1972 – Marlene Dobkin de Rios Publishes the First Major Study of Urban Ayahuasca Shamanism
In 1972, the first major study of urban ayahuasca shamanism, entitled Visionary Vine, was published by Marlene Dobkin de Rios, a medical anthropologist and psychotherapist who studied the use of psychoactive plants by urban Peruvian shamans. She wrote numerous books and articles about ayahuasca, shamanic techniques of healing, and psychotherapy, and later studied the UDV (União do Vegetal) church.
This work also draws on the data she gathered during her field research in Peru and represents one of the earliest first-hand accounts on the use of plant medicine in this part of the basin. It also offers fascinating and timeless insight into ethnic backgrounds of the indigenous locals, the ancient history of the use of psychoactive plants, and a discourse about the differing standpoints on using these substances for healing purposes in North and South America. This book helped spread the word on plant psychedelics and indigenous culture far and wide, establishing de Rios as an eminent researcher on the topic. It is used in undergraduate anthropology courses to this day.
These quotes of hers sum her thoughts up succinctly:
“Among tribal societies for which there is information available, it is known that hallucinogens were used ritually to mark the passage from youth to adulthood. The plants were used for their hyper-suggestible properties, in order to create a state in which the moral and social values of the tribe would be easier to accept and assimilate. The visions or dreams were subsequently interpreted by the elders of the community in a way that agreed with the specific beliefs and values of the society—which reinforced in the young ideals of society to make them more fit to survive in their culture. In this way, cohesion of the group was achieved as the result of the intoxication experience.”
“In the West, individualism is an undisputed value. Since the end of World War II, the empty self has emerged among the US middle classes, with the breakdown of family, community, and tradition.”
“Alienation, fragmentation, and a sense of confusion and meaninglessness pervade Western society, which particularly affects young people. There is a compulsion to fill up this emptiness, reflected in various ailments of our society: eating disorders, consumers’ buying sprees, and the perceived need for mind-altering substances.”
These words are from one of de Rios’ last works—A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced With Controversy. Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States.
Dobkin de Rios’ work can be situated among a larger collection of seminal ayahuasca research by anthropologists and explorers, including the German explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s efforts to records indigenous myths and belief systems surrounding ayahuasca use in 1903, the French anthropologist P. Reinburg’s experiments with ayahuasca in 1931, Richard Evans Schultes’s research on ayahuasca ethnobotany, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographies of Tukano shamanism in the 1960s and 70s, Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” and visions, and Michael Taussig’s genre-bending work on ayahuasca and colonialism, just to name a few.
Read our longer piece about the life and work of Marlene Dobkin de Rios in the Kahpi Magazine.
Dobkin de Rios, M. (1972). Visionary vine: Hallucinogenic healing in the Peruvian Amazon. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co.
Dobkin de Rios, M. (2009). The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros, and Ethnobotanists. Park Street Press.
Francuski, X. (2019). A tribute to the mother of ayahuasca research, Marlene Dobkin de Rios. Kahpi Website. Jan 27.