ayahuasca, a plea for the decolonization of psychedelic studies
“We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son, but in reality it is in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger…”
While the potential benefits of psychedelic plant medicines to society still remain largely unrealised, contemporary psychedelic studies risk replicating harmful colonial practices within the territories and communities in which the use of psychedelic plants originate.
After decades of prohibition, the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” is undertaking a state-of-the-art exploration of the psychology, neurology and medical approaches associated with the effects and benefits of psychedelics. The field runs the risk, however, of privileging the voices of mainstream western male researchers over those of the indigenous practitioners whose ancestral knowledge of psychedelics roots back to their origins (George et al, 2020).
A decolonial approach is essential to the success of the current psychedelic renaissance, as failing to recognize indigenous perspectives as equally valuable to the discussion in the appropriate use of these substances only contributes to deepening the colonial wound within which usage of the plants is interwoven. As academia reconsiders previously taboo subjects (such as mind-altering substances), it has the duty to reconsider also the re-enactment of colonial epistemicide (the killing off of existing systems of knowledge), and give indigenous expertise the space it deserves in scientific research.
The very old relationship between humanity and the ritual alteration of consciousness is, in indigenous communities, deeply linked to systems of traditional medicine. Nevertheless, in the West, practices associated with mind-altering substances have faced decades of strong political opposition and, as the renaissance unfolds, there are other, more subtle threats being held at bay, specifically the peril inherent in silencing other voices because of their culturally diverse backgrounds.
Ayahuasca’s history and its critical entanglement with colonization:
Ayahuasca, or yagé, is a traditional brew from the Amazon rainforest that contains the classic psychedelic compound DMT. It has a long history of use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, where it is mainly used for ritual and healing purposes, usually in ceremonial settings led by a shaman or curandero.
Ayahuasca is a particularly complex substance that relies on two intersecting components to deliver its psychedelic effects. Psychotria viridis, or chacruna, is a shrub, the leaves of which contain the DMT. Banisteriopsis caapi is a vine that contains monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, which prevent MAO enzymes in the stomach from breaking down the DMT as they’d normally do, thus allowing the body to actively absorb it when it is consumed orally. Taking into account the improbability of discovering the function of this particular combination of a shrub and a vine amongst the the tens of thousands of different plant species in the Amazon, along with the preparatory process needed to coax out its psychoactive properties, ayahuasca can be considered an invention, a piece of technology developed by the Amazonian people.
The indigenous people of the Amazon relate to their surrounding environment in a way that lends itself to developing a great body of ethnobotanical knowledge. Much of the knowledge that has been produced by indigenous people has, however, been the subject of appropriation and biopiracy, as the history of the rainforest cannot be grasped separately from the history of the colonization of the Americas.
One can go back to Western explorers and botanists to trace historically how ayahuasca came to be known outside the jungle, Richard Spruce and Richard Evans Schultes, for instance, were some of the first outsiders to report on indigenous plant medicines. But, by telling and re-telling the story in such a way, a colonial version of history is reinforced where indigenous peoples and their knowledge are passively discovered by Western institutions, their own contribution, skill, and subjectivity neglected, minimized, or reduced to naturalistic fact.
The history of the Amazon has been shaped by the way that the Western European imagination has interacted with this territory: from the mythic quests to find rivers of gold in the 16th century as the Spanish conquistadors mapped the Amazon river in the search for El Dorado, to the rubber barons of the 20th century who exploited and enslaved hundreds of thousands of indigenous people as they strove to realize enormous profits. The Amazon is a territory that has been perceived as a well of treasures to be extracted and appropriated.
Today’s deforestation crisis, related to the extraction of precious timber and the clearing of trees for cattle, are an inheritance of old relationships with this land that still conceives of the Amazon as an uninhabited space full of natural wealth and resources. The rainforest has been historically included in the world’s economy only in terms of exploitation, and indigenous communities as well as their knowledge have been objectified in the same way as their land.
Ayahuasca, curiously, was used during colonial times as a way of resisting and contesting the settler invasion. As the conquistador’s culture demonized indigenous ritual and traditional medicine, ayahuasca was used as a way of exercising and preserving indigenous identity, and was perceived as a repository of cultural memory for the peoples of the Amazon (Leyva, 1991).
Other versions of history; Ayahuasca/Yagé and its traditional users:
To trace historically the movement of ayahuasca and other plant medicines one need not rely entirely on the Western explorers and botanists who explored the Amazon and taxonomized its species. Ayahuasca traveled outside of the Amazon via old shamanic networks that for centuries wove an exchange of knowledge and ritual technologies (Pinzón et al., 2004). For instance, the Putumayo department, located in southwest Colombia, is divided into three sub regions: The Upper Putumayo (Andes mountain range), Middle Putumayo (Amazon foothills) and Lower Putumayo (Amazon basin). The Sibundoy Valley which is famous for being home of prominent ayahuasca shamans in Colombia, is located in the Upper Putumayo, a geographical node between the Andes and the Amazon. People who inhabit the area are both settlers and indigenous people who belong to two ethnic groups, the Inga and the Kamentsá.
Relations – including shamanic ones – have existed for centuries between the Upper Putumayo (Andes) and the Lower Putumayo (Amazon). The Cofán, Siona and Coreguajes, who are known to be powerful shamans, live at lower elevations where rainforest vegetation flourishes. As ayahuasca cannot grow outside of the tropical forest, shamans from the Upper Putumayo have long traveled down to acquire the brew and, in doing so, maintained a cross-pollinating network that exchanges plants, ritual and healing technologies, and cosmological knowledge (Pinzón et al., 2004).
In their travels to the Amazon basin, Ingas from the Upper Putumayo learnt the uses and powers of shamanic plants and engaged in shamanic apprenticeships (Pinzón et al., 2004) with the help of shamans from this area. They then transported plants and other ritual devices, including ayahuasca, from the low tropical forest to Sibundoy. The memory of the botanical relationship between shamans was retained in their respective gardens, disseminating and preserving thus the interchange of knowledge between the Amazon and the Andes.
Such movement helped inform the transformation of indigenous practices which came into contact with Catholic missionaries and the general mestizo culture of the rest of the Colombian territory. As we can read in the next excerpt from an interview with a shaman from the Sibundoy Valley:
When I was born, the first thing they gave me was three drops of yagé (ayahuasca). We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son, but in reality it is in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger. That’s how my blood began to be painted.” (Pinzón et al. 146 )
As the previous passage shows, the ritual use of ayahuasca in this area was influenced by the dominant Catholic religion, while at the same time acting as a mechanism to contest and resist the colonial apparatus. The previous statement beautifully depicts how indigenous ritual practices were disguised using catholic motifs as a way to preserve silently their identity: Giving three drops of ayahuasca in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to conceal it was really given in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger.
“…Two years later Eliseo was back again, by bus all the way across the country to dip once more into what he saw as the Indian well of magical power” – (Taussig, 1986. p 435)
With this sentence Michael Taussig begins chapter 27 of his book “Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man” (1986) where, “The Indian well of magical power,” was, of course, the Amazon. Since the very first stages of colonization, the Amazon was a screen upon which European minds could project fantastical mirages of imaginary geographies populated by noble, primitive, and superstitious savages. The picture of an ‘Indian well of magical power’ is a reflection of this. A well of vast and mysterious treasures, gold, rubber, magic, and endless resources, where indigenous communities were perceived through a lens of intellectual inferiority. The Amazon consequently epitomizes and condenses several European fantasies surrounding a mysterious, irrational and exotic Other.
What Taussig was looking for in that ‘Indian well of magical power’ was ayahuasca shamanism, where the otherness of indigenous knowledge is capable of healing the maladies of the West. It is precisely the same phenomenon seen when the renowned writer William Burroughs went on a journey to find ayahuasca in Colombia, thinking that it might be his ‘final fix’ (Fotiou, 2019).
The same trope is seen with contemporary ayahuasca tourism, where huge numbers of people from all over the world (though predominantly European and American) travel to the Amazon in search of healing through the exotic otherness of ayahuasca (Losonczy & Mesturini, 2010) (Caicedo, 2009). The contemporary medical approaches to ayahuasca and other psychedelic plant medicines follow the same lines, wherein ayahuasca is being researched for its potential to treat some of the most pervasive illnesses of our time, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction (Fotiou 18)(Frecska et al.) (Palhano-Fontes et al.)(Richards) (Watts et al.) (Roseman et al.).
An interdisciplinary future:
As psychedelic plant medicines re-enter Western culture, researchers in this field must be aware of the colonial history behind these plants and the communities from which they come to avoid perpetuating the same type of intellectual violence that underlies the old notion of the “noble savage” and current practices of biopiracy. As we enter a globalized society, it will be critical to give regard to knowledge that comes from different cultural and ethnic sources, bestowing upon them equal validity in the discussion of the adequate use of these substances. Mainstream psychedelic research will need to encourage and actively include researchers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as a diversity of voices and perspectives can only contribute to the advancement of science.
Besides giving credit to indigenous knowledge (which kept this technology alive for at least the past millennium) it is necessary to recognize the contribution of people of color, women, and researchers from Latin American in the development of psychedelic research, as well as to create spaces within which their perspectives can be heard and included.
Understanding how to use these substances will, in the end, require an interdisciplinary effort. The cutting-edge research being performed on psychedelics in the fields of neurobiology and psychology will see its most fruitful results by working hand-in-hand with the humanities (anthropology, decolonial studies, religious studies, philosophy, etc.) to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the epistemicide of non-western voices. The task at hand for the humanities is to reflect on the body-politics of knowledge, help give voice to traditional and indigenous ethno-medicine systems, and create the foundation for a renaissance free from harmful colonial appropriation and silencing.
In conclusion, ayahuasca has a lot to offer the world, as current scientific studies continue to prove its therapeutic potential. It, along with other psychedelic plant medicines, have enormous possibilities in the ongoing fight to alleviate psychological and spiritual suffering. The real question, then, is what can we give back, to the Amazon, to the people that inhabit it, to the preservation of their systems of knowledge, to their worldview and culture, to the most diverse ecosystem of the Earth?
What can we give back?
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