1851-1873 – English Botanist Richard Spruce Encounters Ayahuasca Use Among Indigenous Groups
Throughout the nineteenth century, various ethnographers and explorers mentioned an intoxicating beverage prepared by indigenous Amazonians and called ayahuasca, yagé, or caapi. They all cited a forest liana but offered little detail.
The great English botanist Richard Spruce was the first to collect specimens and catalog the plant scientifically. In November of 1852, Spruce encountered the ayahuasca vine and witnessed an ayahuasca ceremony among the Tukano on the Rio Uapes (Vaupes river) in extreme northwestern Brazil.
Over the next six years, Richard Spruce traveled along the upper Orinoco in Llanos (Venezuela), where he encountered it among the Guahibo. He found them chewing the bark of ayahuasca instead of brewing it as a drink. He also saw it used by the Záparo on the Pastaza river at the border of Ecuador and Peru, from whom he first learned the name ayahuasca. In fact, he was surprised to find the vine to be one of few plants used across vast stretches of the Amazon, “planted” and “cultivated” throughout today’s Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador. He recognized the value of the ayahuasca vine to indigenous peoples, and strived to portray this in his description of the plant.
In 1873 Richard Spruce published Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, containing the first ethnobotanical account of ayahuasca and reporting on its sources, preparation and effects upon himself. Here is how he recounted the experience:
“I had gone with the full intention of experimenting the caapi on myself, but I had scarcely dispatched one cup of the nauseating beverage, which is but half a dose, when the ruler of the feast—desirous, apparently, that I should taste all his delicacies at once—came up with a woman carrying a large calabash of caxiri (madnidocca beer), of which I must needs take a copious drought, and as I knew the mode of its preparation, it was gulped down with secret loathing. Scarcely I had accomplished this feat when a large cigar, 2 feet long and as thick as the wrist, was lighted and put into my hand, and etiquette demanded that I should take a few whiffs of it—I, who had never in my life smoked a cigar or pipe tobacco. Above all this, I must drink a large cup of palmwine, and it will be readily understood that the effect of such a complex dose was a strong inclination to vomit, which was only overcome by laying down in a hammock.”
He named the plant Banisteria caapi. It was reclassified as Banisteriopsis caapi in 1931. His accounts of his personal ayahuasca experiences are unique and one of the first ever published, alongside the Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio’s description of drinking ayahuasca and seeing beautiful and scary imagery in 1858.
The first shipment of the vine that Spruce sent for examination in England ended-up arriving “injured by damp and [mold], and the sheets of specimen near the bottom of the boxes quite ruined.” This report Spruce received months after he had sent the shipment off was surprising, seeing as he always tended meticulously to packaging specimens, and the same was the case with B. caapi. Apparently, what had happened is that the man who was charged with transporting the box was seized for debt along the Rio Negro, and had all contents of his boat confiscated. The boxes ended up on a damp earth floor for months, until Spruce’s confidante Henrique Antonij managed to redeem them and ship them onward. Due to this mishap, the contaminated specimens were not properly investigated at this time, and B. caapi remained a secret for decades to come.
Richard Spruce suspected that admixtures plants were responsible for the bulk of the psychoactivity of the brew, although he noted that B. caapi by itself was considered psychoactive by the Indigenous peoples. The samples he sent to England for chemical analysis were ultimately assayed in 1966, when it was determined that they were still psychoactive.
The profound and strange effects of ayahuasca that Spruce described were dissected 150 years later during the turn of the 21st century with neuroscientists studying ayahuasca visions and brain function and psychiatrists analyzing the positive long-term effects of ayahuasca on health. This burst in scientific research coincided with the global popularization 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 groundbreaking research by Rick Strassman that inspired the wildly popular 2010 documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule. By 2015, underground ayahuasca groups started to publicly advertise ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States online 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.
Spruce, R. (1873).Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes: Being Records Of Travel On The Amazon And Its Tributaries, The Trombetas, Rio Negro, Uaupés. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Spruce, R. Compiled and edited by Wallace, A.R. (1908). Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon & Andes: Being Records of Travel on the Amazon and Its Tributaries, the Trombetas, Rio Negro, Uaupés, Casiquiri, Pacimoni, Huallaga, and Pastasa; as Also to the Cataracts of the Orinoco, Along the Eastern Side of the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, and the Shores of the Pacific, During the Years 1849-1864. Volumes 1 and 2. Macmillan.
Stafford, P. G., & Bigwood, J. (1992). Psychedelics Encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Pub.