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The Ayahuasca Phenomenon in Historical Perspective

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest contributor Chris Elcock. Elcock is an STS postdoctoral fellow working at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, where he is investigating the use of ayahuasca in psychedelics science. His previous work has examined the cultural history of psychedelics and his doctoral dissertation focused on the social history of LSD in New York City.

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Chris Elcock

I recently attended the third World Ayahuasca Conference, which was held in Girona, Catalonia/Spain. Ayahuasca is a brew that combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and a DMT-containing plant, usually of the psychotria viridis genus. While it has been used for millennia in ritual settings in the Amazon basin, it has gradually drawn the attention of scores of experimenters across the world and the biomedical sciences are also investigating its psychoactive effects. The conference attracted people from broad horizons: indigenous peoples travelling from the Amazon basin; research teams looking into the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca; anthropologists studying the uses of this fascinating substance; theologians who drink it in syncretic brands of religion; and the many who’ve had their lives changed forever. 

As an historian in the process of converting to anthropology, I felt that I was attending as an outsider looking into the ayahuasca phenomenon, not so much because I was quite possibly the only one not to have previously sampled ayahuasca (cue eyebrows raised by fellow attendees) but because I was looking at it through the lens of the past. What became quickly apparent was that even though many touted ayahuasca as something different and nothing short of a miracle substance, it was hard to ignore the similarities of the ayahuasca phenomenon and the psychedelic culture of the Sixties and beyond. These were different times and LSD was born in a Swiss laboratory and not in the Amazon rain forest, but both substances have led to rich cultural phenomena that are worth briefly comparing here. While it would be easy to point to the colourful clothing of a sizeable majority of the attendees that seemed to echo the 1960s counter-culture, a less obvious connection resided in the various discourses about the nature and role of ayahuasca. 

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First the suspicion of scientism and technocracy was a common theme. It is worth noticing that before he became the “High Priest” of LSD, Timothy Leary had been initially suspicious of his cherished chemical and preferred to stick with the organic psilocybin mushrooms that had not been manufactured in a lab. Even the discoverer of LSD Albert Hofmann was critical of some aspects of Western science that treated nature as a mere commodity and during the conference those views were echoed by Tadeo Feijão, an executive of the União do Vegetal church that drinks ayahuasca in religious ceremonies, and Danny Nemu, a vocal critic of Western academia. Tellingly even those who are excited about contemporary ayahuasca research in scientific settings are pointing to the limits of Western science and its need for randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Instead they are calling for investigations into “real world” uses of ayahuasca outside the rigid confines of the laboratory. 

Second, a strong brand of environmentalist awareness was present at the conference and also had precedence in the Sixties. With the expansion of consciousness, many LSD users came to realize that the environment should not be treated as a commodity and it should be carefully nurtured. In the following decades this awareness became even stronger and many psychedelic drug users connected the expansion of consciousness and deep ecology in a much more aggressive way by claiming that these substances had the power to avert a large-scale environmental catastrophe. Amongst ayahuasca users there is also a strong environmental ethos: for ethnopharmacologist Denis McKenna the brew has the potential to rekindle our lost relationship with nature. And this strong environmental awareness was also present in a statement read by an indigenous delegation during the closing session of the conference – albeit for more practical reasons related to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. 

Finally I noticed historical continuity in the way psychedelic communities have set up organizations to protect users from the law. In 1965 Leary was arrested for cannabis possession and his associates set up the Timothy Leary Defense Fund to collect donations for his legal expenses (a similar fund was created for the psychedelic icon Ken Kesey, who was also arrested for possession). Both were short-lived and local, whereas the contemporary Ayahuasca Defense Fund appears to be far more ambitious. This was created to provide legal assistance to users and advocate policy change thanks a global network of legal, scientific, community and public policy experts.

While I intend to further investigate what I see as historical continuity in the next few years, these initial remarks are starting points that suggest that more attention should be paid to the history of ayahuasca in conjunction with the other “classic” psychedelics like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. The current level of Western fascination for this mind-altering brew is easy to pinpoint, but then so was LSD when it entered the medical arena and then slowly trickled onto the streets. Hence my research is going to focus on the global ayahuasca phenomenon in an attempt to determine whether part of it can be understood as the second coming of an older movement that began under Leary’s impulse, or whether the decoction deserves to be analysed as a unique psychoactive substance.



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