cave of Painted Rock. The long narrow Clovis spear point — the earliest dated examples are between 10,900 and 11,200 years old — was designed to be struck deep into the bodies of large animals such as mastodons, mammoths, and bison, causing them to bleed out from internal injuries. The point that Roosevelt found is short and triangular, with a barbed base more suitable for spearing fish and smaller game, where the point may pass entirely through the body. Similar points, none as well documented, are found in South American museums.

"We found strong evidence that a culture quite distinct from the North American Paleoindian culture, but contemporary with it, existed more than 5,000 miles to the south," Roosevelt says. "Paleoindians traveled far and adapted to a diverse range of habitats. The existence of distinct cultures east of the Andes suggests that North American big-game hunters were not the sole source of migration into South America."

The Paleoindians of the Amazon were therefore not descendants of the mammoth hunters of North America; rather, they were contemporaries, with their own distinctive art and technology adapted to their jungle and riverine environment. "Clovis is evidently just one of several regional traditions," Roosevelt concludes. "Clearly, Paleoindians were able to adapt to a broad range of habitats. In the Amazon, they developed a long-term adaptation to the humid tropical forest."

Non-Clovis spear point

These conclusions have been challenged, most often by questioning the dates that Roosevelt has assigned to the artifacts. Richard Reanier of the University of Alaska concluded that the Amazon site had been settled a thousand years later than the Clovis site in New Mexico, giving a thousand-year window within which Paleoindians could migrate to the Amazon. Similarly, C. Vance Haynes of the University of Arizona revised the statistical reading of the evidence to make the cave no more than 10,500 years old, and thus allow its culture to be a descendant of Clovis.

Others think that Roosevelt's broad conclusions may have been too hasty. "It's tantalizing evidence that the adaptations of some of the first Americans may have been different from what we thought," said Dr. John Rick, a Stanford University anthropologist. "But we can hardly use a single site for a whole revision of New World archeology."

Roosevelt herself has never displayed an inclination to be conciliatory. John Douglas, a University of Montana colleague who co-authored the Science paper, notes that "Anna tends to cut a controversial figure in the field. She's often right, but she has a way of stirring people up." Dr. Gordon Willey, a professor emeritus of archeology at Harvard, puts it this way: "Anna's a good researcher and very passionate about being right."

Roosevelt is unmoved by her critics. "You have to face the idea that some opinions won't change," she says. "But in the end, if you have the evidence, you will be in the textbook, not them."

Roosevelt made another very significant discovery at the cave — pottery that dates back to 7,500 years ago, more than 2,000 years older than the earliest pottery found in Mesoamerica or the Andes. Apparently the hunting and foraging artists of the Cave of Painted Rock had, over thousands of years, developed into the earliest ceramic-producing culture in the Americas, without the influence of the high civilizations of the Andes.

Thursday

Yuwipi Man


The shaking tent is a ceremony widespread among indigenous peoples of North America, during which a shaman is tightly bound within a darkened lodge, the structure shakes violently, and the shaman — and sometimes the audience as well — converses with spirits who speak and sing, and sometimes appear in various forms, such as darting blue lights. When light is restored, the shaman is revealed to be unbound and sitting comfortably, apparently untied by the spirits.

Norval Morrisseau, Shaking Tent

The picture at right, by famed Ojibwa painter Norval Morrisseau, depicts a shaking tent ceremony — the healer and patient seated within the lodge, which is being shaken, at its top, by the immense powers of the spirit world invoked by the healer.

Among the Lakota, the shaking tent ceremony is called a yuwipi. As elsewhere, the healer is tied up with ropes or leather thongs and a special blanket — wicahpi šina, star quilt — while praying for the healing of a specific person or persons. The term yuwipi is usually derived from the Lakota verb form they wrap him up. The healer is called yuwipi wicaša, yuwipi man, who gives away a piece of his life every time he performs the exhausting ceremony, in order to serve the people.

The yuwipi man mediates between the people and the spirit world. He is a wicaša wakan, a sacred person, who is not only a healer, but whose counsel is sought for family and business matters. He understands the languages of all creatures and can communicate directly with the spirits, who tell him how a patient's sickness may be cured. The Lakota distinguish between white sickness, which can be cured by biomedical intervention, and Indian sickness, which is the result of disharmony between humans and the spirit world. The yuwipi man is the sole healer of Indian sickness.

During the ceremony, a helper holds the sacred pipe, and people around the perimeter of the room also pray for the healing. While the spirits are present, people other than the patient may also make their requests known to the spirits, addressed as tunkašila, grandfather, through the medium of the yuwipi man, who acts as the ieska, interpreter. A detailed description of a yuwipi ceremony is here.

Gary Holy Bull, yuwipi man

Ringing Rocks Foundation in Sedona, Arizona, is dedicated to conserving indigenous healing practices and cultural traditions. The foundation supports ethnographic fieldwork, public education, and the active promotion of indigenous cultures. The foundation's seminal work is a book series, Profiles of Healing, which collects first-person narratives from some of the world's most respected indigenous shamans, healers, and medicine keepers. The project was founded by the remarkable Bradford Keeney, author of more than thirty books in the fields of psychotherapy, cybernetics, and indigenous healing traditions, many of them considered to be classics. The first volume in the series is a profile of the life and teachings of Gary Holy Bull, a widely respected Lakota yuwipi man.

Cultural Survival is the leading US-based organization defending the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. It was founded in response to the opening up of remote Amazonian and South American areas during the 1960s, and the drastic effects this had on indigenous inhabitants. It has since worked with indigenous communities in Asia, Africa, South America, North America, and Australia, guided by a board of directors that includes not only anthropologists, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs but also prominent indigenous leaders.

Gary Holy Bull gathering sage

One Cultural Survival program is the Guatemala Radio Project, a five-year partnership with five Guatemalan organizations designed to strengthen a network of 140 community radio stations across the country, many of which broadcast in one or more of the country’s 23 indigenous languages. The stations provide news, educational programming, health information, and traditional music, all reinforcing pride in Mayan heritage.

As part of this project, Cultural Survival joined with the Ringing Rocks Foundation to produce a series of programs in which indigenous spiritual leaders from around the world talk about their practices and traditions. The talks are part of a lecture series sponsored by Ringing Rocks, and the audio portion of the talks is then translated into the four principal Mayan languages and broadcast on the Guatemalan radio stations. The video clips below, by yuwipi man Gary Holy Bull, are from the first of these programs.

The Cultural Survival website — brief registration required — provides Holy Bull's fascinating first-person account, transcribed from the talk he gave at the Ringing Rocks Foundation, of how he became a healer. Here is a brief excerpt:

I want to tell you how I became a healer. I was a little boy, 10 years old, running around Rocks Side. It was mid-July, a hot summer day, no cloud in the sky. I got tired, so I went inside the house to take a nap. To this day, I’m not sure if I fell asleep and these things happened or if I really did see them. We lived in a log house, a one-room log house, and there was one big log right down the middle, all the way across, which held all the rafters. I sat down on the bed, looking out, and I think I laid down. I saw this lightning come in on both ends of this one log. And that lightning came through, met in the middle, and went down. When it hit the floor I heard this big crack, and when I looked at it, there was a man standing there with a sacred pipe. He stuck the pipe right through the floor into the ground.


Cultural Survival has also made available two video excerpts from that talk, one containing Holy Bull's advice to young indigenous men, and the other talking about change.







Wednesday

Animated Ayahuasca


Back in November of 2007, Santiago, Chile, was the host of the first — and, sadly, never repeated — Hollyweed International Psychoactive Film Festival. The festival showcased an international selection of films related to psychoactive substances of natural origin, such as marijuana, coca, and ayahuasca.

The festival was sponsored by the Spanish owners of the magazine Cañamo, or Hemp. Submissions included animations, short films, feature films. and documentaries, with prizes in each category. There were entries from Brazil, Spain, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, the Netherlands, Colombia and Chile. I am unclear as to whether there was any prize money, but I am certain that everyone had a very good time.

El Grio

The first prize winner was a short animation by a young Chilean painter and muralist named José Benmayor Mansilla, known as El Grio, who paints oddly compelling cartoon-like and brightly colored creatures on canvas and public walls. "I enjoy creating scenes or situations in my own figurative style," he writes, "characterized by synthesizing forms in different ways."

Sometimes I have the scenes clearly in mind when I start the painting, and at other times they appear and start acquiring meaning as the work progresses. The images have a meaning that varies according to the perception of each viewer; different people feel different things when looking at the paintings. I believe this happens because I try to make the elements symbolic and to have a relationship among each other, even if it is not obvious. This also happens with the colors and the way in which I paint. Basically, I try to stimulate and make the viewer feel different sensations — memories, emotions, fears, and so on. My language is close to that of comic books and animated cartoons.


Benmayor's winning project at the film festival was called Ayahuasca:


Benmayor has a blog and — if you want to see more of his fascinating paintings and murals — a Flickr photostream and displays of recent works here and here.

Tuesday

Telling Dreams


A story is a metaphysical entity. What exists in the world is the telling of a story. The same story may have different tellings, at different times, by different people, or in slightly variant versions. These tellings are tokens for which the story is the type. We can, arguably, reconstruct a story from its tellings, as we can reconstruct a dead language from its living descendants. But it is the tellings that are alive.

It is common to say that myths and dreams are interpreted or analyzed. But this way of speaking contains a small but important inaccuracy. It is not myths or dreams that are interpreted; it is tellings of myths or dreams. These tellings may be oral or written, in a wickiup or in a dreamwork group, or communicated in writing to the privacy of a dream journal. But they are all tellings; and there may be different tellings of the same myth or dream — different because they are recited or written at different times, or told by different tellers, or told in different circumstances. Although it seems that a dream is peculiarly ours, access to a dream, like access to a myth, is only through its telling, private or public.

But all this raises an important question. Is there, in fact, a myth or a dream apart from its telling, its disclosure, its revealing? Dreams offer an interesting instance of Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. The argument goes — with some obscurity — something like this. Suppose I have a purely private language, in which I use the word snark to refer to a certain sensation I feel at the time. At a later time, upon feeling a sensation, I say, "There is another snark." But how can I determine whether I have used the word correctly on this second occasion? Maybe I misremember the first sensation; maybe I mistakenly think that the second sensation is similar to the first, when it is really not similar at all. But that means that the application of the term snark is undetermined; a term whose application is undetermined is meaningless; therefore there cannot be a private language.

By the same reasoning, dreams — in the sense of a sequence of moving pictures in the mind — cannot be meaningful. Dreams gain meaning only in their telling, even when I am telling the story of the dream to myself, as I review it or puzzle over it. Suppose there is a figure in my dream. Upon awakening, I cannot identify that figure except as a companion. Later in the day, I see my friend John, and I realize — or come to believe — that the figure in my dream was in fact John. But how can I determine whether I have identified the figure correctly on this second occasion? Suppose that I am mistaken; suppose that the figure in my dream was not John at all. Perhaps the figure was another friend, or my father, or no one in particular.

But here, for a dream, it does not matter. What matters is the telling. The telling of the dream is where the analysis, the interpretation, the understanding, all the meaning-making activity can begin to take place. A dream is undetermined until it is told.

There can be many tellings of a dream; a dream, of course, is a construct out of its tellings. These tellings are tokens for which the dream is the type. Now which of these — type or token — is meaningful? Suppose I misremember my dream as containing John rather than Mary. Does that mean that any interpretations I make of my dream will be wrong?

Once again, Wittgenstein provides an analytical model. He says,

The fact is that whenever you are preoccupied with something, with some trouble or with some problem which is a big thing in your life – as sex is, for instance – then no matter what you start from, the association will lead finally and inevitably back to that same theme. Freud remarks on how, after the analysis of it, the dream appears so very logical. And of course it does.


So, it does not matter whether it was John or Mary in my dream. I could make up a story on the spot; indeed, I could invent a dream. What matters is the story, and the telling of the story.

That is why it is possible to work with any fragment of a dream, like a fractured piece of a hologram. Jeremy Taylor writes of a hesitant dreamer in one of his dream workshops who simply could not remember his dreams. Finally, Taylor suggested to him that he make up a dream: "What would your dream have been like this morning if you had been able to remember it?" Taylor adds — and note the use of words of telling — that "a conscious fantasy narrative could have been explored as readily as the regular nighttime dreams shared by the other members of the class." It is the telling that counts.

The same thing is true for any experience. Life is a hologram. Every little piece carries the meaning of it all.

Monday

Literary Shamanism


I have always enjoyed reading certain writers — Gabriel García Márquez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Isabel Allende, Italo Calvino — whose works are often grouped together as magical realism. I think I know why. The world of these writers is, in a significant way, the world of the shaman, the visionary world, in which reality is interfused with the miraculous.

El realismo magical, lo real maravilloso americano, is deeply associated with the resurgent literature of South America, and is characterized by a detailed realism into which there erupts — in a way often experienced as unremarkable — the magical world of the spirits. Critics David Mikics, Derek Walcott, and Alejo Carpentier say that magical realism "projects a mesmerizing uncertainty suggesting that ordinary life may also be the scene of the extraordinary."

This idea is often expressed, as one commentator puts it, as "exploring — and transgressing — boundaries.” In a 1969 interview, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez said, of his own magical realist writings, ”My most important problem was to destroy the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic. Because in the world that I was trying to evoke, that barrier didn’t exist.”

Gabriel García Márquez

Yet García Marquez describes himself as a realist writer, “because I believe that in Latin America everything is possible, everything is real.” Thus, in the fictional town of Macondo, Remedios the Beauty rises to heaven with her sister-in-law's sheets. No reason is given, and her sister-in-law Fernanda does not wonder how this could happen. She accepts it without surprise, and only regrets that she has lost her sheets. My own plant teacher doña María Tuesta similarly was lifted to heaven inside her mosquito net to be initiated by the Virgin Mary. For her, too, this was wonderful and unsurprising.

Thus the visionary world does what literary critic Theo L. D’Haen calls "decentering privileged centers." Magical realist texts — and thus the visionary world itself — are ontologically subversive. The magically realist world subverts the privileged ontological center that dichotomously divides experience into the real and the unreal.

William S. Burroughs

Magical realism is often said to occur in places that postmodernist literary critics have called the zone. "The propensity of magical realist texts to admit a plurality of worlds," write critics Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris, "means that they often situate themselves on liminal territory between or among those worlds — in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common, where magic is a branch of naturalism." William S. Burroughs put it this way in a letter to Allen Ginsberg in 1955: “The meaning of Interzone, its space time location is at a point where three-dimensional fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world.”

This zone is the world of the shaman — the vision, the apparition, the lucid dream, seeing through the ordinary to the miraculous luminescence of the spirits, perceiving the omnipresent pure sound of the singing plants.

Sunday

The Natufian Shaman


The view from the cave

The Natufian culture flourished in the southern Levant between 15,000 and 11,600 years ago. One of the places that Natufian dead were buried is a small cave named Hilazon Tachtit, located on a steep cliff about 500 feet above the Hilazon River, with a sweeping view of the river and the Mediterranean shoreline, in which twenty-eight burials have been excavated. These burials can be dated to between 12,400 and 12,000 years ago, during the time that Natufian culture was in transition from foraging to farming.

All of this would normally be of interest primarily to professional archeologists, but one of the burials, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has received considerable attention, including an article in Time Magazine.

The burial site

The person buried was a small woman, probably about five feet tall, and perhaps 45 years old, based primarily on heavy erosion of her teeth. The burial had two striking features. First, the woman herself had congenital deformities of the pelvis and the lumbar and sacral vertebrae, as well as fusion of the coccyx and sacrum. These pathologies would have given her a limping or foot-dragging gait and an abnormally asymmetrical appearance.

Second, the woman was buried with a number of very unusual grave goods — more than fifty complete tortoise shells, two stone marten skulls, the feathered wing tip of a golden eagle, part of an aurochs tail, the pelvis of a leopard, the forearm of a wild boar, a male gazelle horn core, and a complete articulated human foot.

The grave itself was also unusual. The walls had been intentionally plastered with mud, the floor lined with limestone slabs, and the body itself pinned down with more than ten large stones. The burial, the authors state, is unlike any other found in this area during the Natufian period or the preceding Paleolithic. In addition, this burial was apparently the first use of this cave, which is located more than six miles away from the nearest Natufian domestic site, so it presumably took some effort to carry the body to be buried.

Clearly this was a special person.

The skeleton and grave goods

But just what kind of special person was she? The authors conclude that the burial is, specifically, that of a shaman — and, if so, one of the earliest shaman burials known from the archeological evidence. “There is no doubt that this woman had a special social position," says lead author Leore Grosman of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "and the most viable interpretation of this burial is that it was for a shaman.” Other scholars agree. “The most parsimonious explanation of this unique grave treatment for a Natufian person is that this woman was a shaman,” says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef. Grosman believes that the grave thus offers some of the earliest physical evidence of religious and spiritual belief. "Several attributes of this burial," the article states, "later become central in the spiritual arena of human culture worldwide."

Now the authors are making a large claim here, and it is worth following their reasoning. The conclusion is based on just two facts. The woman was physically disabled; and she was buried with animal parts. But then how does this make her a shaman? In some cultures, the authors state, there are accounts of physically disabled individuals being ascribed healing and spiritual powers. And, because of the presence of animal remains in the grave, the woman "was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits."

Some of the tortoise shells found in the grave

I am not persuaded that these two facts support the conclusion that this woman was a shaman. Apart from the grave itself, of course, we have no way of knowing whether the Natufian culture even had shamans, at least in any form recognizably similar to the indigenous practices we know of since the sixteenth century, when they were first recorded. There is no evidence from the grave that the woman had anything to do with healing — no herb bundles, for example. In some cultures, it is true, some shamans with physical deformities have been held to be healers, but the inference does not run in the other direction; the fact that a person has a deformity does not make that person into a shaman, if we even knew what the Natufian culture believed about the relationship between deformity and healing, which we do not.

I am also not convinced that the presence of buried animal remains, no matter how unusual, are persuasive evidence that the grave contains a shaman. It is true, of course, that some shamans in some cultures are buried with animal parts, but again the inference does not run in the other direction. Since we have absolutely no evidence of Natufian spiritual beliefs, we are free to speculate at will. If the woman had a congenital limp, and was about forty-five years old, perhaps each turtle shell stood for a year of her life during which she walked slowly and awkwardly, like a turtle, and the eagle, gazelle, and leopard parts are meant to give her, in the next life, the speed and grace she lacked in this one. Perhaps the human foot was meant to be hers in the hereafter.

This speculation is not offered to be taken with any great seriousness. The point is that it accounts for the evidence just about as well as the speculation that the woman was a shaman — that, to use Bar-Yosef's term, it is just as parsimonious.

There is no question that the grave is unusual and fascinating. It is apparently also true that the burial took place during the presumably profound social and economic changes associated with the transition to agriculture. In this specialized burial, we may be seeing the emergence of social rather than spiritual stratification, or some other cultural phenomenon entirely.

Friday

How to Build a House


The first thing I was taught by Gerineldo Moises Chavez, my jungle survival instructor, was how to build a tambo, a jungle hut. It wasn't fancy, as you can see, but it kept me dry when it rained and kept me off the ground while I slept.

My first tambo

In fact, all ribereño houses are built on exactly the same principles — a thatched house on stilts, built entirely of jungle materials, which may range in size from a small temporary hunting shelter, just large enough to sleep one or a few people, to an elaborate structure able to house an extended family.

Some of these houses are relatively isolated; some — connected together by footpaths through the jungle, or clustered about a central square — form caseríos, villages, with a soccer field, perhaps a cement schoolhouse and community center, even a clinic or a small bodega for goods brought upriver by motorized canoe.

A ribereño house

Ribereño house construction is similar throughout the Upper Amazon. Both the thatched roof and the raised flooring are supported by upright posts made of durable hardwoods, usually huacapú (Minquartia guianensis), icoja (Unonopsis spp.), or tahuari (Tabebuia spp.). These hardwoods have acquired symbolic meaning in shamanism and plant medicine: their bark is used in medicines to enhance male potency, and is added to the ayahuasca drink to support those who drink it, just as these trees support the ayahuasca vines that climb their trunks.

The roof is thatched with irapay palm leaves (Lepidocaryum tessmannii), whose stems are looped and knotted on poles of pona wood (Socratea exorrhiza) to form long sheaves, called crisneja, that are then tied in an overlapping pattern onto the rafters with strips of atadijo bark (Trema micrantha) — the same bark that is used to bind the long cylindrical bundles of cured tobacco sold in the market. The peak of the roof is covered with yarina palm leaves (Phytelephas spp.), and the springy floor — it bounces when you walk on it, which can be disconcerting at first — is made of slats cut from the trunk of the huacrapona palm (Iriartea deltoidea). Ethnobotanist James Duke estimates that as many as twenty different species of plants may be used in the construction of a single dwelling.

Huacapú — uprights

There is usually a single primary room, where people sleep under mosquito nets, either on the floor or in hammocks; bedding and nets are rolled up during the day. There may be a separate storeroom, or a separate sleeping room for the older members of the household. Supplies and equipment are also kept up in the rafters that support the thatched roof. The kitchen is often separated from the main house, at ground level, or connected with the main house by an elevated walkway, with a thatched roof for cooking when it rains. A notched tree trunk provides steps to the main room; there may be a railing around the front of the elevated room, forming a porch, from which residents talk to passers-by.

Irapay — roof thatch

So: There is a family room, perhaps a bedroom or storage room, and a kitchen. Where's the bathroom?

When I was living in the jungle hut of don Rómulo Magin, trying to learn the medicine, I would get up on shaky legs to vomit at the edge of the clearing. The next morning, embarrassed, I would go to look at the mess I had made, and find that everything was gone. The jungle had recycled it.

Pona — thatch crossbeams

One day, I decided to experiment. I defecated at the edge of the jungle, and waited to see what would happen. Metallic flies immediately started to swoop around my leavings, and small dung beetles converged and began eating, the females laying eggs in the warm scat. Then larger dung beetles arrived and began rolling up small balls of dung — gifts for their lady friends, who mate with the male who brings the largest present, and deposit the fertilized eggs into the ball of dung, which the couple then bury together. Other beetles burrowed under the mound to eat the smaller beetles; large centipedes came rushing up to get their share. For some reason — perhaps its high potassium or protein content — human scat is greatly prized by small jungle creatures. More than fifty species of dung beetle may converge on a human pile. Within half an hour, everything I had left on the ground was gone.

Crisnejairapay leaves looped on a pona pole

That is one of the reasons there is no humus on the jungle floor. Humus — dirt — takes hundreds of years to accumulate. In the jungle, everything is recycled much too quickly to form dirt. This lack of soil is why tall jungle trees fall over so frequently; you can hear the sharp cracks of falling trees while lying in your hammock. Treefall is one of the primary ways in which the jungle renews itself.

You get used to this instant recycling. One of the problems with living in the jungle for many generations is that you assume that the jungle cleans itself, which is largely true. But this attitude creates some problems. One of the problems can be found on the beautiful Pacific beaches in Lima, which, even in the fanciest neighborhoods, are covered with garbage. Another problem is potable water.

Yarina — roof peak

In the jungle there are few latrines. Many people go out into the jungle to defecate, or squat in the water at the edge of the river; many houses on stilts on the river’s edge have tiny rooms with a hole in the floor directly over the water. I have seen people bathe and wash dishes downstream from where they defecate. Even when ventilated concrete latrines have been constructed, they are often not well maintained and, when full, abandoned. Many larger river boats have a small screened room sticking out over the water with a hole in the floor. Clean drinkable water remains a significant need in many ribereño communities.

Thursday

Soul Ayahuasca


Aleah Long is an experienced session singer, vocal arranger, songwriter, and activist whose music has many roots: worldbeat new-age afro-pop trance-dance soul might be a good description. She makes frequent appearances at women's and lesbian festivals with a number of groups she has helped form — her One World Inspirational Choir, and the theatrical performance and ritualist ensemble Evolution, which was inspired, she writes, "by the Great Mother, who beckons her daughters to call her names, embrace divine purpose and awaken to the creative healing powers, restoring balance and beauty to the Earth."

Long lives in Newburgh, in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York State. Somewhere in her travels — there is little information on this — she encountered ayahuasca, and, in her album En Full Circle — A Shamanic Journey, she uses her music to capture what appears to have been a deeply transformative experience. "My work," she has written, "is with sound vibration and journaling my experiences with DMT / plant / root medicine through music."

En Full Circle is Long's only album to date. The title perhaps refers to the documentary film Full Circle, an exploration of contemporary women's spirituality, but the content is born out of her experience with Amazonian plant medicine. You have never heard ayahuasca music quite like this — for example, the following cut, entitled Icaro:



Wednesday

Good Blog: Legitimos Guerreritos


Jerónimo M. M. is a professor of interactive TV and mobile applications, as well as a consultant on Internet video, online communities, and user experience for such clients as MTV, Tele5, The Movie Channel, and Telefonica. For the past seven years he has been working on a documentary film project entitled The Ayahuasca Conversation.

The Ayahuasca Conversation is intended to explore ethnobotany, pharmacology, and the roots of faith. The project began, Jerónimo says, "with filming the way in which indigenous peoples have protected themselves from acculturation by hiding their traditions back inside the religions of the colonizers." This focus then expanded into a consideration of "the process by which religions are created and lead invariably to healing, to that point of human history where medicine and religion were not separate things," and then into traditional medicine.

"We have traveled a dozen countries and three continents," Jerónimo writes, "interviewing priests and shamans, scientists and curanderos, intellectuals and illiterate farmers, leading thinkers and anonymous people whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with these worlds. We have filmed otherworldly rituals and extraordinary behaviors that at the same time manifested something that seemed universal to all mankind."

Jerónimo refuses to create a conventional documentary out of his hundreds of hours of film. Rather, he intends to create one- to seven-minute pieces, spread virally, designed for cross-media versatility and able to be repackaged into varying lengths."These videos," he says, "are embedded into an innovative living interface: a plant-based ecosystem that thrives or withers, branching from the central narrative and unlocking batches of additional content that grows increasingly intimate. This project is ongoing and participatory: the long-term investment allows users a feeling of inclusion into the process of the documentary."

The evolving project is thus what he calls "a stylized narrative of serial webisodes" — a proposed gigantic online video archive where viewers can consult portions of the film at their own pace. The idea is eventually to transcribe the interviews and tag the videos, so that people can follow their own threads through the material, find interviews where a particular topic is mentioned, queue the video segments for viewing one after another — in effect, create their own documentaries. There may be a number of predefined paths through the material, but the user could jump off the path at any time and then return to the central thread — the diary of an addict undergoing transformation.

The documentary project is also multiplatform — the films, a collection of documents, and a bilingual blog, named Legitimos Guerreritos, which incorporates a wide variety of documentary videos. I am a big fan of this blog. The posts are always thoughtful, interesting, and filled with content — the penetration of Santo Daime among indigenous Cashinahua in Acre, Brazil; the work of cognitive anthropologist Josep María Fericgla on shamanism and ayahuasca; a response to a video showing teenagers drinking ayahuasca in their living room; the culture of the Kogi of Colombia. There are not many of them, but every one is worth a careful reading.

As intended, a few of Jerónimo's films have achieved wide circulation — including the video discourse by Jacques Mabit I posted here — although far too little footage has actually found its way onto the Internet. The following example is a more-or-less extemporaneous talk that Jerónimo himself gave in July 2007 at the Third Amazonian Shamanism Conference in Iquitos.

While attending the conference, he says, "I saw people that in my opinion were not properly prepared, make a farce, a theater play, out of something I respect and love very much, the work and practices of Amazonian curanderismo. All in order to feel better about themselves in front of people who didn't know any better ... That mix of the good and the bad is certainly an integral part of Iquitos ayahuasca scene." His critique of the commercialization and distortion of shamanism is well worth listening to.


More please.

Tuesday

A Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants


If you are as old as I am, you remember growing up with the Golden Guide books — sturdy, profusely illustrated, pocket-sized guides to such topics as flowers, planets, spiders, birds, stars, painting, pond life, photography, and rocks and minerals, intended for a young audience. They were perfect for taking along on field trips for identification purposes. The series began in 1949 with Birds and continued — remarkably — until Endangered Animals in 1995. There is, of course, a collector's website with details about every Golden Guide ever published.

In 1976, the series published A Golden Guide To Hallucinogenic Plants, written by famed Harvard botanist and Amazon explorer — and, some say, model for Indiana Jones — Richard Evans Schultes, with illustrations by Elmer W. Smith. Schultes spent decades in the Amazon, collected over 30,000 herbarium specimens, including 300 species new to science, and cataloged 2,000 medicinal plants. More than 120 species bear his name, as does a 2.2 million-acre tract of protected rain forest in Colombia, Sector Schultes, which the government there set aside in 1986. He studied both peyote and ayahuasca, and he was the first botanist to identify the traditional Mexican hallucinogens teonanácatl and ololiuqui. There was no one in the country better qualified to write the book.

The book has become quite rare. A quick look around the online used bookstores shows copies of the original hardcover edition for sale at prices as high as $858.00. Some maintain that this scarcity is the result of deliberate suppression — that the book was promptly recalled, pulled from the shelves, discontinued by the publisher. I have seen no evidence of such censorship; in fact, the book apparently went through four printings before being allowed to go out of print.

The book itself is wonderful, with beautiful botanical illustrations, a lot of cultural detail, and ethnographic paintings with the sort of old-fashioned charm that somehow reminds me of the dioramas of exotic peoples I used to love as a boy at the American Museum of Natural History. The writing is straightforward and is, for its intended audience, at a high level of sophistication. I suppose I should be retroactively offended by references to "primitive societies" and "early man," but somehow I just can't work up much indignation.

If you want to take a look, a copy has been lovingly scanned, transcribed, and posted by the invaluable Vaults of Erowid. Another copy is here. We should credit David Pescovitz at Boing-Boing for first bringing this gem to the attention of the online community.

Here is the description from the back cover of the book:

What are hallucinogenic plants? How do they affect mind and body? Who uses them — and why? This unique Golden Guide surveys the role of psychoactive plants in primitive and civilized societies from early times to the present. The first nontechnical guide to both the cultural significance and physiological effects of hallucinogens, hallucinogenic plants will fascinate general readers and students of anthropology and history as well as botanists and other specialists. All of the wild and cultivated species considered are illustrated in brilliant full color.


And, in the introduction, Schultes writes:

Hallucinogenic plants have been used by man for thousands of years, probably since he began gathering plants for food. The hallucinogens have continued to receive the attention of civilized man through the ages. Recently, we have gone through a period during which sophisticated Western society has "discovered" hallucinogens, and some sectors of that society have taken up, for one reason or another, the use of such plants. This trend may be destined to continue.

It is, therefore, important for us to learn as much as we can about hallucinogenic plants. A great body of scientific literature has been published about their uses and their effects, but the information is often locked away in technical journals. The interested layman has a right to sound information on which to base his opinions. This book has been written partly to provide that kind of information.

No matter whether we believe that men's intake of hallucinogens in primitive or sophisticated societies constitutes use, misuse, or abuse, hallucinogenic plants have undeniably played an extensive role in human culture and probably shall continue to do so. It follows that a clear understanding of these physically and socially potent agents should be a part of man's general education.


Sunday

Jaguar on Ayahuasca


By now I am sure everyone has seen the short video showing a jaguar purportedly hallucinating after eating leaves from the ayahuasca vine. The clip is from the Peculiar Potions episode of the BBC Weird Nature series. If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:


Now there is no doubt that many animals self-medicate with plants. A field of study known as zoopharmacognosy has grown up to investigate this phenomenon, utilizing the talents of animal behavorists, ecologists, pharmacologists, anthropologists, geochemists, and parasitologists.

The field was founded in large measure by one person — primatologist Michael Huffman at Kyoto University in Japan. In 1987, in the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, Huffman observed a chimpanzee suffering from diarrhea pull a young shoot off a small tree named Vernonia amygdalina. The chimpanzee stripped off the leaves and bark with her teeth, and chewed on the branch, swallowing the juice and spitting out the fibers. The chimpanzee ate several of the branches in this way for half an hour. The next day, the chimpanzee, who suffered from an intestinal parasite infection, was back to normal. Exactly the same plant — called mujonso, or bitter-leaf tree — is used by indigenous humans in the same area as a remedy for the same condition.

The word zoopharmacognosy was coined by Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University. "Some of the compounds we've identified by zoopharmacognosy," he told an interviewer, "kill parasitic worms, and some of these chemicals may be useful against tumors. There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world." Huffman agrees. He says, "The probability that animals may have something to teach us about the medicinal use of plants is quite high."

There is, I think, little doubt that animals — or at least primates — also ingest hallucinogens. Baboons eat small amounts of Datura inoxia and Datura stramonium, both of which are rich in hallucinogenic scopolamine; gorillas have been observed to ingest Tabernanthe iboga, which contains ibogaine. It is not clear whether, in either case, enough is ingested to cause hallucinations, or the plants are eaten in smaller doses for other reasons.

So: Is the jaguar eating leaves of the ayahuasca vine in order to hallucinate? I think we can base no conclusions on this video, which seems to me to be an obvious fake. It is true that the leaves pictured in the first second or two of the video appear in fact to be leaves of the ayahuasca vine; compare the leaves in the video to the Banisteriopsis caapi leaves pictured at right. But I can find little else to give me confidence.

We, of course, do not have a clue as to what the jaguar is experiencing, if it is in fact experiencing anything other than perfectly normal jaguar perceptions and perhaps sleepiness. We do not have a clue about how a jaguar would behave if it was hallucinating. We certainly have no idea how a jaguar would react to relatively low doses — the jaguar apparently eats just a few leaves, and a jaguar weighs between 120 and 220 pounds — of the β-carbolines found in the ayahuasca vine.

There is nothing in the video to indicate that it was not shot entirely in a zoo, and then intercut with stock footage of jungle animals and an actor playing an indigenous hunter for three seconds. There is no explanation of why so many ayahuasca leaves — it is, after all, a vine — are growing so conveniently low to the ground. I do not know why the announcer was not taught how to pronounce the word yagé. If this video was shot in the jungle, I am in awe of a camera operator so intrepid as to get a close-up of the eyeball of a wild jaguar.

I just don't buy it. Any other opinions?

Saturday

The Dimethyltryptamine Receptor


No one knows how dimethyltryptamine causes its hallucinogenic effects. Dimethyltryptamine structurally resembles the tryptamine neurotransmitter serotonin. In fact, there is sufficient conformational resemblance between these two molecules that DMT can dock comfortably at serotonin receptors in the brain. Thus research to date has concentrated on serotonin receptors as the key to understanding DMT.

But a recent study by Dominique Fontanilla and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, published this month in the prestigious journal Science, may change the direction of that research.

The Sigma-1 Receptor

The sigma-1 receptor is widely distributed throughout the body, and is found in almost all mammalian cells, including the central and peripheral nervous system. Its function has remained unclear. Stimulating the sigma-1 receptor can increase muscle tension, heart rate, breathing rate, and the size of the pupils. Drugs with a high affinity for binding at the sigma-1 receptor include the synthetic compounds cocaine, heroin, dextromethorphan, fluvoxamine, haloperidol, methamphetamine, and PCP.

Sigma-1 has long been considered an orphan receptor, without a known endogenous neurotransmitter of its own. Given the nature of the exogenous compounds that bind to the receptor, researchers took to calling the unknown sigma-1 neurotransmitter endopsychosin or, sometimes, angeldustin.

At the same time, as we have discussed before, DMT is known to be present in human blood, urine, brain tissue, and cerebrospinal fluid, and no one knew what function this endogenous DMT might have. This latest research solves both puzzles. The mysterious endogenous ligand of the sigma-1 receptor is DMT.

Several lines of reasoning — biochemical, physiological, and behavioral — led the researchers to this conclusion. They first diagrammed the chemical structures of several of the drugs known to bind to the sigma-1 receptor, reduced them to their simplest forms, and then searched for possible endogenous molecules with the same structures. Because DMT resembles these exogenous ligands — they all contain an N,N-dimethylated amine — and DMT occurs endogenously, they considered DMT a plausible candidate. The researchers were then able to demonstrate that, in rat liver homogenates, DMT could in fact bind with sigma-1 so strongly that DMT, once bound to sigma-1, could not be displaced by other high-affinity molecules.

There is a strain of mutant mice bred by scientists without sigma-1 receptors, usually called sigma-1 receptor knockout mice. When DMT is injected into nonmutant mice, it causes increased motor activity or hypermobility; when the researchers injected DMT into mutant mice, without sigma-1 receptors, no hypermobility occurred. The researchers also compared the effect of DMT on heart muscle cells from nonmutant mice with those from the genetically engineered mice. The activity of voltage-gated sodium ion channels in the cells was inhibited where sigma-1 was present, but unaffected in its absence.

Ion channels are important in cell signaling processes. These results suggest that sigma-1 receptors function to regulate ion channels in cells, and that DMT in turn is an endogenous modulator of the sigma-1 receptor.

There is further evidence for this hypothesis. Sigma-1 receptors are found in the endoplasmic reticulum inside cells. The endoplasmic reticulum is responsible for the folding and transport of proteins, which are then either secreted from the cell or used in the cell membrane. These sigma-1 receptors have been shown to function as molecular chaperones for plasma membrane ion channels in the cell, helping them fold into their functional conformations, and preventing them from folding into inactive shapes. Thus, in addition to — or instead of — affecting sigma-1 receptor modulation of ion channels, the behavioral effect of DMT may be due to activation or inhibition of sigma-1 receptor chaperone activity.

"The finding that DMT and sigma-1 receptors act as a ligand-receptor pair," the authors conclude, "provides a long-awaited connection that will enable researchers to elucidate the biological functions of both of these molecules."

Most commentators on this finding emphasized its practical value in studying mental illness, and therefore — this was implicit — offering an opportunity for increased research funding. James Stone of the Institute of Psychiatry in London said, "This is a very important finding and will lead to more interest in the role of DMT and the sigma-1 receptor in mental illness. People did not know what the natural ligand of sigma-1 was, and this has led to a lot of blind alleys. So this is really big news."

Radiochemist Erik Arstad, of University College London, who has worked on sigma-1 receptors, agrees that the finding is significant. "Given the potent hallucinogenic effects of DMT, its presence in the human body has so far been a mystery. The role of the sigma-1 receptor is also poorly understood, so the suggested link between endogenous DMT levels and modulation of the sigma-1 receptor is intriguing. The findings are likely to spur considerable interest in the sigma-1 receptor, as well as trace amines, particularly in relation to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia."

So: do we know how DMT causes hallucinations? Not yet, says senior author Arnold Ruoho, chair of pharmacology at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. "We have no idea at present," he said in an interview, "if or how the sigma-1 receptor may be connected to hallucinogenic activity."

Friday

Indigenous Top-Level Domains


A top-level domain is the last part of an Internet domain name. The original set of these TLDs, defined in October 1984, is still the most familiar — .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, and .org, to which .net was added in the first implementation of the domain name system. Management of TLDs is in the hands of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which operates under contract to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Over the years, new TLDs — now called generic TLDs, to distinguish them from, say, country-code TLDs — have been added, and now .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro are all operational, even if not widely used. Several additional new gTLDs have been approved in principle, although only .mobi, for the delivery of the Internet to mobile devices, seems to have aroused much interest.

Most important, in June 2008, ICANN approved the recommendation of a new gTLD program which would allow just about any organization to apply to reserve its own gTLD. Under this system, for example, Microsoft could apply for .msn, Google for .google, or New York City for .nyc. The implementation plan for the new system is expected to be published in 2009. The plan must then be approved by the ICANN Board before the system is implemented. ICANN is currently aiming to receive applications for domains starting in the second quarter of 2009.

This new plan is now seen as an opportunity for indigenous peoples to have their own gTLDs — .taino, for example, or .shipibo. But applying for a gTLD requires significant resources of time, money, and expertise. For that reason, an organization named Dot Indigi has been formed, with the aim of helping indigenous peoples be represented on the Internet in a space that is self-governing, representative, and restrictive of intellectual property abuses.

Here is how it would work. The Dot Indigi organization will apply to ICANN for the new gTLD .indigi — or another name if the community prefers — to represent all indigenous groups of the world. The .indigi domain would then offer indigenous organizations the opportunity to register their own second-level domains under the .indigi gTLD — for example, māori.indigi or diné.indigi. The organization would petition ICANN to approve the use of such characters as ā and é as part of indigenous names at the second and lower domain levels.

Karaitiana Taiuru

Individual indigenous organizations could then govern their own domain name space and distribute or resell third-level domain names — for example, ocetiwakan.lakota.indigi. Indigenous peoples could structure their domain levels to accommodate their own culture; the Māori people could, for example, create the third-level domain .kura.māori.indigi under which each individual Māori school could have its own domain. Additional second-level domains would be made available to the public for the use of indigenous individuals or smaller indigenous groups that cannot justify the expense of setting up their own second-level domain.

Dot Indigi envisions that a percentage of annual profits would be given back to indigenous groups, to allow them to participate in additional information and communication technology projects that would empower their people and organizations.

Dot Indigi is currently headed by Māori Internet activist Karaitiana Taiuru. The organization partners with the International Indigenous Task Force and the New Zealand Maori Internet Society, with support from the International Indigenous Librarians Forum and the World Intellectual Property Office, and with technical advice from ideegeo Group LTD, a domain registration and management service for international web addresses.

Dot Indigi is certainly utilizing the resources of the Web to get its message out. In addition to their website, the organization currently has a Facebook group, a Google group, and a Bebo profile, and can be followed on Twitter.

Psychoactive Plants Online


The computer magazine PC World recently published a cluster of exposé articles by staff writer Tom Spring, revealing that a number of more-or-less psychoactive plants and plant extracts — many legal and some not — are easily available online. "At a time when authorities are cracking down on illegal sale of steroids and prescription drugs online," he writes, "substances such as kratom and Mexican prickly poppy, which pack a psychedelic and narcotic-like punch, are flourishing on the Internet." One doctor with whom he spoke warned, "With some of these substances it's like playing Russian routlette with your life."

Datura inoxia

There is no doubt that some of the plants the author was able to purchase online can be dangerous. Datura inoxia, for example, contains scopolamine, and a high enough dose of scopolamine can cause, among other unpleasant effects, agitation, delirium with persecutory ideation, and frightening hallucinations. There is no doubt that people can do very weird and self-destructive things after ingesting scopolamine, especially if they are young, naïve, unprepared, and unattended. Horror stories are here.

Still, the author reports, injuries or overdoses related to the ingestion of natural stimulants and hallucinogens are rare. "Emergency room visits are infrequent," he was told by a hospital pharmacist at the University of California–San Francisco School of Pharmacy. Most emergency room visits stemming from the use of hallucinogens involve bodily harm, the pharmacist said; someone falls down and bruises a bone.

Banisteriopsis caapi

The online stores generally state that the products sold are "not for human consumption" or "for incense use only." The same idea is expressed in different ways — "We do not offer products for human consumption" or "Do not ingest anything from this site." This wording stems from the provisions of the Federal Analog Act, 21 U.S.C. § 813, intended to ban designer drugs, which at the time were being invented so fast that the law could not keep up with them. Under this Act, any chemical "substantially similar" to an illegal drug in Schedule I or II is to be treated as if it were also in Schedule I, but only if it is intended for human consumption. Hence the disclaimer.

Sometimes specific warnings are appropriately stronger. "Datura is an extremely poisonous plant," says the site selling Datura inoxia. "There have been many reported fatalities ... We strongly discourage anyone who is contemplating ingesting any part of this plant." Dutch Green Bud smoking mixture, which is made from plants containing leonurine and lactucopicrin, both mild sedatives, is accompanied by the warning, "Do not drive or operate any machinery after using this product."

Among the plants and plant extracts purchased online by the author were Salvia divinorum, motherwort (Leonurus sibiricus), kratom (Mitagyna speciosa), jurema (Mimosa hostilis), fly agaric (Amanita muscaria ), argemone (Argemone mexicana)), kanna (Sceletium tortuosum), datura (Datura inoxia), ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), and chacruna (Psychotria viridis). One online store offered, not a plant or plant extract, but what it claimed was the powerfully hallucinogenic 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine.

Psychotria viridis

All of these, with two exceptions, are, as far as I know, legal. The first exception is Salvia divinorum, which is now illegal in thirteen states, with more presumably on the way. The second exception is chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the Schedule I controlled substance dimethytryptamine, and is illegal everywhere. 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine might, under appropriate circumstances, fall within the ambit of the Federal Analogue Act.

The articles, despite their stern warnings about the effects of these plants, and scary videos of teenagers looking really stupid after ingesting Salvia divinorum, yield several ironies. The first is that the author provides links to the online sources of the psychoactive plants and fungi the articles are warning against, making it very easy for the reader to go right ahead and buy them online.

Second, the author submitted the nineteen samples he had purchased to the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. The reports issued by the NCNPR emphasized all the potential dangers of the plants, but also reported that, with one exception, the plants they tested were exactly the plants they were advertised to be. The one exception was when a substance purported to be the hallucinogen 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine turned out to be the muscle stimulant 5-methoxytryptamine.

So the links provided in the articles are not just to online sources for psychoactive plants. They are — with this one exception — links to reliable sources.

Thursday

Psychointegration


Anthropologist Michael Winkelman, at Arizona State University, says that shamanic practices — drumming, chanting, and the ingestion of sacred plants — create a special state of consciousness he calls transpersonal consciousness, and that these practices create this state of consciousness through the process of psychointegration — that is, by integrating a number of otherwise discrete modular brain functions. Anthropologist Homayun Sidky, at Miami University in Ohio, says that this theory, despite a surface plausibility, is without empirical justification.

The argument raises a number of interesting questions, and is worth following.

Michael Winkelman

Winkelman's position consists of two intertwined elements, one descriptive and one historical. The descriptive part begins from the concept that the human brain is modular — that it is a large collection of small modules that have evolved to perform specific functions. These modules can be quite specialized. Modules have been proposed for such functions as distinguishing living from nonliving things, identifying faces, understanding motives, throwing accurately, attaching emotions to faces, and recognizing causal relationships. Tools such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging may even be able to locate these modules in particular areas in the brain.

Winkelman maintains that shamanic techniques for inducing transpersonal consciousness override this modularity through what he calls integrative brain processes. In this integrative mode of consciousness, he says, ordinarily separate modules can interact, so that the brain processes information through several modules at once, in a way that is different from other states of consciousness. Synesthesia — seeing sounds or smelling colors, for example — is such a cross-modular experience, as is the uniquely human capacity for metaphor, mimesis, and symbolism. Winkelman sees such capacities as central to the role of the shaman.

There is much to be said for this last observation. Jerome Rothenberg, poet and pioneer of ethnopoetics, calls the shaman the protopoet. Poet Gary Snyder says that the shaman gives song to dreams, “speaks for wild animals, the spirits of plants, the spirits of mountains, of watersheds. He or she sings for them. They sing through him.” For these poets, the shaman is the healer who sings — the creator of metaphor, the shaper of symbols.

Winkelman's view has started a trend toward speaking of the sacred plants — such as the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, the teonanácatl mushroom — as psychointegrator plants. Such plants "enhance integration of information by eliciting cognitive capacities based in presentational symbolism, metaphor, analogy, and mimesis ... representing preconscious and prelinguistic structures of the brain." The shaman's individual psychodynamics, Winkelman says, expressed symbolically in the language of myths and spirits, are restructured "at levels below conceptual and operational thought."

This is also where the historical element comes in. Premodern humans, Winkelman says, had highly modular brains. It was shamanism that was the foundation for the development of "synthetic symbolic awareness" in early humans. "The integrative potentials of shamanism," he writes, "help explain the rapid rise of culture in modern Homo sapiens sapiens and the origin of shamanistic and religious features ... from the cross-modal analogic and psychophysiological integration processes from different innate modules."

Homayun Sidky

Sidky doesn't buy it. His critique has two prongs, both directed against Winkelman's historical thesis. First, Sidky questions the assumption that shamanism — at least in any form recognizably similar to contemporary indigenous practice — was in fact a paleolithic phenomenon. This point has merit. As I have written before, historical materials on shamanism date back only as far as the sixteenth century. By the time the first European travelers brought home descriptions of Siberian shamanism, it had already been influenced by centuries of contact with Buddhism, Islam, and Russian Orthodox Christianity. We have no direct evidence of what any sort of indigenous spiritual practice might have been like before that time.

Second, the question of what caused the sudden emergence of behaviorally modern humans about 40,000 years ago is a highly contentious one, and a wide variety of mechanisms have been proposed, including the introgression of Neanderthal alleles into the human genome. Sidky questions whether the hypothesized integrative mode of consciousness would have been advantageous in the sense Winkelman intends. Winkelman says that "altering consciousness provides a variety of adaptive advantages through development of a more objective perception of the external world." Sidky quotes Charles Tart as saying that altered states of consciousness are, just like ordinary consciousness, "mixtures of pluses and minuses, insights and delusions, genuine creativity and misleading imagination." What would be the benefit of such a state of consciousness to a paleolithic human?

More interesting to me than where these two thinkers differ is where they seem to agree. Both agree that there is something we can call a shamanic state of consciousness, although they disagree about what it is. Winkelman claims it is a state in which normally discrete brain modules interact. Sidky maintains that there is no empirical justification for hypothesizing the existence of such a state. Rather, he says, the state is clearly one of dissociation — a state in which "the ordinary meta-awareness that gives us our sense of personal identity and agency, and which operates atop the brain's cognitive hierarchey, is temporarily overtaken." Such a state is in fact a state of increased modularity, "when parallel brain modules disengage from each other or from ordinary meta-awareness and operate independently."

My first reaction to all this is that we seem to be theorizing far ahead of a sufficient factual basis. If cognition does work in a modular fashion, there is still little agreement about what those modules are, how many there may be, and how they might interact. There are numerous modular models of the mind, but their modules often do not correspond; one review of the literature came up with a total of fifty different modules that had been proposed in different studies. If there is little agreement about the modularity of the contemporary human brain, it is hard to see how we can reasonably discuss the modularity of paleolithic humans.

And there are continuing conceptual difficulties. If there is a speech processing module, are there submodules for semantic coding, phonemic processing, pitch recognition? Is the semantic coding module for speech reception the same as one for speech production? How do all these modules and submodules interact? For these and other reasons, modular models are currently being challenged by alternative models that are increasingly holistic and nonlocalized.

But my concern is deeper. Shamans are not states of consciousness. Shamans are people who have messy personal lives, an ambiguous social role, and the risky job of making sick people better. In fact, as I wrote here and here, I am not at all sure that there is such a thing as a discrete, unitary, contextless, disembodied shamanic state of consciousness at all. Perhaps what we should be talking about instead are the experiences of shamans in their global, postcolonial, historical, and ineluctably idiosyncratic cultural settings.

In the same way, we cannot simply assume that sacred plants all function in the same way, or produce the same experience, especially under their ceremonial conditions of use. Indeed, I think it is pretty clear that the effects of the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom are phenomenologically distinct. What happens to the shamanic state of consciousness then?

Wednesday

Philip Glass on the Amazon


Since we've been talking about the Amazon River lately — here and here — I thought we might listen to some Amazon River music. The story of this particular piece brings together three significant artists — the dance company Grupo Corpo, the instrumental group Uakti, and composer Philip Glass.

Grupo Corpo

Grupo Corpo — the Body Group — is a Brazilian dance theater company founded in 1975 by Paulo Pederneiras. The company has now taken its Afro-Brazilian fusion of ballet, jazz, and modern dance all over the world, to the delight of both audiences and critics. Their performances have, as one critic put it, "sexy physicality and dramatic visual flair." The Globe and Mail says they are "arguably the best on the planet."

Uakti — pronounced wahk-chee — is a Brazilian instrumental group that consists of Marco Antônio Guimarães, Artur Andrés Ribeiro, Paulo Sérgio dos Santos, and Décio de Souza Ramos. The musicians all have classical backgrounds, and play with the Minas Gerais Symphonic Orchestra. Their group Uakti, however, is known for using custom-made instruments, built by the group itself using everyday materials — pipe, glasses, wood, metal, rocks, rubber, even water. For Uakti, anything can produce sound, including conventional instruments, such as guitars and cellos, but played, for example, using drumsticks.

Uakti

Founded in 1978 under the leadership of Marco Antônio Guimarães, the group was first noticed and sponsored by prominent Brazilian singer, songwriter, and guitarist Milton Nascimento, who used the group on several of his albums and also produced their first record. Their name is taken from a Tukano legend about the musician Uakti, who had holes in his body, through which the wind would produce music that seduced women. The men grew jealous, and killed and buried him; and from his grave there grew the palm trees from which flutes are made.

Philip Glass, along with his contemporaries Terry Riley and Steve Reich, is a pioneer of minimalist music — what Glass prefers to call "music with repetitive structures." An extraordinarily prolific composer, he has written more than twenty operas; eight symphonies; concertos for piano, violin, timpani, and saxophone quartet; five string quartets and more than thirty additional compositions for chamber orchestra; and soundtracks for more than thirty movies, ranging from Tod Browning's Dracula to Paul Schrader's Mishima to Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. He has collaborated with Brian Eno, Ravi Shankar, Leaonard Cohen, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, and many others; yet his sound has always remained distinctively his own, and instantly recognizable. It is fair to say that Glass has had an extraordinary — indeed, an unprecedented — impact on contemporary music.

Philip Glass

Almost forty years ago, I wore a groove into my vinyl recording of his hypnotic Music with Changing Parts. I have seen his operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Galileo Galilei. I was privileged to see him perform sections from his then uncompleted opera Hydrogen Jukebox, based on the poems of Alan Ginsberg, along with Ginsberg himself, in his finest incantatory mode, accompanying himself on the harmonium, performing his poems on the stage.

In 1993, Uakti came to Glass with a proposal that they collaborate on a dance score for Grupo Corpo, for whom Marco Antônio Guimarães had already written several original compositions. "Years ago when I first met Uakti," Glass writes, "I saw their music and performance as a unique and beautiful contribution to the world of new and experimental music. I became friends with the musicians; especially I came to admire Marco's extraordinary ear for color and composition. I was therefore very pleased when some years later they proposed a collaboration." The arrangement was done by Guimarães, who adapted the work to Uakti's instruments; this was the first time that Glass's music was arranged by another composer. The result, Glass says, "represents a true melding of my music with their sensibilities."

The product of this collaboration was a work entitled Águas da Amazônia—Sete ou oito peças para um balé, The Waters of Amazonia—Seven or Eight Pieces for a Ballet. Each piece is a musical representation of one of the great rivers of the Amazon. By the time the recording of the music was released in 1999, the number of rivers had grown to nine — the Tiquiê, Japurá, Purus, Negro, Madeira, Tapajós, Paru, Xingu, and Amazon. The piece Amazon River, which we offer below, uses keyboards, big pipe, borel, chori, glass marimba, marimba d'angelim, grand pan, inclined pan, condensator drums, xylophone, flute with prepared mouthpiece, and snare drum. The homemade instruments give these pieces a softer and less crystalline edge than many other works by Glass, and capture both the slow broad flow of the river and its surprisingly swift and dangerous currents.