Ayahuasca is an Amazonian drink prepared from Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Griseb.) C. V. Morton (Malpighiaceae) and other plants, most notably Psychotria viridis Ruiz & Pav (Rubiaceae).
NOTE: Although P. viridis is most commonly added to make ayahuasca, other species can be mixed with B. caapi in lieu of P. viridis including: Psychotria carthagenesis, Psychotria leiocarpa and Diplopterys cabrerana. Though less frequently employed, admixtures made up of species from genera belonging to the Solanaceae including Nicotiana, Brugmansia, and Brunfelsia can also be added (McKenna et al. 1998; Schultes 1963).
Banisteria caapi Spruce ex Griseb, Banisteria quitensis Nied, Banisteriopsis inebrians C. V. Morton, Banisteriopsis quitensis (Nied.) C. V. Morton, Banisteria inebrians (C.V.Morton) J.F.Macbr. (GRIN 2017; Plantlist 2017).
Palicourea viridis (Ruiz & Pav.) Schult, Psychotria glomerata Kunth, Psychotria microdesmia Oerst, Psychotria trispicata Griseb, Uragoga glomerata (Kunth) Kuntze, Uragoga microdesmia (Oerst.) Kuntze, Uragoga trispicata (Griseb.) Kuntze, Uragoga viridis (Ruiz & Pav.) Kuntze (Plantlist 2017).
Amarón wáska, ambi-huasca, ambiwáska, ayahuasca amarilla, ayahuascaliane, ayahuasca negra, ayahuasca vine, ayawasca, ayawáska, bejuco de oro, bejuco de yagé, biaj, biáxa, biaxíi, bichémia, caapi,51 caapí, camárambi, cauupuri mariri, cielo ayahuasca, cuchiayahuasca, cushi rao, doctor, hi(d)-yati (d)yahe, iáhi’, kaapi, kaapistrauch, kaheé, kahi, kalí, kamarampi, máo de onça, maridi, natem, natema, nepe, nepi, nishi, oo’-na-oo, purga-huasca, purga-huasca de los perros, rao, reéma, sacawáska, sacha-huasca, seelenliane, seelenranke, shurifisopa, tiwaco-mariri, totenliane, vine of the dead, vine of the soul, yagé, yagé cultivado, yagé del monte, yagé sembrado, yahe, yaje, yáje, yajé, yajén, yaji, yaxé (Ratsch 1988).
Amirucapanga, cahua, chacruna, chacruna, chagropanga, chalipanga, horóva, kawa, oprito, sami ruca (Ratsch 1988)
Distribution and Habitat
B. caapi is found in tropical forests of Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru (GRIN 2017; NTBG 2017), while P. viridis has a broader distribution being found in Central America (Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and Caribbean (Cuba) in addition to the Amazon region (Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela) (Ratsch 1998; EOL 2017). Given B. caapi and P. viridis have both been cultivated extensively via cuttings, original distributions for these species is somewhat unclear. Furthermore, both species are being commercially cultivated in parts of the USA including Hawaii and California (Ratsch 1988).
B. caapi is a liana (long stemmed woody vine) which produces leaves that are opposite, round and pointed at the tip. Though rare, flowers have 5 petals, are small and clustered, and possess a white or pink color. The central diagnostic for selection of B. caapi comes from inspection of the vine and leaves, for example a knotty/smooth stem as well as leaf color/veination have been used to distinguish between cultivars and to determine potency (NTBG 2017; Ratsch 1988).
P. viridis is a shrub that produces light green to white flowers at the end of a long stalk. Once mature flowers will produce red berries. Although a shrub, P. viridis can appear as a small tree, possessing a woody trunk. Leaves will grow in whorls, and are narrow, long, and pointed with a light to dark green color and shiny gloss on the upper side. Leaves can produce white thorns (domatia) on the underside of leaves along the central nerve. According to field observations made by Ratsch (1998) and McKenna (1984), leaves with thorns are considered potent or good for brewing ayahuasca, those without thorns should not be used.
Cultural/ Spiritual Significance
The ritualistic use of ayahuasca is endemic to indigenous tribes located in the Amazon Basin (Mckenna, Callaway, & Grob 1998; McKenna 1999). Although no artefacts directly implicating the ancient use of ayahuasca have ever been found, archeological findings related to the use of other hallucinogenic and psychoactive plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon suggest that use of ayahuasca existed since antiquity, dating as far back as 1500-2000 B.C (Mckenna, Callaway, & Grob 1998; Mckenna 1999). Since then, ayahuasca shamanism has spread far beyond its original distribution, both within and outside the Amazon. For example, the preparation and effects of this narcotic beverage did not become known to European explorers until the mid-19th century (Mckenna 1999), while the use of P. viridis as an admixture to B. caapi was only introduced to the Matsigenka people of southern Peru during the early 1950s (Labate et al. 2014).
Ayahuasca was first brought out of tribal use and made available to Christian groups of poor Brazilians in the North of Brazil through Raimundo Irineu Serra (or Mestre Irineu), a former rubber cutter and descendant of African slaves. Mestre Irineu got introduced to ayahuasca by a tribe near Accre, receiving his own vision of the female ayahuasca spirit who instructed him to take this new religion to his people. He called it the “Religion of the Forest” – “Culture of Peace” and the syncretic cult has since grown into a large religious movement called “Santo Daime” with numerous different churches and smaller groups with their own style throughout Brasil. It is mainly from these Santo Daime ceremonies that travelling Westerners first got an experience of drinking the ayahuasca brew. Mestre Irineu thus democratized the sacred drink, being the first to bring it into a new context and to create a syncretic use, incorporating the elements of reverence for Nature and the Forest, merging Christian symbolism with Amazonian indigenous cosmologies and preparing the crosscultural internationalisation of the most successful psychedelic plant (Tupper 2009; MacRae 1998).
Compared to other psychoactive drugs, ayahuasca is unique as the psychoactive property of this preparation is dependent upon the presence of both B. caapi and a plant (i.e. P. viridis) which contains the psychoactive chemical dimethyltryptamine (DMT). B. caapi contains chemicals which act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors by inhibiting the breakdown of monoamines that are produced in the human body including DMT and serotonin. Without the presence of these inhibitory compounds, the effects of ayahuasca would not occur as DMT would simply be broken down by monoamine oxidases. However, in the presence of these inhibitory chemicals, DMT is able to act as a non-selective substance causing a physiological response through interactions with serotonin receptors (DMTs chemical structure is very similar to serotonin, leading the brain to mistake one for the other) (Riba et al. 2003; Mckenna, Callaway, & Grob 1998). The psychoactive effects of the drink are qualitatively equivalent to those of other drugs from a pharmacological class, like LSD and psilocybin (hallucinogenic mushrooms). Perceived effects through consumption of ayahuasca are believed to be derived through DMTs ability to interact with the serotonergic system making it a very powerful medicine if the ritual is done right and the shaman or healer is able to guide the participant through this extraordinary experience.
How this serendipitous combination of plants was ever discovered will most likely remain a mystery, however different stories have been suggested regarding the origins of ayahuasca. For example, in Peru, Mestizo ayahuasqueros cite “plant teachers” as the original source for this knowledge, while mestres from the Brazilian syncretic cult União do Vegetal (UDV),believe that King Solomon imparted his knowledge for ayahuasca on the Inca during antiquity (Mckenna 1999). Though traditional preparation methods will vary, early accounts by Rivier & Lindgen (1972) provided detailed descriptions for how a typical brew will involve B. caapi vines being cut down into shorter stocks, almost like spaghetti, and placed into a metal vessel that can hold a few gallons of liquid. The container is then filled to the top with layers of vines alternating with leaves of the Psychotria spp. The vessel is then filled two thirds of the way with water and left to boil for approximately an hour. Once the brew has cooled, it is ready to be consumed. Since Rivier & Lindgen (1972) early descriptions, other modes and variations for preparing ayahuasca have been documented in other works including McKenna (1984) and Luna & Amaringo (1991).
In traditional ceremonial use, the drink is associated with the purification of one’s body and mind. In order for the drink to work effectively the participants are encouraged to not eat or drink, except water, for at least six hours prior to taking ayahuasca (Ayala Flores & Lewis 1978). Furthermore, during organized retreats participants will be closed off the outside environment, leaving them in a dark room surrounded by fellow group members. This allows for greater concentration of individuals limiting their senses to external influence and for a heightened readiness and awareness for communing with the plant. Once consumed, this purging drink can activate the psychoactive ingredients a short time after the person has finished vomiting the entire contents of their stomach (Note: Not everybody reacts with the same strength. There are people who don’t throw up at all, and in ceremonies of the Santo Daime churches where the congregations sings hymns, many people don’t have to purge. The vibrations of the singing counteract the urge and also the strength of the brew will be determining how strongly one reacts to it). The participant may remain inactive with their eyes closed, these people have likely remained concentrated or the participant may stagger around, as if intoxicated, all listening to the dialectic chants of the shaman/healer (Ayala Flores & Lewis 1978).
A characteristic around using this drink in ceremony is the creation of suggestibility by someone with knowledge and allow for guidance. The shaman or healer will often consume ayahuasca along with the patient to treat illnesses that cannot be done with natural medicine, or the origin of the sickness is beyond our worldly understanding (Rivier & Lindgren 1972). It is important to note that ayahuasca is not always consumed communally, rather in certain instances the shaman will consume the beverage in order to identify the origins or cause of an illness within a patient (Winkelman 2014).
“Two premodern Amazonian patterns of ayahuasca use [exist], one involving the communal consumption by adult group members, and the other the ingestion by the healer in treatments of individual clients. When consumed in a group context, the consumption and intents are an individual issue, with no group leader or formal ceremony. Participants chant their own songs independently, without any coordination of the rhythm of the different chanters. The group context, including physical contact among the participants, is an important part of the modulation of the experiences” (Winkelman 2014).
During group ceremonies, the shaman will chant certain ritual prayers or hymns to direct the participant to follow their words and understanding, as guidance, where the shaman can collectively share journeys and visions among group members (Soibelman 1995). The healer will interpret visions to find the cause of the illness and fight it symbolically. Users report enhanced visual and auditory stimulations and strong emotional feelings directing towards instances of sadness and fear to the complete opposite with the feeling of illumination and gratitude (Domínguez-Clavé, 2016). This aspect of the drink has been long used by indigenous people of the Amazon and is still currently used in ceremonial practices.
Current Importance to Society
While popularity of ayahuasca use is increasing amongst Westerners, it has led to increased tourism for “ayahuasca pilgrimages” in specific regions of the Amazon, leading to increased attention and money being directed towards local communities and/or shaman (Wickerham et al. 2014). Whether ayahuasca tourism is bringing positive or negative benefits to communities is widely debated at the moment. For instance, some villages have rebuilt themselves to circulate around an ayahuasca-based economy, while the tourism brings lots of revenue annually, the majority of people in these areas are still living in poverty (Babe 2016). In other instances, individuals have expressed concern towards naive or ignorant tourists, worried that they may be taken advantage of (financially and sexually) by manipulative locals or might put themselves into a dangerous situation by people who are not well trained in ayahuasca ceremonies (Tupper 2008; Wickerham et al. 2014). Along with pseudo-shamans arising at times, the actual ceremony is often changed to suit the foreigners who come to experience it, altering its original spiritual nature (Wickerham et al. 2014).
Typically, people will seek ayahuasca for one of four reasons: self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, or just as part of a vacation (Grunwell 1998). Many people seek healing from ayahuasca for addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most participants in an ayahuasca experience have noted an increase in their quality of life-meaning, mindfulness, and hopefulness, with several subjects noting either a stronger connection with themselves, with others, or with nature and other spirits (Thomas et al. 2013). Given the large number of documented accounts describing the benefits arising from consumption of ayahuasca, a wealth of biomedical research has been performed in order to better understand its potential use at the clinical level (see Labate & Cavner (2014) for review). Furthermore, organizations such as the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies (MAPS) and the Beckley Foundation have assisted in raising awareness towards the safety, efficacy and regulation of ayahuasca.
As a result of the mass interest that ayahuasca has attracted over the past few decades, there is currently growing concern that plants used to make ayahuasca including B. caapi and Psychotoria spp. are being over-harvested as supply shortages have been reported in certain parts of the Amazon Basin (Wickerham et al. 2014). While there are efforts to adopt and develop sustainable practices for growing and harvesting plants, in the scientific realm little information has been published in terms of how B. caapi and its admixtures grow over time as well as their agroecology (Wickerham et al. 2014). Despite the above limitations, there is a plethora of anecdotle information available online for growing ayahuasca at home which suggests that widespread use of sustainable production systems for growing ayahuasca is viable in the future.
The plant profile written above is not an exhaustive review and it is encouraged that readers follow up by reading articles which are cited herein.