1956 – Anthropologist Michael Harner Studies Ayahuasca Among Various Indigenous Groups
Michael Harner lived with the Shuar (Jívaro) people in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1956-57, and started practicing shamanism during his 1960-61 stay with the Conibo people of the Peruvian Amazon. Later on he returned to the Shuar for additional practical training in shamanism.
Harner was one of the first Westerners to initiate among Amazonian indigenous shamans. Aside from these South American communities, in his subsequent travels, he also learned from shamans the Coast Salish, Pomo, and Northern Paiute in western North America; the Inland Inuit and the Sami (formerly Lapps) in the Arctic; the Tuvans of central Asia; and the Buriat of Siberia.
In 1968, in the middle of an academic article, he devoted a paragraph to his own ayahuasca experience: “I found myself in a world beyond my wildest dreams, I met bird-headed people and dragon-like creatures. And I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology.” He further elaborated on his ayahuasca journeys in two subsequent articles: “The Sound of Rushing Water” (1968) and “The Jívaro, people of the sacred waterfalls” (1972).
But Harner waited until his 1980 book, The Way of the Shaman, to give a complete account of his ayahuasca experience. The book was written to introduce his notions of “core shamanism,” a spiritual healing method designed for Westerners. In the book, Harner himself downplays the role of ayahuasca and other entheogens, maintaining that there are other methods for attaining a higher state of consciousness just as effective as psychedelics, such as putting oneself into shamanic trance with drumming. He started experimenting with monotonous drumming in 1970 and is recognized as a pioneer of the contemporary shamanic drum journey.
Michael Harner was a key figure in bridging the gap between indigenous shamanism and contemporary Western healing perspectives through his fieldwork and research, experimentation, writings, and development of the core methods of shamanism. He seemingly designed this movement in order to bring shamanism back into the everyday spiritual life of generations that have distanced themselves from indigenous knowledge. He also founded the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Some anthropologists will certainly feel uncomfortable at the sight of someone claiming to know “core shamanism” and the essence of global traditions. This is because there are many different types of shamanism, and to reduce them to one “core” type could be seen as disrespectful of the diversity of human cultures and potentials.
Harner’s work can be situated among a large 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, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographies of Tukano shamanism in the 1960s and 70s, Marlene Dobkin de Rios’ analysis of urban ayahuasca healers in Peru in the 1970s, Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” and visions in the 1980s, and many others.
Harner, M. (1980). The Way of the Shaman. HarperOne.