1971 – Anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff Publishes Amazonian Cosmos, a Study of the Tukano Indians of Colombia
In 1974, anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff published Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians, a study of the myths and rituals of the Tukano Indians of Colombia, for whom ayahuasca (known as yage) played a key role in cosmology and everyday life. This was the first of several books he wrote about the ritual life and worldview of the Tukano.
In Amazonian Cosmos, Reichel-Dolmatoff describes in detail the myriad aspects of Tukanoan shamanism and ayahuasca use, including initiation, healing, divination, astronomy, sexuality, and more. He also wrote several books about the Kogi, a Colombian people who do not use ayahuasca. Born in Austria, Reichel-Dolmatoff spent half a century in Colombia, and was deemed the “Father of Colombian Anthropology” by some.
Reichel-Dolmatoff produced an incredible amount of research on the Tukano use of ayahuasca. He commented that the Desana (Tukano) say ayahuasca can remove the mercury from the mirror to allow the self-other illusion to dissolve into a transcendent state of consciousness, that is, within deyόbiri turi, the “invisible world”.
The Desana liken this process and passage from deyόri turi to deyόbiri turi or “one cosmic plane to another,” to “a process of birth; the rupture of the plane (or shell) is the rupture of the placenta, followed by the entrance into another dimension of existence and cognition”. Regarding initiation to becoming a master of ayahuasca, formal training began around the neophyte’s twenty-fifth birthday, but before this period he was expected to have spent much time with a practicing shaman observing his work. During training, the initiate, along with one or several shamans, isolate themselves in a remote place with bare living and ritual essentials for many months or more. A successful apprentice should complete the course acquiring “a large body of esoteric knowledge consisting of plant and animal lore, drug use, cosmology and mythology, genealogical traditions, together with the knowledge of specific ritual procedures”. The transforming apprentice is described as going through an “ecstatic metamorphosis”.
Reichel-Dolmatoff states that: “shamanistic initiation is a process of transformation, the different stages of which are concerned as being patterned … after the successive stages of intra-uterine development, but are observed in reverse and condensed in time: the initiate symbolically dies and then must be reborn into a new existence, that of a shaman.”
In 1987, Reichel-Dolmatoff reflected upon his many decades of research among indigenous Amazonian peoples and shared these following powerful words:
“Today I must acknowledge that since the beginning of the 1940s, it has been for me a real privilege to live with, and also try to understand in depth, diverse indigenous groups. I noted among them particular mental structures and value systems that seemed to be beyond any of the typologies and categories held then by Anthropology. I did not find the “noble savage” nor the so-called “primitive.” I did not find the so-called degenerate or brutish Indian nor even less the inferior beings as were generally described by the rulers, missionaries, historians, politicians and writers. What I did find was a world with a philosophy so coherent, with morals so high, with social and political organizations of great complexity, and with sound environmental management based on well-founded knowledge. In effect, I saw that the indigenous cultures offered unsuspected options that offered strategies of cultural development that simply we should not ignore because they contain valid solutions and are applicable to a variety of human problems.”
He was a very hard working anthropologist. He published 40 books and some 400 or so research articles on indigenous cultures of the Upper Amazon. This remarkable achievement was the conclusion of a remarkable upbringing. Richel-Dolmatoff first arrived to Colombia from Europe after leaving a traumatic past behind him with Nazi Germany. You can read about his life and work here.
His work on Tukano culture, myth, and ritual places him among the top researchers of ayahuasca. Other influential studies should include Richard Evans Schultes’s research in ayahuasca ethnobotany, Michael Harner’s diverse work on ayahuasca cultures, Marlene Dobkin de Rios’ analysis of urban ayahuasca healers, Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” and visions, and Michael Taussig’s genre-bending work on ayahuasca and colonialism in the 1980s, just to name a few.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1974). Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1975). The Shaman and the Jaguar: A Study of Narcotic Drugs Among the Indians of Colombia. Temple University Press.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1978). Beyond the Milky Way: Hallucinatory Imagery of the Tukano Indians. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1996). The Forest Within: The World-view of the Tukano Amazonian Indians. Council Oaks Distribution.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1997). Rainforest Shamans: Essays on the Tukano Indians of the Northwest Amazon. Green Books.