|The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned
the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I
thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a bush
whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly snake. "One
learns these things by drinking ayahuasca," he said. But he was not
It was early 1985, in the community of Quirishari in the Peruvian Amazon’s Pichis Valley. I was 25 years old and starting a two-year period of field-work to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University. My training had led me to expect that people would tell tall stories. I thought my job as an anthropologist was to discover what they really thought, like some kind of private detective.
During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros, or shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when they said this.
My fieldwork concerned Ashaninca resource use–with particular emphasis on their rational and pragmatic techniques. To emphasize the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge would have been counterproductive to the main argument underlying my research. Nevertheless, the enigma remained: These extremely practical and frank people, living almost autonomously in the Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations. How could this be true?
The enigma was all the more intriguing because the botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists. The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point. Amazonian shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millennia. The brew is a necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together for hours. The first contains a hallucinogenic substance, dimethyltryptamine, which also seems to be secreted by the human brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant, however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among some 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect. And they do this to modify their consciousness.
It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they know these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic plants.
I had not come to Quirishari to study this issue, which for me relates to indigenous mythology. I even considered the study of mythology to be a useless and "reactionary" pastime. My focus as an anthropologist was Ashaninca resource development. I was trying to demonstrate that true development consisted first in recognizing the territorial rights of indigenous people. My point of view was materialist and political, rather than mystical–yet I found myself quite impressed with the pragmatism of the Quirishari.
This is a people who teach by example, rather than by explanation. Parents encourage their children to accompany them in their work. The phrase "leave Daddy alone because he’s working" is unknown. People are suspicious of abstract concepts. When an idea seems really bad, they will say dismissively, "Es pura teoría" ("That’s pure theory"). The two key words that cropped up over and over in conversations were práctica and táctica, "practice" and "tactics"–no doubt because they are requirements for living in the rainforest.
After about a year in Quirishari, I had come to see that my hosts’ practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical knowledge was undeniable, but their explanations concerning the origin of their knowledge were unbelievable to me. My attitude was ambivalent. On the one hand, I wanted to understand what they thought–for instance, about the reality of "spirits"–but on the other, I couldn’t take seriously what they said because I did not believe it.
On leaving Quirishari, I knew I had not solved the enigma of the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge. I left with the strange feeling that the problem had more to do with my incapacity to understand what people had said, rather than the inadequacy of their explanations. They had always used such simple words.
In June 1992, I went to Rio to attend the world conference on development and environment. At the "Earth Summit," as it was known, everybody was talking about the ecological knowledge of indigenous people, but certainly no one was talking about the hallucinatory origin of some of it, as claimed by the indigenous people themselves.
Colleagues might ask, "You mean Indians claim they get molecularly verifiable information from their hallucinations? You don’t take them literally, do you?" What could one answer? There is nothing one can say without contradicting two fundamental principles of Western knowledge.
First, hallucinations cannot be the source of real information, because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis. Western knowledge considers hallucinations to be at best illusions, at worst morbid phenomena.
Second, plants do not communicate like human beings. Scientific theories of communication consider that only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures and that plants do not relay information in the form of mental images. For science, the human brain is the source of hallucinations, which psychoactive plants merely trigger by way of the hallucinogenic molecules they contain.
It was in Rio that I realized the extent of the dilemma posed by the hallucinatory knowledge of indigenous people. On the one hand, its results are empirically confirmed and used by the pharmaceutical industry; on the other hand, its origin cannot be discussed scientifically because it contradicts the axioms of Western knowledge.
When I understood that the enigma of plant communication was a blind spot for science, I felt the call to conduct an in-depth investigation of the subject. Furthermore, I had been carrying the mystery of plant communication around since my stay with the Ashaninca, and I knew that explorations of contradictions in science often yield fruitful results. It seemed to me that the establishment of a serious dialogue with indigenous people on ecology and botany required that this question be addressed.
I had myself ingested ayahuasca in Quirishari, an experience that brought me face to face with an irrational and subjective territory that was terrifying, yet filled with information. In the months afterwards, I thought quite a lot about what my main Ashaninca consultant, Carlos Perez Shuma, had said. What if it were true that nature speaks in signs and that the secret to understanding its language consists in noticing similarities in shape or in form? What if I took him literally?
I liked this idea and decided to read the anthropological texts on shamanism, paying attention not only to their content but to their style. I taped a note on the wall of my office: "Look at the FORM."
One thing became clear as I thought back to my stay in Quirishari. Every time I had doubted one of my consultants’ explanations, my understanding of the Ashaninca view of reality had seized up; conversely, on the rare occasions when I had managed to silence my doubts, my understanding of local reality had been enhanced–as if there were times when one had to believe in order to see, rather than the other way around.
It had become clear to me that ayahuasqueros were somehow gaining access in their visions to verifiable information about plant properties. Therefore, I reasoned, the enigma of hallucinatory knowledge could be reduced to one question: Was this information coming from inside the human brain, as the scientific point of view would have it, or from the outside world of plants, as shamans claimed?
Both of these perspectives seemed to present advantages and drawbacks.
On the one hand, the similarity between the molecular profiles of the natural hallucinogens and of serotonin seemed well and truly to indicate that these substances work like keys fitting into the same lock inside the brain. However, I could not agree with the scientific position according to which hallucinations are merely discharges of images stocked in compartments of the subconscious memory. I was convinced that the enormous fluorescent snakes that I had seen thanks to ayahuasca did not correspond in any way to anything that I could have dreamed of even in my most extreme nightmares.
Furthermore, the speed and coherence of some of the hallucinatory images exceeded by many degrees the best rock videos, and I knew that I could not possibly have filmed them.
On the other hand, I was finding it increasingly easy to suspend disbelief and consider the indigenous point of view as potentially correct. After all, there were all kinds of gaps and contradictions in the scientific knowledge of hallucinogens, which had at first seemed so reliable: Scientists do not know how these substances affect our consciousness, nor have they studied true hallucinogens in any detail. It no longer seemed unreasonable to me to consider that the information about the molecular content of plants could truly come from the plants themselves, just as ayahuasqueros claimed. However, I failed to see how this could work concretely.
Maybe I would find the answer by looking at both perspectives simultaneously, one eye on science and the other on shamanism. The solution would therefore consist in posing the question differently: It was not a matter of asking whether the source of hallucinations is internal or external, but of considering that it might be both at the same time. I could not see how this idea would work in practice, but I liked it because it reconciled two points of view that were apparently divergent.
My research revealed that in the early 1960s, anthropologist Michael Harner had gone to the Peruvian Amazon to study the culture of the Conibo Indians. After a year or so he had made little headway in understanding their religious system when the Conibo told him that if he really wanted to learn, he had to drink ayahuasca. Harner accepted, not without fear, because the people had warned him that the experience was terrifying. The following evening, under the strict supervision of his indigenous friends, he drank the equivalent of a third of a bottle. After several minutes he found himself falling into a world of true hallucinations.
He saw that his visions emanated from "giant reptilian creatures" resting at the lowest depths of his brain. These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes. "First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see the ‘specks’ were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies.... They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space. They had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy. The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation–hundreds of millions of years of activity–took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man."
At this point in his account, Harner writes in a footnote at the bottom of the page: "In retrospect one could say they were almost like DNA, although at that time, 1961, I knew nothing of DNA."
I had not paid attention to this footnote previously. There was indeed DNA inside the human brain, as well as in the outside world of plants, given that the molecule of life containing genetic information is the same for all species. DNA could thus be considered a source of information that is both external and internal–in other words, precisely what I had been trying to imagine.
I plunged back into Harner’s book, but found no further mention of DNA. However, a few pages on, Harner notes that "dragon" and "serpent" are synonymous. This made me think that the double helix of DNA resembled, in its form, two entwined serpents.
The reptilian creatures that Harner had seen in his brain reminded me of something, but I could not say what. After rummaging around my office for a while, I put my hand on an article called "Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism" by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff. Paging through it, I was stopped by a Desana drawing of a human brain with a snake lodged between the two hemispheres.
Several pages further into the article, I came upon a second drawing, this time with two snakes. According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, within the fissure "two intertwined snakes are lying.... In Desana shamanism these two serpents symbolize a female and male principle, a mother and a father image, water and land...; in brief, they represent a concept of binary opposition which has to be overcome in order to achieve individual awareness and integration. The snakes are imagined as spiralling rhythmically in a swaying motion from one side to another."
Concerning the Desanas’ main cosmological beliefs, Reichel-Dolmatoff writes: "The Desana say that in the beginning of time their ancestors arrived in canoes shaped like huge serpents."
I was astonished by the similarities between Harner’s account, based on his hallucinogenic experience with the Conibo Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, and the shamanic and mythological concepts of an ayahuasca-using people living a thousand miles away in the Colombian Amazon. In both cases there were reptiles in the brain and serpent-shaped boats of cosmic origin that were vessels of life at the beginning of time. Pure coincidence?
To find out, I picked up a book about a third ayahuasca-using people, entitled (in French) Vision, Knowledge, Power: Shamanism Among the Yagua in the North-East of Peru. In this study by Jean-Pierre Chaumeil (to my mind, one of the most rigorous on the subject), I found a "celestial serpent" in a drawing of the universe by a Yagua shaman. Then, a few pages away, another shaman is quoted as saying: "At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth...." Chaumeil adds that the Yagua consider that all living beings were created by twins, who are "the two central characters in Yagua cosmogonic thought."
These correspondences seemed very strange, and I did not know what to make of them. Or rather, I could see an easy way of interpreting them, but it contradicted my understanding of reality: A Western anthropologist like Harner drinks a strong dose of ayahuasca with one people and gains access, in the middle of the twentieth century, to a world that informs the "mythological" concepts of other peoples and allows them to communicate with life-creating spirits of cosmic origin possibly linked to DNA. This seemed highly improbable to me, if not impossible. Still, I had decided to follow my approach through to its logical conclusion. So I casually penciled in the margin of Chaumeil’s text: "twins = DNA?"
These indirect and analogical connections between DNA and the hallucinatory and mythological spheres seemed amusing to me, or at most intriguing. Nevertheless, I started thinking that I had perhaps found with DNA the scientific concept on which to focus one eye, while focusing the other on the shamanism of Amazonian ayahuasqueros.
About this time, as I continued looking out for new connections between shamanism and DNA, I received a letter from a friend who suggested that shamanism was perhaps "untranslatable into our logic for lack of corresponding concepts." I understood what he meant, and I was trying to see precisely if DNA, without being exactly equivalent, might be the concept that would best translate what ayahuasqueros were talking about.
As I browsed over the writings of authorities on mythology, I discovered with surprise that the theme of twin creator beings of celestial origin was extremely common in South America, and indeed throughout the world. The story that the Ashaninca tell about Avíreri and his sister, who created life by transformation, was just one among hundreds of variants on the theme of the "divine twins."
Another example is the Aztecs’ plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, who symbolizes the "sacred energy of life," and his twin brother Tezcatlipoca, both of whom are children of the cosmic serpent Coatlicue.
When I read the following passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ latest book, I jumped: "In Aztec, the word coatl means both ‘serpent’ and ‘twin.’ The name Quetzalcoatl can thus be interpreted either as ‘Plumed serpent’ or ‘Magnificent twin.’"
A twin serpent, of cosmic origin, symbolizing the sacred energy of life? Among the Aztecs? I wondered what all these twin beings in the creation myths of indigenous people could possibly mean. I was trying to keep one eye on DNA and the other on shamanism to discover the common ground between the two. I reviewed the correspondences that I had found so far. Ruminating over this mental block, I recalled Carlos Perez Shuma’s challenge: "Look at the FORM."
I had looked up DNA in several encyclopedias and had noted in passing that the shape of the double helix was most often described as a ladder, or a twisted rope ladder, or a spiral staircase. It was during the following split second, asking myself whether there were any ladders in shamanism, that the revelation occurred: "THE LADDERS! The shamans’ ladders, ‘symbols of the profession’ according to Métraux, present in shamanic themes around the world according to Eliade!"
I rushed back to my office and plunged into Mircea Eliade’s book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy and discovered that there were "countless examples" of shamanic ladders on all five continents, here a "spiral ladder," there a "stairway" or "braided ropes." In Australia, Tibet, Nepal, ancient Egypt, Africa, North and South America, "the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by means of a rope or a ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain of arnyaw, etc.) that the gods descend to earth and men go up to the sky."
Eliade even cites an example from the Old Testament, where Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, "with the angels of God ascending and descending on it." According to Eliade, the shamanic ladder is the earliest version of the idea of an axis of the world, which connects the different levels of the cosmos, and is found in numerous creation myths in the form of a tree.
Until then, I had considered Eliade’s work with suspicion, but suddenly I viewed it in a new light. I started flipping through his other writings in my possession and discovered: cosmic serpents. This time it was Australian Aborigines who considered that the creation of life was the work of a "cosmic personage related to universal fecundity, the Rainbow Snake," whose powers were symbolized by quartz crystals.
How could it be that Australian Aborigines, separated from the rest of humanity for 40,000 years, tell the same story about the creation of life by a cosmic serpent associated with a quartz crystal as is told by ayahuasca-drinking Amazonians? The connections that I was beginning to perceive were blowing away the scope of my investigation. How could cosmic serpents from Australia possibly help my analysis of the uses of hallucinogens in Western Amazonia?
I tried answering my own question: One, Western culture has cut itself off from the serpent/life principle, in other words DNA, since it adopted an exclusively rational point of view. Two, the peoples who practice what we call "shamanism" communicate with DNA. Three, paradoxically, the part of humanity that cut itself off from the serpent managed to discover its material existence in a laboratory some three thousand years later.
People use different techniques in different places to gain access to knowledge of the vital principle. In their visions shamans manage to take their consciousness down to the molecular level.
This is how they learn to combine brain hormones with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or how they discover 40 different sources of muscle paralyzers, whereas science has only been able to imitate their molecules. When they say their knowledge comes from beings they see in their hallucinations, their words mean exactly what they say.
According to the shamans of the entire world, one establishes communication with spirits via music. For the ayahuasqueros, it is almost inconceivable to enter the world of spirits and remain silent. Angelika Gebhart-Sayer discusses the "visual music" projected by the spirits in front of the shaman’s eyes: It is made up of three-dimensional images that coalesce into sound and that the shaman imitates by emitting corresponding melodies. I should check whether DNA emits sound or not.
It seemed that no one had noticed the possible links between the "myths" of "primitive peoples" and molecular biology. No one had seen that the double helix had symbolized the life principle for thousands of years around the world. On the contrary; everything was upside down. It was said that hallucinations could in no way constitute a source of knowledge, that Indians had found their useful molecules by chance experimentation, and that their "myths" were precisely myths, bearing no relationship to the real knowledge discovered in laboratories.
At this point, I remembered that Michael Harner had said that this information was reserved for the dead and the dying. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear and felt the urge to share these ideas with someone else. I picked up the phone and called an old friend, who is also a writer. I quickly took him through the correspondences I had found during the day: the twins, the cosmic serpents, Eliade’s ladders. Then I added: "There is a last correlation that is slightly less clear than the others. The spirits one sees in hallucinations are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images, and they speak a language made of three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other words, they are made of their own language, like DNA."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
Then my friend said, "Yes, and like DNA they replicate themselves to relay their information." I jotted this down, and it was later in reviewing my notes on the relationship between the hallucinatory spirits made of language and DNA that I remembered the first verse of the first chapter of the Gospel according to John: "In the beginning was the logos"–the word, the verb, the language.
That night I had a hard time falling asleep.
My investigation had led me to formulate the following working hypothesis: In their visions, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call "animate essences" or "spirits." This is where they see double helixes, twisted ladders, and chromosome shapes. This is how shamanic cultures have known for millennia that the vital principle is the same for all living beings and is shaped like two entwined serpents (or a vine, a rope, a ladder ... ). DNA is the source of their astonishing botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be attained only in defocalized and "nonrational" states of consciousness, though its results are empirically verifiable. The myths of these cultures are filled with biological imagery. And the shamans’ metaphoric explanations correspond quite precisely to the descriptions that biologists are starting to provide.
Like the axis mundi of shamanic traditions, DNA has the form of a twisted ladder (or a vine ... ); according to my hypothesis, DNA was, like the axis mundi, the source of shamanic knowledge and visions. To be sure of this I needed to understand how DNA could transmit visual information. I knew that it emitted photons, which are electromagnetic waves, and I remembered what Carlos Perez Shuma had told me when he compared the spirits to "radio waves": "Once you turn on the radio, you can pick them up. It’s like that with souls; with ayahuasca ... you can see them and hear them." So I looked into the literature on photons of biological origin, or "biophotons."
In the early 1980s, thanks to the development of a sophisticated measurement device, a team of scientists demonstrated that the cells of all living beings emit photons at a rate of up to approximately 100 units per second and per square centimeter of surface area. They also showed that DNA was the source of this photon emission.
During my readings, I learned with astonishment that the wavelength at which DNA emits these photons corresponds exactly to the narrow band of visible light. Yet this did not constitute proof that the light emitted by DNA was what shamans saw in their visions. Furthermore, there was a fundamental aspect of this photon emission that I could not grasp. According to the researchers who measured it, its weakness is such that it corresponds "to the intensity of a candle at a distance of about 10 kilometers," but it has "a surprisingly high degree of coherence, as compared to that of technical fields (laser)."
How could an ultra-weak signal be highly coherent? How could a distant candle be compared to a "laser"?
I came to understand that in a coherent source of light, the quantity of photons emitted may vary, but the emission intervals remain constant. DNA emits photons with such regularity that researchers compare the phenomenon to an "ultra-weak laser." I could understand that much, but still could not see what it implied for my investigation.
I turned to my scientific journalist friend, who explained it immediately: "A coherent source of light, like a laser, gives the sensation of bright colors, a luminescence, and an impression of holographic depth."
My friend’s explanation provided me with an essential element. The detailed descriptions of ayahuasca-based hallucinatory experiences invariably mention bright color, and, according to the authors of the dimethyltryptamine study: "Subjects described the colors as brighter, more intense, and deeply saturated than those seen in normal awareness or dreams: It was the blue of a desert sky, but on another planet. The colors were 10 to 100 times more saturated."
It was almost too good to be true. DNA’s highly coherent photon emission accounted for the luminescence of hallucinatory images, as well as their three-dimensional, or holographic, aspect.
On the basis of this connection, I could now conceive of a neurological mechanism for my hypothesis. The molecules of nicotine or dimethyltryptamine, contained in ayahuasca, activate their respective receptors, which set off a cascade of electrochemical reactions inside the neurons, leading to the stimulation of DNA and, more particularly, to its emission of visible waves, which shamans perceive as "hallucinations."
There, I thought, is the source of knowledge: DNA, living in water and emitting photons, like an aquatic dragon spitting fire.
Am I wrong in linking DNA to these cosmic serpents from around the world, these sky-ropes and axis mundi? Some of my colleagues would undoubtedly say yes. They would remind me that nineteenth century anthropologists had compared cultures and elaborated theories on the basis of the similarities they found. When they discovered, for instance, that bagpipes were played not only in Scotland, but in Arabia and the Ukraine, they established false connections between these cultures. Then they realized that people could do similar things for different reasons.
Since then, anthropology has backed away from grand generalizations, denounced "abuses of the comparative method," and locked itself into specificity bordering on myopia. Yet by shunning comparisons between cultures, one ends up masking true connections and fragmenting reality a little more, without even realizing it.
Is the cosmic serpent of the Shipibo--Conibo, the Aztecs, the Australian Aborigines, and the Ancient Egyptians the same? No, will reply the anthropologists who insist on cultural specificity; but it is time to turn their critique on its head. Why insist on taking reality apart, but never try putting it back together again?
According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information. But what actually goes on in the brain/mind of an ayahuasquero when this occurs? What is the nature of a shaman’s communication with
the animate essences of nature? The clear answer is that more research is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their interrelatedness.
Jeremy Narby, PhD, grew up in Canada and Switzerland, studied history at the University of Canterbury, and received his doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University. He is author of The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998).
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