1879-1912 – Ayahuasca Use Spread as the Rubber Boom Decimated Natives
The indigenous groups of the Amazon basin suffered many injustices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a result of fortune-seekers looking to capitalize on valuable resources in the Amazon. The Rubber Boom, from 1879 to 1912, was in many ways an era of horror for indigenous Amazonian populations. But ayahuasca use did not disappear when the indigenous communities and traditions were being stripped and transformed into labor for the global industry. In fact, it appears ayahuasca shamanism spread during this period.
With Henry Ford’s mass production of the motor car and the invention of tyres in the late nineteenth century, there was an ever-growing need for rubber. The rubber tree is native to the Amazon rainforest where it grows in abundance. Entrepreneurs hurried into the Amazon to cash in on the rubber available there. But this spelt disaster for the indigenous peoples who called the Amazon their home.
Indigenous groups were enslaved and moved around in great numbers. One of the most notable fortune-seekers was a Peruvian trader named Julio Cesar Arana. He acquired large areas of land in the Putumayo region of the Peruvian Amazon. But in order to accumulate the masses of wealth he wanted, he virtually enslaved a huge number of indigenous people and others to harvest the rubber. Julio’s brother, Lizardo, worked with Julio, bringing in from Barbados a large number of overseers to put the Indians to work. At this time, slavery had been abolished in the US, but it was still continuing in Amazonia. In areas where indigenous people were mostly wiped out, workers with African descendent were brought in. In this 1930s, this cultural mixing pot of African, European, and Indigenous works, a new ayahuasca religion was born, later known as Santo Daime.
Disease was rampant and so even those enslaved Indians who escaped often fell victim to the epidemics brought into their remote homeland by traders and rubber-tappers. During the mid nineteenth century, thousands of Indians died as a result of the Rubber Boom in just the first few years, as a result of killing, mistreatment, and disease. The outside world, however, was unaware of the atrocities caused by the Arana brothers’ empire. That was until 1909, when Walter Hardenburg, a young American engineer, wrote articles about the horrors he saw the year prior, for the magazine Truth.
The Arana brothers made a substantial profit extracting rubber from the Amazon. But for this came at a great cost to the indigenous populations, with far-reaching consequences. Many groups were wiped out or assimilated. The horrific history of the Rubber Boom and its intense expressions among ayahuasca shamans can be read in anthropologist Michael Taussig’s book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man.
During the Rubber Boom and the spread of disease, indigenous communities had to use their own remedies to try and recover and stay healthy. In many circumstances, ayahuasca ceremonies and indigenous herbal practices were the only health care available, and ayahuasca healers were in demand. Although tribal ayahuasca ceremonies were disappearing, ayahuasca shamanism, practiced as a detribalized individual profession and transmitted freely across ethnic lines, appears to have spread during the Rubber Boom.
While it appears that vine-alone brews had been in wide use before the Rubber Boom, there is not much record of the ayahuasca-chacruna combination, which is responsible for the colorful psychedelics effects of ayahuasca, before the Rubber Boom. The combination seems to have spread southward along with the practice of ayahuasca shamanism.
The ayahuasca vine, known as Banisteriopsis caapi, can be taken on its own, although it is not a very hallucinogenic experience. In high doses, the ayahuasca vine can create an intoxicated feeling or ‘buzz’ and have perhaps slight psychedelic effects, such as a change in vision. It can also act as a purgative in high doses, resulting in vomiting and diarrhoea. These are the effects of the harmala alkaloids found in the vine.
These alkaloids, such as harmine and harmaline, are also monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), meaning they inhibit the MAO (an enzyme) that breaks down DMT when it is taken orally, meaning DMT’s psychedelic effects cannot occur. Chacruna (or Psychotria viridis) is a DMT-containing plant used in the preparation of ayahuasca. The MAOIs in the ayahuasca vine allows the DMT in chacruna to be orally active when consumed. These MAOIs are also what add to the dreamlike visions associated with ayahuasca. The ayahuasca-chacruna combination, which is what most ayahuasca preparations look like today, seems to have become more commonplace at the time of the Rubber Boom.
The Shipibo indigenous group incorporated ayahuasca into older ceremonial forms, and have made innovations in their approach which have made them perhaps the most internationally famous ayahuasca shamans.
Beyer, S. (2009). Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. University of New Mexico Press.
Brabec de Mori, B. (2011). “Tracing hallcinations: Contributing to a critical ethnohistory of ayahuasca usage in the Peruvian Amazon.” In B. C. Labate & H. Jungaberle (Eds.): The internationalization of ayahuasca (pp. 23-47). Zürich: Lit Verlag.
Calavia Saez, O. (2011). “A vine network.” In B. C. Labate & H. Jungaberle (Eds.): The internationalization of ayahuasca (pp. 131-144). Zürich: Lit Verlag.
Gorman, Peter (2010). Ayahuasca In My Blood. Lulu.
Gow, Peter (1992). River People: Shamanism and History in Western Amazonia. In Thomas, Nichols, and Humphrey Shamanism, History and the State. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan
Survival International (n.d.) Death in the Devil’s Paradise: The Rubber Boom. Survival International Website
Roe, Peter G. (1982). “The Cosmic Zygote.” In Myth and Ceremony Among the Shipibos.