History of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant concoction that has been used for centuries, possibly millennia by native Indian and more recently mestizo shamans across the upper Amazon throughout Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and Brazil. Over 40 other names for this sacred medicine are known including caapi, natema, mihi, and yage.
The origins of the shamanic use of ayahuasca are lost in the mists of history and there are many stories surrounding the how the natives initially came to work with this sacred medicine. In an indigenous context, ayahuasca was used by the shamans of the Amazon region for healing and divinatory purposes. Complex rituals surround the preparation and use of ayahuasca which have been passed down through generations of healers. By holding healing ceremonies, the healers use the medicine as a diagnostic tool to discover the root of illness in their patients.
Although there are many different stories among indigenous tribes of the Amazon, the history of ayahuasca is relatively unknown as there are no written records from the Amazon until the Spanish conquistadors invaded in the 16th Century. However, there is evidence of a ceremonial cup that was found in Ecuador that contains traces of ayahuasca which is believed to be well over 2,500 years old. The use of ayahuasca is widespread and represents the basis of traditional medicine practice for at least seventy five different indigenous tribes across the Lower and Upper Amazon.
Shipibo Plant Medicine Healing Traditions
The Shipibo culture, originating along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian Upper Amazon, is well known for shamanism and plant medicine. Among the indigenous cultures of the Upper Peruvian Amazon, the Shipibo are one of the few cultural groups that has managed to maintain their language, their art and their mystical plant medicine. The Shipibo tribe seems to have a particularly strong relationship with ayahuasca and many consider the Shipibo to be the most highly skilled ayahuasca healers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Certainly the use of Shipibo imagery related to ayahuasca is widespread and the well-recognized Shipibo patterns of ikaro are synonymous with ayahuasca and its practice throughout Peru. Many mestizo curanderos (mixed Spanish and Peruvian blood ancestry that have moved away from indigenous traditions and identity), not coming from Shipibo lineage, will still wear Shipibo cushmas (robes) in ceremony.
Ayahuasca – A Mysterious Combination of Two Plants
Unlike all other sacred plant medicines, ayahuasca is made from two plants – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi) and the leaf of the chacruna plant (Psychotria Viridis). Both of these plants are collected from the jungle to create a potent mixture that offers the drinker access to the realm of spirits and an energetic world that exists around & within us all of which we are typically not able to perceive in our ‘normal’, day to day state of consciousness.
It is a mystery how the Amazonian shamans learned to combine these two plants in order to prepare this profound medicine. Individually taken, both plants are more or less inert. In the Amazon rainforest there are approximately 80,000 catalouged leafy plant species with as many as 10,000 of which are vines. Neither the vine nor the leaf is especially distinguished in appearance. The mystery is how healers of the Amazon, acting as archaic psycho-pharmacologists, knew how to use one particular species of vine and one particular species of leaf to make a psychoactive brew.
In chemical terms, the leafy chacruna contains the powerful psychoactive dimethyletryptamine (DMT) which is not orally active but is metabolized by the stomach enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). However, certain chemicals within the Ayahuasca vine contain MAO inhibitors in the form of harmine compounds which inhibit the action of the MAO in the medicine and result in a psychoactive compound that has an identical chemical makeup to the organic tryptamines in our brains. This then results in the mixture circulating through the bloodstream into the brain where it triggers powerful visionary experiences and enables us to access otherworldly realms and our hidden, subconscious, inner landscapes.
The statistical probability of this concoction being discovered ‘by accident’ is millions to one chance. Indigenous healers of the Amazon will say that the plants originally told the people…
Traditional Use of Ayahuasca
Traditionally, the use of ayahuasca in Amazonian healing practices has been limited to the healers, using it as diagnostic tool for identifying the cause of illness, bad luck, and witchcraft; to take important decisions; to ask the spirits for advice; to solve personal conflicts – between families and communities; to resolve the energetic damage due to jealousy and envy; to communicate with the spirits of nature; to exercise one’s divine capacities; to elucidate mysteries, thefts, disappearances; to know if we have enemies; and to see if a spouse is being disloyal. Ayahuasca is also traditionally used to prescribe treatments to the patients – through ikaros and plant remedies – of which guidance on what plants & remedies to use is shown to the healer by the spirit of ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca works with the healer and in combination with a plethora of other plant spirit doctors to treat the patients – ayahuasca has not traditionally been the only plant spirit doctor involved in the treatment (more info to follow). Ayahuasca was not taken by the patients who would simply come to ceremony in order to receive the diagnosis and subsequent treatments from the healer.
Ayahuasca is a medicine that is a nexus within a much larger system of healthcare here in the Amazon. The profound benefits of traditional Amazonian medicine offer people solutions to illness and disorders that typically cannot be treated by conventional medicine. There is a global epidemic of people suffering from psycho-emotional illnesses that modern healthcare systems are not able to address as well as an ever increasing number of us yearning for ‘something more’ in life. Ayahuasca is reaching out across the globe to offer its significant benefits although with this exponential growth in interest in the medicine, it is more and more necessary to review both the positive and negative consequences.
There is a positive evolution in the use of ayahuasca which is now being worked with as a medicine in itself, not just as a diagnostic tool / plant ally for healers. For the last 20 years, many foreigners and local Amazonian people have increasingly been working with the medicine in ceremonies, led by trained healers, in order to personally face the causes of their conditions, illnesses, issues, etc. personally and to “take part” in the healing equation – moving healing into a co-creative relationship between the healer, the plant spirits, ayahuasca, the participant and their own inner physician. By imbibing the medicine, the drinker is then able to personally face issues hidden unconsciously within themselves from their past that have resulted in energetic imbalances – often the cause of the dis-ease, emotional and psycho-spiritual imbalance that they are focused on healing.
However, solely drinking ayahuasca without the presence, protection and work of an experienced healer is not advised. Drinking on your own, with no training or experience, will not provide the level of safety and depth of healing achieved when combining the medicine, the healer and a multitude of plant spirit doctors (called in by the healer) in ceremony. Ayahuasca on its own will in some circumstances (although serious caution is required in terms of the set, setting, etc) effect healing although will not enable the drinker to reach and heal to the root of the issues needing to be addressed.
One of the greatest challenges of the movement of ayahuasca culture to the West is the transfer of a tradition rooted in shamanic communities to ones with vastly different psychological and cultural values. We feel it is critically important to understand, respect and honor traditional practices that have evolved over hundreds of years of working with ayahuasca.