Every tree, every plant, has a spirit. People may say that a plant has no mind. I tell them that a plant is alive and conscious. A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it that is conscious, that sees everything, which is the soul of the plant, its essence, what makes it alive.
—Pablo Amaringo, Peruvian ayahuasquero
In 1984, a young Ph.D. student at Stanford University named Jeremy Narby travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to conduct field research for his thesis in anthropology. Raised in Canada and Switzerland, Narby lived for two years with Peru’s Ashaninca tribes, and had read accounts of the remarkable healing abilities of their shamans. When he told the shamans about his chronic back problem, they offered him a plant-based cure, a sanango tea consumed when the moon was new. It would, they cautioned, leave him debilitated for two days, at first chilled and then unable to walk; afterward, he would be fine. Their forecast proved accurate; Narby drank the tea and felt chilled to the bone. When the cold abated, he found he could not stand. By the third day, the pain in his back was gone. Twenty years later, it has not returned.
Curious to learn more, Narby questioned the shamans about the source of their knowledge. They told him something that he—trained in the materialist, rationalist ethos of Western science—could scarcely comprehend: that their wisdom derived from spirits within the plants themselves. In other words, they said, the plants of the Amazonian rainforest spoke to them, giving precise instructions in the art of healing and a great deal more. Narby initially thought this claim was a kind of shamanic joke. He quickly learned otherwise.
For millennia, the indigenous peoples of South America have used plant-based potions to enter altered states of consciousness that confer medicinal and spiritual powers. The Ashaninca and dozens of other tribes derive their information via a foul-tasting tea known as ayahuasca (eye-yah-wah-skah), a Quechua word meaning “vine of the souls.” Others in the region know it as yage or caapi.
According to the shamans, the visions often induced by the drug—of coiled fluorescent serpents, prowling jaguars, and brilliant multicoloured tableaux of gardens, palaces, and lush forests—are not projections of the human imagination; rather, they are an alternate reality to which the brain’s receivers become attuned. Ayahuasca, they explained to Narby, is like “television of the forest.” When they turn it on, it is as though they are dialing up channels and communicating with spirits, possibly from other dimensions. The plant spirits, known as doctorcitos (little doctors) or abuelos (grandfathers), teach shamans how to diagnose illness, what plants to use for treatment, and what diet to follow. They also teach icaros, shamanic hymns that are sung to help summon the presence of the spirits. Indeed, music is an indispensable part of tea-drinking ceremonies.
Narby was fascinated. As he notes in his book The Cosmic Serpent, dna and the Origins of Knowledge, there are some 80,000 varieties of plants in the Amazon. To make ayahuasca, it is necessary to combine precisely two of them, a vine and a leaf that, morphologically, have nothing in common. The leaf (Psychotria viridis) contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (dmt), a hallucinogen. Ingested by itself, the drug has no effect; a stomach enzyme, monoamine oxidase (mao), renders it impotent. The vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), however, contains three alkaloids that effectively turn off the mao, allowing the psychoactive ingredient of dmt unfettered access to the brain. In chemical composition then, ayahuasca is related to, but more complex than, psilocybin (derived from mushrooms) and, to a lesser extent, lsd (lysergic acid diethylamide, a synthetic).
How did ancient Amazonian tribes discover what is effectively a designer drug Surely not, Narby suggests, by trial and error; there are roughly 6.4 billion possible combinations of flora. Moreover, brewing ayahuasca tea is a laborious process during which the plant stems must first be pounded for days, then immersed in hot water with the leaves, then boiled for up to fifteen hours, and finally filtered. Even if the Ashaninca or another tribe simply intuited the potency of this specific leaf-vine arrangement, how would they have happened upon the complex recipe that must be used to make the tea There is no satisfactory answer.
Similarly, forty types of curare, the paralytic agent derived from seventy different plant species, are available in the Amazon. Making it requires collecting a precise combination of several plants, boiling them for several hours, and injecting the resultant paste under the skin. Could that have been discovered by trial and error
The shamans of the Amazon basin insist that plant gods, appearing during periods of extended trance induced by ayahuasca, taught them the secret medicinal properties of the plants that cured Narby’s aching back. These gods also taught them about curare and hundreds of other healers hidden in the botanical world. Their knowledge and its efficacy appear to be beyond dispute; it has, in myriad ways, been adapted and profitably exploited by the global pharmaceutical industry.