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Unknown Date – The Origins of Ayahuasca Use

ayahuasca discovery

The origins of ayahuasca use are, ultimately, a mystery. The archeological record indicates a diverse collection of psychoactive substance use in South America dating back many thousands of years. Stashes and instruments of psychoactive snuffs are the most common. But the potential evidence on the use of ayahuasca in antiquity is patchy.

A research paper by Bernd Brabec de Mori (2011) provides compelling evidence to suggest ayahuasca emerged from the Tukano region of what is today in the southern Colombian Amazon. The paper maps the diversity and similarities of languages in ayahuasca songs from across many groups, revealing traces that point to the north as the origins of ayahuasca.

Many researchers, including Brabec de Mori and also Zuluaya (2005) suggest ayahuasca use originated somewhere among the western Amazonian lowlands near the Napo river. Research Gayle Highpine offers a hypothesis. She suggests that it originated in the basin of the Napo River, and from there it spread northward and southward. The Napo river connects a pass in the Andes in Ecuador to the Amazon River, and was a major trade route in pre-Columbian times. Amazonian Quechua (Kichwa) was a lingua franca along the Napo, so Quechua words were often associated with ayahuasca as it spread. 

She suggests that the wide distribution of “wild” ayahuasca vines in the Upper Amazon testifies to its widespread human use. The Amazon Basin is extremely high in endemism, and virtually the only plants that are widely distributed are those of human usefulness. But as mentioned, how long ago ayahuasca was discovered and began to be used is unknown. Pottery artifacts dating back several thousand years depicting use of psychoactive substances have been found in Ecuador, but nothing that appears to depict the use of ayahuasca. Judging by contemporary indigenous use of vine-only brews, the ayahuasca vine was used for divination, cleansing purges, healing, sorcery, and collective celebrations. 

One possible clue suggests the ayahuasca vine was in use at least a thousand years ago. In 2007, harmine (an alkaloid found in ayahuasca vine) was discovered in the hair of several mummies found the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The mummies dated from the period between 800-1200 AD, when the area was part of the Tiwanaku civilization, which began in present-day Bolivia around 300 BC. Although DMT-containing snuffs were evidently also used in that civilization, no DMT or 5-Meo-DMT was found in the mummies’ hair, suggesting that ayahuasca was potentially used there without DMT admixtures. Since the ayahuasca vine was found originally growing only in the Amazon basin, and originated in the northwest Amazon, this suggests that ayahuasca may have been traded a very long way from its point of origin, over rugged mountains with no river systems connecting them, at least 800 years ago.

But, the ayahuasca vine was not the only botanical source of harmine native to South America. The harmine from the Atacama mummies could have come from tobacco, and this could be expected because before 1541, tobacco shamanism was probably more popular than ayahuasca shamanism across Lowland South America. In the Amazon region in the twentieth century, tobacco is widely known to shamans, healers, and herbalists as the Master Plant.

There is some evidence to suggest that the popularity of ayahuasca increased dramatically quite recently. During the notorious Rubber Boom of the nineteenth century. It is expected that individuals and social groups will reach for supports during times of crisis, whether summoning saints, medicines, or, in Amazonian contexts, a mixture of the two called “plant teacher spirits“.


Beyer, Stephen (2012). “On the Origins of Ayahuasca.”

Brabec de Mori, B. 2011. Tracing hallucinations: Contributing to a critical ethnohistory of ayahuasca usage in the Peruvian Amazon. In The Internationalization of Ayahuasca B. C. Labate & H. Jungaberle eds. Pp. 23-47. Zürich: Lit Verlag.

Highpine, Gayle (2014). “Unraveling the Mystery of the Origins of Ayahuasca.”http://neip.info/novo/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/highpine_origin-of-ayahuasca_neip_2012.pdf

Langdon, Jean (1988). “Siona classifications of yage: Ethnobotany, ethnochemistry and history.”https://www.academia.edu/3346333/Siona_Classifications_of_Yag%C3%A9_Ethnobotany_ethnochemistry_and_history

Ogaldea, Juan P., Bernardo T. Arriazab, Elia C. Soto (2009). “Identification of psychoactive alkaloids in ancient Andean human hair by gaschromatography/mass spectrometry.”

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1971). Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sachahambi (2007). “Which indigenous groups traditionally use ayahuasca?”http://www.forums.ayahuasca.com/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=14326

Schultes, R. E. (n.d.) “An ethnobotanical perspective on ayahuasca.”

Siskin, J. (1973). To Hunt In the Morning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zuluaga, G. (2005). Conservación de la diversidad biológico y cultural en el piedemonte amazónico colombiano: La herencia del Dr. Schultes. Retrieved from www.ethnobotanyjournal.org/vol3/i1547-3465-03-187.pdf

Ayahuasca Timeline – Previous and Next (Sample)

Time Before Time – Tukano Ayahuasca Myth of the Yagé-Woman
1.25 Million Years Ago – The Evolutionary Emergence of the Ayahuasca Vine, Banisteriopsis
Unknown Date – The Origins of Ayahuasca Use
Unknown Date – Synergy Discovered Between Ayahuasca Vine and DMT- Containing Plants
1541 – The First Europeans Enter the Amazon Basin
1648-1768 – The First Written Reports of Ayahuasca Made by Jesuit Missionaries

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