1.25 Million Years Ago – The Evolutionary Emergence of the Ayahuasca Vine, Banisteriopsis
The ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, is related to about 1200 other plants within the family Malpighiaceae. The family offer a diverse array of fruits, but they all grow very similar flowers. About 85% of ayahuasca’s botanical relatives in the Malpighiaceae family evolved and lived naturally in North or South America.
It has been difficult to track down exact information on when ayahuasca emerged on an evolutionary timescale. Part of the reason for this is that scientists are not in full agreement on the deep timeline of much plant life. But what we can say is that according to the mindbogglingly awesome website Timetree.org, Malpighiaceae are a relatively recent family that likely emerged around 90 million years ago during the late Cretaceous epoch (not long, relatively speaking, after the Jurassic epochs).
Botanists have suggested that the Banisteriopsis and Diplopterys geni—which host the high majority of the ayahuasca vine species that are brewed today— probably emerged during the late Pleistoscene (commonly known as the Ice Age). Bronwen Gates describes their distribution and phylogeny:
“Both Banisteriopsis and Diplopterys are entirely New World in their distribution. There are a few species of Banisteriopsis which extend their range into the subtropics in Mexico, Paraguay and Argentina, but most species are restricted to the tropics, with nearly two-thirds of the species entirely Brazilian in their distribution. Almost half of the species of Banisteriopsis are savanna species, with more than two-thirds of these species in the Planalto region of Brazil, in the characteristic savanna vegetation of this area known as cerrado. Possibly the diversification of the genus occurred during the Pleistocene, during the postulated periods of greatly increased savanna vegetation”.
Plant diversification in the Amazon rainforest area appears to have increased dramatically during the dry and humid cycles of the Pleistoscene, and this is when Gates suggests the geni of ayahuasca species emerged. If this theory is correct, then the ayahuasca vine is approximately 1.25 million years old.
The emergence of the vine is also weaved into colorful ayahuasca myths handed down orally by indigenous groups. The natural environment has a special affinity with the human populations of the Amazon. Amazonian groups had such a wide impact on managing plant and animal environments that archeologists suggests there was no “pristine” area of the Amazon remaining by the year 1541 when European colonists arrived.
In 1957, scientists isolated the active compounds in the ayahuasca vine and discovered that its contents are almost identical to the extracts of the Eurasian and North African plant commonly known as Syrian Rue. By comparison, the chemical composition of Syrian Rue was discovered in the 1840s, where “harmala” alkaloids were isolated and given their name.
It took scientists a while to realize that key alkaloids in the ayahuasca vine were the same as those in Syrian Rue. Before this happened, one scientist in 1905 decided to call the active ingredients in the ayahuasca vine “telepathine“, noting its apparently telepathic properties.
Anderson, W. 1990. The Origin of the Malpighiaceae-The Evidence from Morphology. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden. 64: 210-224
Gates, B. 1982. Banisteriopsis, Diplopterys (Malpighiaceae). Flora Neotropics. Vol. 30. P1-237. (See image below)
Vuilleumier, B.S. 1971. Pleistocene changes in the fauna and flora of South America. Science. 3999:771-80