1858 – Ecuadorian Geographer Manuel Villavicencio Describes Drinking Ayahuasca
In 1858 Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio wrote of the use of ayahuasca in sorcery and divination on the upper Rio Napo, and described his own experiences immersing into a Shuar community. He felt he was “flying” to the most marvelous places. In his book, he stressed the relevance of investigating ayahuasca:
“We will not pass in silence one of the things that draw our attention.”
He reported that Shuar using this drink were able:
“to foresee and answer accurately in difficult cases, be it to reply opportunely to ambassadors from other tribes in a question of war; to decipher plans of the enemy through the medium of this magic drink and take proper steps for attack and defense; to ascertain, when a relative is sick, what sorcerer has put on the hex; to carry out a friendly visit to other tribes, to welcome foreign travelers or, at least to make sure of the love of their womenfolk […] after the last dream gathers up the memories that were in the visions, it shows you the decision you should make.”
Regarding the effects of ayahuasca, he wrote the following:
“Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken; they feel vertigo and spinning in the head, then a sensation of being lifted into the air and beginning an aerial journey; the possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge: the savages (apparently the Zaparo of eastern Ecuador) say that they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear, and other beautiful things relating to their savage life. When this instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors out to devour them, their first flight ceases and they descend to earth to combat the terrors who communicate to them all adversities and misfortunes awaiting them.”
Manuel Villavicencio’s geography was considered a landmark work for nineteenth century European scholars. Still, it didn’t do much to raise awareness of, or arouse interest in ayahuasca. This can, in large part, be attributed to the prevailing European ethnocentricity of the times, which seems to have prevented the educated community, which considered itself “superior” to indigenous Amazonians, to acknowledge and investigate a plant some so-called tribal communities consider special. His writing on ayahuasca were published around the same time as the English botanist Richard Spruce’s description of drinking ayahuasca.
But ayahuasca didn’t crack into the imagination of European society so easily. Way back in 1755, the Jesuit missionary Franz Xavier Veigl had already described ayahuasca as a “plant worth mentioning“. But during the mid nineteenth century, botanical interests of the time were focused on plants that would propel Europe’s economic growth, and one that causes vomiting and hallucinations just did not fit in. It would take a few more decades and ethnobotanical expeditions into the Amazon for the awareness of ayahuasca to really expand in the Western world.
The profound and strange effects of ayahuasca that Villavicencio describes were later dissected by neuroscientists studying ayahuasca visions and brain function and psychiatrists analyzing the positive long-term effects of ayahuasca on health. This coincided with the global popularizing of ayahuasca in the 1990s by the mesmerizing talks of philosopher Terence McKenna, anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s wildly popular book The Cosmic Serpent, and the study by Rick Strassman that inspired the wildly popular documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule. By 2015, underground groups started advertising ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States despite being illegal. Today, the brew continues to expand around the globe with retreat services offered across South America, North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.
Villavicencio, M. (1858). Geografía de la República del Ecuador. Archive.org Website