1941-1953 – Richard Evans Schultes Documents Ayahuasca Use Among Many Amazonian Groups
Before the 1940s, not many Westerners had travelled to the Amazon and documented the use of ayahuasca among indigenous peoples. There were early Jesuit missionaries, the botanist Richard Spruce, who in 1851 observed the Tukano Indians of the Rio Uapes in Brazil engaging in ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as geographer Manuel Villavicencio who published a book in 1858 describing his experiences with ayahuasca in Ecuador.
But this all changed when Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes decided to live in and explore the Amazon from 1941 to 1953, spending almost seventeen years there in total. He visited and participated in ceremonies with a greater number of ayahuasca-using indigenous groups, carefully observing and recording their use of the brew.
His documentation of ayahuasca was pioneering. Schultes’ book Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979) contains information on different aspects of ayahuasca, including its history of use, cultural importance, preparation, chemistry, applications, and the sorts of visions typically associated with the brew. Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazon (1992) is another fascinating read from Schultes. This book specifically focuses on ayahuasca use in the Amazon (rather than plant medicine use in general) and includes many photos of the native life that Schultes observed.
Schultes started his journey into understanding ayahuasca use with the indigenous Kofán people, renowned for having some of the most masterful shamans in the Amazon. He learned their language, participated in their daily activities, and was granted access to observe the preparation and ritual use of ayahuasca. He meticulously described what he witnessed and accompanied it with never-before-seen photographs of many aspects of indigenous life.
After his time with the Kofán, Schultes would often be invited to join ayahuasca ceremonies when arriving at new villages; doing so would earn him the trust of the community and respect that warranted communication and learning from the elders. He slowly became something of a gringo legend throughout some indigenous Amazon communities. But the ayahuasca ceremonies that Schultes witnessed and partook in were quite different from the ayahuasca ceremonies that Westerners engage in today. This is due to the boom in ayahuasca tourism, which has seen ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon cater to the desires and styles of Westerners.
Schultes was the first ethnobotanist to scientifically and taxonomically document the preparation and use of ayahuasca. He identified one of the main ingredients of the ayahuasca brew as the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (known as aya waska in the Quechua language, which means “vine of the soul” or “vine of the ancestors”). Although he noted that the B. caapi vine or a close relative was the one constant ingredient in the brews, he documented many “amazingly diverse” ayahuasca admixtures and reported that Diplopterys cabrerana and “several species of Psychotria — especially P. Viridis” were “employed over a wide area by many tribes.” Psychotria viridis (also known as chacruna in Quechua) is a type of shrub that contains the psychedelic compound DMT. When orally consumed, the DMT contained in this plant is broken down by monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the body. However, when combined with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as harmala, found in the B. caapi vine and close relatives, the DMT becomes orally active. The body doesn’t break it down.
Schultes described how the Kofán shamans were so adept and knowledgeable that they could distinguish between different types of ayahuasca vine that, to the untrained eye, looked virtually identical. Schultes noted how the various admixtures were used to enhance the effects of ayahuasca. Shamans also explained to Schultes that during their ayahuasca visions, they had been told by ayahuasca about how to use certain plants for the purposes of healing and divination (gaining knowledge of the future by supernatural means).
Another key finding of Schultes’ expedition into the Amazon was that the Kofán treated ayahuasca ceremonies as a kind of rite of passage, as something that individuals went through in order to properly integrate into the native culture. In some sense, this is similar to the ritual use of iboga by the Punu, Mitsogo, and Fang peoples of Gabon. Young Gabonese men will take iboga, a visionary plant, as part of their initiation into Bwiti, a spiritual discipline that incorporates animism, ancestor worship, and Christianity.
Schultes recorded the use of over 2,000 medicinal plants in the Amazon and identified a total of over 24,000, about 300 of which were previously unknown to Western science. He was one of the first to alert the world about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the disappearance of its native people. Schultes received the highest achievement available in botany—the gold medal of the Linnean Society of London. Schultes helped bring ayahuasca to scientific attention, and is considered the “father of modern ethnobotany”. He also mentored other famous ethnobotanists, including writers Wade Davis and Mark Plotkin.
He is one of the leading characters in the critically acclaimed film Embrace of the Serpent (2015), which artistically interprets his own and Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s journeys through the Amazon. Koch-Grünberg was a German ethnologist and explorer who, along with Schultes, provided valuable insights into the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
You can read more about the life and work of Richard Evans Schultes in this piece published in the Kahpi Magazine.
A list of other anthropological studies of ayahuasca would need to include the French anthropologist Reinburg’s experiments with ayahuasca in 1931, Michael Harner’s research on indigenous ayahuasca use, Marlene Dobkin de Rios’s studies of urban ayahuasca healers in urban Peru in the 1970s, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographies of Tukano shamanism in the 1960s and 70s, Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” in the 1980s, and Michael Taussig’s genre-bending work on ayahuasca and colonialism in the late 1980s, just to name a few.
Davis, Wade (1996). One River: Explorations And Discoveries In The Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Davis, Wade (2016). The Lost Amazon: The Pioneering Expeditions of Richard Evans Schultes. Earth Aware Editions.
Plotkin, Mark J. (2020). The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Schultes, Richard Evans (1976). Hallucinogenic Plants. illus. Elmer W. Smith. New York: Golden Press.
Schultes, Richard Evans and Albert Hofmann (1979). Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Schultes, Richard Evans and Robert F. Raffauf (1990). The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia. Portland, OR.: Dioscorides Press.
Schultes, Richard Evans and Robert F. Raffauf (1992). Vine of the Soul: Medicine Men, Their Plants and Rituals in the Colombian Amazonia. Oracle, Ariz.: Synergetic Press.
Schultes, Richard Evans and Siri von Reis (eds.) (1995). Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portland, Or.: Dioscorides Press.