By Dennis J McKenna PhD, J C Callaway PhD, Charles S Grob MD
Date: Apr 8th, 2008
Of the numerous plant psychotropics utilized by indigenous populations of the Amazon Basin, perhaps none is as interesting or complex, botanically, chemically, or ethnographically, as the beverage known variously as ayahuasca , caapi, or yage. The beverage is most widely known as ayahuasca , a Quechua term meaning “vine of the souls,” which is applied both to the beverage itself and to one of the source-plants used in its preparation, the Malpighiaceous jungle liana, Banisteriopsis caapi (Schultes, 1957). In Brazil, transliteration of this Quechua word into Portuguese results in the name, Hoasca . Hoasca, or ayahuasca , occupies a central position in Mestizo ethnomedicine, and the chemical nature of its active constituents and the manner of its use makes its study relevant to contemporary issues in neuropharmacology, neurophysiology, and psychiatry.
Traditional and Indigenous Uses of Ayahuasca
The use of ayahuasca under a variety of names is a widespread practice among various indigenous aboriginal tribes endemic to the Amazon Basin (Schultes, 1957). Such practices undoubtedly were well established in pre-Columbian times, and in fact may have been known to the earliest human inhabitants of the region. Iconographic depictions on ceramics and other artifacts from Ecuador have provided evidence that the practice dates to at least 2000 B.C. (Naranjo, 1986). Its widespread distribution among numerous Amazonian tribes also argues for its relative antiquity.
Considerable genetic intermingling and adoption of local customs followed in the wake of European contact, and ayahuasca , along with a virtual pharmacopoeia of other medicinal plants, gradually became integrated into the ethnomedical traditions of these mixed populations. Today the drug forms an important element of ethnomedicine and shamanism as it is practiced among indigenous Mestizo populations in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. The sociology and ethnography of the contemporary use of ayahuasca (as it is most commonly termed) in Mestizo ethnomedicine has been extensively described (Dobkin de Rios, 1972, 1973; Luna, 1984, 1986)
Syncretic Religious Use of Ayahuasca
From the perspective of the sociologist or the ethnographer, discussion of the use of ayahuasca or hoasca can conveniently be divided into a consideration of its use among indigenous aboriginal and mestizo populations, and its more recent adoption by contemporary syncretic religious movements such as the Uni’ do Vegetal (UDV), Barquena, and Santo Daime sects in Brasil. It is within the context of acculturated groups such as these that questions regarding the psychological, medical, and legal aspects of the use of ayahuasca become most relevant, and also, most accessible to study.
The use of ayahuasca in the context of mestizo folk medicine closely resembles the shamanic uses of the drug as practiced among aboriginal peoples. In both instances, the brew is used for curing, for divination, as a diagnostic tool and a magical pipeline to the supernatural realm. This traditional mode of use contrasts from the contemporary use of ayahuasca tea within the context of Brazilian syncretic religious movements. Within these groups, the members consume ayahuasca tea at regular intervals in group rituals in a manner that more closely resembles the Christian Eucharist than the traditional aboriginal use. The individual groups of the UDV, termed nucleos, are similar to a Christian Hutterite sect, in that each group has a limited membership, which then splits to form a new group once the membership expands beyond the set limit. The nucleo consists of the congregation, a group leader or mestre, various acolytes undergoing a course of study and training in order to become mestres, and a temple, an actual physical structure where the sacrament is prepared and consumed at prescribed times, usually the first and third Saturday of each month. The membership of these newer syncretic groups spans a broad socio-economic range and includes many educated, middle-class, urban professionals (including a number of physicians and other health professionals). Some older members have engaged in the practice for 30 or more years without apparent adverse health effects.
The UDV and the Santo Daime sects are the largest and most visible of several syncretic religious movements in Brasil that have incorporated the use of ayahuasca into their ritual practices. Of the two larger sects, it is the UDV that possesses the strongest organizational structure as well as the most highly disciplined membership. Of all the ayahuasca churches in Brasil, the UDV has also been the most pivotal in convincing the government to remove ayahuasca from its list of banned drugs. In 1987, the government of Brasil approved the ritual use of hoasca tea (’hoasca’ is a Portugese shortening of ‘ayahuasca’ and is sometimes used to differentiate UDV brew from non-UDV ayahuasca) in the context of group religious ceremonies. This ruling has potentially significant implications, not only for Brasil, but for global drug policy, as it marks the first time in over 1600 years that a government has granted permission to its non-indigenous citizens to use a psychedelic substance in the context of religious practices.
Please see the complete article at