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Part One: Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations

April 23, 2017

I have not written here for a while: partly because I have been very busy with work at Alianza Arkana; partly because I have recently moved house in Pucallpa; and partly because I have been writing a 10,000 word paper called ‘Earth-Beings, Plant Spirits, Ayahuasca and Equivocations’ to present at the upcoming international conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA)  in Lima from April 28th to May 1st.

The paper is a synthesis of much of what I have been writing about on this blog, especially the different ways Westerners make meaning out of their experiences with ayahuasca and some more in-depth reflections on a very interesting book by Peruvian cultural anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, which I wrote a previous post about here.

I thought I would also publish this paper here in three separate posts, which correspond to the three parts of the original paper. Given this is an academic paper, complete with references, its style is different from my usual posts.

What appears in this post is a summary of the paper, followed by Part One, called ‘Introduction: Origins, Globalization and Uses of Ayahuasca’. For regular readers of my blog, I imagine this might be familiar ground, though presented in a different way and with new material. For more recent readers, I hope that this first part serves as an overall introduction to the growing field of ayahuasca studies.


This paper will begin with a brief introduction about ayahuasca, its growing use across the world and its increasing interest as a subject of academic study. The second part of the paper will focus on the most used discourses into which the ayahuasca experience is typically located and argue that most of these discourses still exist within a dualist ontology (Escobar, 2010). It will then examine traditions within Western thought that have attempted to break out of the restrictions of these dualist ontologies.

The third and longest part of the paper will use Marisol De La Cadena’s book, ‘Earth Spirits: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’ as a point of departure to examine the ontological status of earth beings and plant spirits and as a frame of reference for and comparison with the author’s experience of being apprenticed for five years to a Shipibo Maestro (teacher), working with ayahuasca and other plant spirits.

1. Part One: Introduction: Origins, Globalization and Uses of Ayahuasca

In conventional Western terms, ayahuasca is a powerful ‘hallucinogen’ that has been used by many indigenous peoples in the Amazon since pre-Columbian times (McKenna 1999). The exact date from which ayahuasca use can be traced is disputed. Some anthropologists make the claim that its use originates from 5000 years BC. For example, anthropologists Ana María Llamazares and Carlos Martínez Sarasola (2004) write that the use of ayahuasca:

“Is so deep-rooted in the native philosophy and mythology that there is no doubt about its great antiquity, as a part of aboriginal life. Archaeological finds in Ecuador show that the indigenous Amazons have been using it for about 5000 years.”

Likewise, anthropologist Jeremy Narby (1998, p. 154) states that ayahuasca “belongs to the indigenous people of Western Amazonia, who hold the keys to a way of knowing that they have practiced without interruption for at least five thousand years.”

In an excellent, comprehensive on-line article, however, looking at the evidence for the claims that ayahuasca use has a 5000-year history, Stephan Beyer (2012) concludes that:

“And while it is true that the parenteral ingestion of DMT-containing plants is of considerable antiquity in South America, there is no corresponding archeological or documentary evidence prior to the eighteenth century for the combination of a DMT-containing plant with the ayahuasca vine for oral ingestion.”

For indigenous people, who appear to have no interest in trying to date the original use of ayahusaca in their cultures, apart from demonstrating to tourists that they are part of a millennial tradition (Brabec de Mori, 2014), ayahuasca is an important medicine, not a hallucinogen or drug, that can offer both healing and harm (through witchcraft) and provides contact with normally invisible worlds, including the worlds of plant and animal spirits, the world of the ancestors and the worlds of different universes.

Ayahuasca is traditionally made by a lengthy process of boiling together two plants, though many other plants can also be added to the brew. The two basic plants are the vine, ayahuasca itself, (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the shrub chacruna, (Psychotria viridis). The chacruna, like many plants, and even the human brain, contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (abbreviated N,N-DMT; also known as DMT), which is normally understood to be the principle psychoactive component of the brew.

If DMT is orally consumed alone, an enzyme (monoamine oxidase A) in the stomach quickly breaks it down, thus preventing it reaching the brain and having any psychoactive effect. Western pharmacology has discovered (Dos Santos, 2010), however that, if plants and other substances containing DMT are drunk together with the vine ayahuasca, compounds in the vine collectively known as beta-harmalines (harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline) block the chemical decomposition of the DMT and it is carried to the brain through the bloodstream.

This raises the question for Western investigators as to how the indigenous people learned to mix and cook together these two particular plants, as they do not naturally grow together, and a process of trial and error boiling different combinations of plants together would be impossibly time-consuming given the huge diversity and number of plants existing in the Amazon. The indigenous peoples have a very simple answer to this question, which indicates the profound difference between the indigenous and the Western worldview: the plants themselves told them.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the use of ayahuasca has grown hugely throughout the world and become a ‘diaspora’, to use the words of Beatriz Labate et al. (2017) in their recent book, despite the illegality of the ayahuasca brew in most nations as DMT is classified as an illicit drug outside Amazonian countries. An article in the New Yorker (Levy, 2016) about the ayahuasca boom in New York and Silicon Valley cited a researcher at the University of Washington School of medicine saying that at any given night in Manhattan there are around one hundred ayahuasca ceremonies or ‘circles’ taking place.

Additionally, there are estimated to be at least 100 ayahuasca centers in Iquitos, Peru, alone, now colloquially known as the ‘ayahuasca capital’ or ‘Ayahuasca Disneyland’ of the world. This expansion of use, catered for by largely Western-run centers, has ushered in the phenomenon of ‘ayahuasca tourism’, with all its controversies (Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, 2008), as increasing numbers of Westerners, in search of healing and spiritual experience (Fotiou, 2010) come to Peru and other Amazonian countries to experience drinking ayahuasca.

With the spread of ayahausca around the world, its therapeutic benefits are being increasingly recognized in many fields (Labate & Cavnar, 2014). These include the treatment of a wide range of illnesses, both physical and mental. For example, the highly prestigious scientific journal ‘Nature’ published a news article (Frood, 2015) about the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for treating depression. Ayahuasca is additionally being shown to be potentially very effective (Feilding, 2017) in the treatment of addictions and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Other authors have investigated the use of ayahuasca in broader areas of human potential such as creativity (Shanon, 2000) and spiritual development (Trichter, 2006).

Ayahuasca, especially in countries such as Brazil where it is not illegal, has been the subject of serious academic pharmacological and neuroscientific research (Domínguez Clavé et al, 2016). A good comprehensive review by Dennis McKenna et al, written in 2008, can be found of past and current research on ayahuasca and, since then, academic and scientific research has expanded hugely.

As research on ayahuasca becomes legitimized, even in countries where its use is not legal, a growing ayahuasca academic community or industry is forming, composed of psychologists, psychotherapists, anthropologists, pharmocologists, ethno-botanists and neuroscientists, amongst others. There have been two world conferences on ayahuasca, in 2014 in Ibiza, Spain and in 2016 in Rio Branco, Brazil. Ayahuasca, and other plant medicines, are also becoming an increasingly important thread of the biannual MAPS (Multi-disciplinary Association of Pyschedelic Studies) conference held in San Francisco.

The second part of the paper will focus on the most used discourses into which the ayahuasca experience is typically assimilated by Westerners.



Beyer, Stephan V. (2012) On the Origins of Ayahuasca. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at

Brabec de Mori, Bernd. (2014) From the Native’s Point of View Chapter 9 in Labate, Biatriz Caiuby, and Clancy Cavnar (eds.) (2014) Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. Oxford University Press

Dos Santos R.G. (2010) The Pharmacology of Ayahuasca: a review. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at:

De La Cadena, Marisol. (2015) Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds’. Duke University Press

Dobkin De Rios, Marlene and Roger Rumrrill (2008) A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca use in the Amazon and the United States. Praeger.

Domínguez Clavé E. et al, 2016 Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential. In Brain Research Bulletin March 2016 Aceessed on 15th March 2017 at:

Escobar, Arturo (2010) ‘Latin America at a Crossroads’, Cultural Studies, 24: 1, 1 — 65

Escobar, A. (2014) Feel-thinking with the Earth. Medellin, Colombia: Ediciones Unaula

Feilding, Amanda. (2017) Ayahuasca in the Age of Neuroscience. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at:

Fotiou, E. (2010) From Medicine Men to Day-trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.  PhD Dissertation accessed on 12th February 2017 at:

Frood, A. (2015) ‘Ayahuasca psychedelic tested for depression’. Accessed on 8th February 2017 at

Labate, Beatriz Caiuby and Clancy Cavnar and Alex K. Gearin (eds.) (2017) The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies Routledge.

Labate, Beatriz Caiuby and Clancy Cavnar (eds.) (2014) The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Levy, A. New Yorker Magazine 2016. ‘The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.’ Accessed at on 8th February 2017.

Llamazares, A. M., & Martínez Sarasola, C. (2004). Principales plantas sagradas de Sudamérica. In A. M. Llamazares & C. Martínez Sarasola (Eds.), El lenguaje de los dioses (pp. 259-285). Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos. Retrieved April 12, 2012, from the Fundación desde América Web site,

McKenna, Dennis J. (1999) ’Ayahuasca: an ethnopharmacologic history‘, in R. Metzner (ed) Ayahuasca: hallucinogens, consciousness, and the spirit of nature, New York: Thunder‘s Mouth Press, 187-213.

McKenna, Dennis J. et al (2008) The Scientific Investigation of Ayahuasca – A Review of Past and Current Research. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at:

Narby, Jeremy. (1998). The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge. New York, NY: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam.

Narby, Jeremy. (October 9th 2011) Awakening the Cosmic Serpent: an Evolver Intensive Interview by Jeremy Narby. Accessed on 15th March 2017 at:

Shanon, B. (2000) Ayahuasca and Creativity. 18 m a p s • v o l u m e X n u m b e r 3 • c r e a t i v i t y 2 0 0 0 Accessed 12th February 2017 at:

Trichter, S.M. (2006) Changes in Spirituality Among Ayahuasca Ceremony Novice Participants PhD Dissertation Acessed on 12th February 2017 at:

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