1903-1905 – German Explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg Records Indigenous Ayahuasca Myths and Beliefs
As a young doctor of philosophy, Theodor Koch-Grünberg was first sent to a charting expedition in the Brazilian Amazon in 1896. His exploration took him along the Rio Negro to the border of Venezuela, where he encountered and studied the indigenous community Banihua. Throughout his journey he also had a chance to stay with, and document the rich lore of the Pemón (Arecuna) in the highlands of Mount Roraima in Venezuela, and the Tukanos of the Vaupés in Colombia.
He (mistakenly) reported that “cayapi” was prepared from a shrub and that the Tukanos recognized two species. He described it as:
“a favorite stimulant, served as an infusion at festivals […] in order to induce delightful hallucinations, which have been compared to those due to hashish. All things appear to be huge and gorgeously colored, there are visions of motley-tinted snakes and of erotic experiences. Some partakers fall into a deep sleep, awakening with severe headache. On novices the brew acts as an emetic.”
Koch-Grünberg further elaborated:
“Women never drink cayapi, the preparation of which is wholly a masculine task. The men pound up the roots, stems, and leaves of the shrub into a greenish-brown mass, which is washed with water, squeezed dry, and again pounded and washed. The resulting substance, not unlike cow dung in appearance, is strained through a double sifter into the bellied cayapi urn, which is covered with leaves and placed outdoors. It has two horizontal handles and two perforations with a connecting suspension cord. Though never washed, the vessel is now and then repainted with the same yellow designs on a dark-red background.”
He also discussed another ceremonial vessel from the Barasana mythology. According to legend, the Yuruparí trumpet, a sacred instrument used in local traditional healing ceremonies, came from the heavens filled with the B. caapi vine (the main ingredient of ayahuasca). Koch-Grünberg’s travel diaries inspired one of the main characters in the Oscar-nominated Colombian film “Embrace of the Serpent” (2015). His successor in this partly fictional Amazonian adventure is the great ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes. Koch-Grünberg’s work was incredibly deepened by anthropological research that arrived in the mid-to-late 20th century. This includes Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographies of Tukano shamanism, Michael Harner’s diverse work on ayahuasca cultures, Marlene Dobkin de Rios’ analysis of urban ayahuasca healers, Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” and visions, and Taussig’s genre-bending work on ayahuasca and colonialism, just to name a few.
Theodor Koch-Grünberg, (1906), Indianertypen aus dem Amazonasgebiet nach eigenen Aufnahmen während seiner Reise in Brasilien (Indian Types of the Amazon Basin), Ernst Wasmuth, Berlin.
Theodor Koch-Grünberg, (1909), Zwei Jahre unter den Indianern: Reisen in Nordwest-Brasilien 1903-1905 (Two years among the Indians: Travels in North-West Brazil), Ernst Wasmuth, Berlin.
Theodor Koch-Grünberg, (1916), Vom Roraima zum Orinoco. Ergebnisse einer Reise in Nordbrasilien und Venezuela in den Jahren 1911–1913. 5 Bände. Strecker und Schröder, Stuttgart. (re-issued by Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Koch-Grünberg, Theodor, (1921), Zwei Jahre bei den Indianern Nordwest-Brasiliens, Strecker und Schröder Bibliografia Crítica da Etnologia Brasileira, Volume I (Baldus 1954)