1984 and 1986 – Luis Eduardo Luna Publishes on “Plant Teachers” Among Ayahuasqueros in Peru
Researchers such as Manuel Villavicencio and Richard Spruce had written accounts of ayahuasca use in the Amazon basin during the mid-nineteenth century. Later the brew would seed its global popularity in the mid-twentieth century with the famous writings of William S. Burroughs and others. But it was only towards the late-twentieth century when more rigorous and detailed anthropological work was done on the culture surrounding ayahuasca use. One important figure in this respect was the Colombian anthropologist, Luis Eduardo Luna.
In the early 1980s, Luna worked among ayahuasqueros (specialists of ayahuasca) near the cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa in Peru. He published the pioneering article “The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeastern Peru” in 1984 and the book Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon in 1986.
The term vegetalismo refers to a hybrid practice of plant shamanism that emerged primarily in the Peruvian Amazon. In this loose tradition, shamans are known as vegetalistas and they gain knowledge and healing powers directly from native plants. Many such vegetalistas claim to gain important knowledge of plants in their ayahuasca visions, which can be seen in the artworks of shaman Pablo Amaringo.
In 1982, Luna also created a remarkable film entitled Don Emilio y sus Doctorcitos (Don Emilio and his Little Doctors). Shot on 16mm, it was the first film to focus specifically on ayahuasca, and was shown on Finnish, Spanish, and Colombian television. You can enjoy watching it here with English subtitles:
Luna was one of the first to articulate the importance of the strict diet, or dieta, that is followed by shamans. He described that in order to become a vegetalista, a would-be shaman must demonstrate to the spirits of the plants that he or she deserves their trust. They must prove to their spirits that they have the strength and faith necessary to become a vegetalista. As well as living in long periods of isolation in the wilderness, apprentice shamans also follow a strict diet. This is believed to be essential for forming a close relationship with the plants. Vegetalistas believe that plants will not reveal their uses and special songs (known as icaros) unless one follows the restricted shamanic diet.
The dieta (not to be reduced simply to the MAOI safety diet that many ayahuasca drinkers around the world follow) involves long periods of strict sexual abstinence and of living on food that is as tasteless as possible. In this way, the dieta involves more than simply avoiding certain foods that contain the chemical tryamine, thought to interact negatively with the MAOI found in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine used in the preparation of ayahuasca. Foods high in tryamine to be avoided include cheese, beer, chocolate, and nuts. This is one level of the dieta.
But as Luna showed, attaining purity, calmness, and energy when becoming a vegetalista requires other dietary restrictions, such as avoiding salt, sugar, oil, fat, spicy food, acidic foods (such as citrus fruit), and caffeine. Luna also reported the specific uses of some of the more unusual admixture plants and was the first to report on the concept of “plant teachers” (plantas que enseñan), as many of the admixture plants are viewed by the mestizo ayahuasqueros. In his 1986 book, Luna describes how ayahuasca is used by the ayahuasqueros as a way of accessing a special source of knowledge, power, guidance, and direction that can help them deal with all aspects of life. They then use this knowledge to help individuals in the local community, as well as in other communities, as well as for sorcery and other forms of social diplomacy. In addition, Luna discusses that, for the ayahuasqueros, the plant spirits or plant teachers of ayahuasca are viewed as active and intelligent beings.
Later, Luna collaborated with Peruvian artist and shaman Pablo Amaringo on the book Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman published in 1991. Luna provided cultural and historic information and interpretations to the ayahuasca-influenced paintings created by Amaringo, widely regarded as some of the most important shamanic depictions of the ayahuasca experience. Luna also co-edited the anthology The Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine (2000) which includes texts translated from nearly a dozen languages, including indigenous mythic narratives, testimonies, and religious hymns, as well as accounts by Western travelers, scientists, and writers. The edition is on our list of the top 15 ayahuasca books to read.
Here is a short video of Luis Eduardo Luna describing aspects of the ayahuasca experience:
Luna’s 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 record 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, and Marlene Dobkin de Rios’ analysis of urban ayahuasca healers in Peru in the 1970s, and Michael Taussig’s genre-bending work on ayahuasca and colonialism in the 1980s, just to name a few.
Luna, Luis Eduardo (1984).“The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeastern Peru.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 11, 135-156.
Luna, L. E. (1986) Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the Mestizo population of the Peruvian Amazon. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International
Luna, L.E. and Amaringo, P. (1991) Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. North Atlantic Books.
Luna, L.E., and White, Steven (2000). The Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine. Synergetic Press.
Fotiou, E, and Gearin, A. (2019). Purging and the body in the therapeutic use of ayahuasca. Social Science and Medicine. 239: 1-9