BOTANY AND ANTHROPOLOGY
Botanical and Anthropological Characteristics:
Ayahuasca is a psycho-active drink made by the fusion of two distinct botanic species, which were used in religious rituals or ceremonies known by the Incas from the time of Huayna Capac onwards.
One of the plants is the liana, known scientifically as Banisteriopsis Caapi; the other is a bush of the rubiacea family known as Psychotria Viridis. In Quechua the plants are known as “Mariri” (the liana) and “Chacruna” or “Chacrona” (the bush). In the same language the name of the drink is Ayahuasca, wine of the spirits, of the souls, of the dead or of the ancestors.
The drink is made by grinding and fermenting the two plants together or cooking them, to various degrees of concentration. The plants are also known by various other names since they have been used for centuries over a large area and by various indigenous peoples, separated by great distances and cultural and linguistic differences.
According to Schultes, Richard Evans and Robert F. Raffauf (“The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of Northwest Amazonia”, 1990; Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press) – there are at least 42 different indigenous names for a potion which is used by at least 72 indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin.
It’s impossible to date the beginnings of Ayahuasca because it is so ancient. For thousands of years it was used mainly in western Amazonia, but in modern times it has spread to the whole of South America, mainly thanks to its preservation by indigenous peoples and those of mixed race, despite constant cultural repression since colonial times. Much of what is known and practised about Ayahuasca comes from the empirical observation and knowledge accumulated by the indigenous.
The use of these plants by people of mixed race generally take places within the context of ethno-medicine and follows the general principles of the use made of it by native peoples (shamanism), with modifications and additions relevant to the various systems of religious belief imported with colonisation, mainly: spiritism, Chrisitianity, Freemasonry and African religions.
The initial impulse towards spreading the use of Ayahuasca worldwide took place thanks to a general interest in ethnological matters and the expansion of the great syncretic religious movements in Brazil, organised around the use of Ayahuasca as a sacrament, the biggest ones being “Santo-Daime” – the oldest – and the “União do Vegetal” (UDV), among other denominations.
It’s interesting to note that Ayahuasca has been used for centuries by thousands of people – a trial period which greatly exceeds the standard time given to scientific studies for the approval of drugs and medicines. Among the peoples of Amazonia, Ayahuasca occupies a privileged cultural place, alongside other “teaching plants”, like Peyote.
During the last twenty years, there has been a great deal of literature – whether socio-anthropological, pharmacological or mainstream – debating the various dimensions of the use of Ayahuasca from the cultural, chemical, psychological and spiritual point of view.