The history of Ayahuasca

Known by many names throughout South America (and in Brazil), ‘Ayahuasca’ is the Hispanic spelling of a word in the Quechua language, which is commonly spoken in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Columbia. Some speakers of this language may prefer to spell the term ‘ayawaska’. What the term ‘Ayahuasca’ refers to is the liana Banisteriopsis caapi and the ‘brew’ that comes from it.

Made from Banisteriopsis caapi vine and a range of other ingredients, this is an entheogenic brew that is used as a traditional spiritual medicine. It’s often used in special ceremonies of the indigenous people in South America. However, it can be called by a range of different names. What’s so special about this brew? It’s the B caapi that contains various alkaloids that work as monoamine oxidase inhibitors and the other common ingredient of the shrub Psychotria Viridis, which has a psychoactive compound within it called dimethyltryptamine, that make this brew so special.

In the Quechua language, the word ‘aya’ means spirit or soul, corpse or dead body, while ‘waska’ means rope or woody vine which translates to ‘liana’. That’s why the word ayahuasca is translated into ‘liana of the soul’ or of the dead or spirit.

Where does this tradition stem from – what’s the history behind it?

Used by South American tribes for hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of years, Ayahuasca was always a largely treasured alignment treatment. While many South American tribes and indigenous people use this brew for its philosophical and cosmological uses, it’s also used as a medicinal treatment.

Ayahuasca has an impact on consciousness, impacting how conscious a person is for up to six hours with the effects beginning half an hour after consumption and beginning to peak after a couple of hours. This brew also impacts the cardiovascular system, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, there’s also the risk of severe psychological stress occurring. It is sometimes used for its purging properties, as it can cause intense vomiting and diarrhea, which can be used to clear people of worms or other parasites.

In the early 16th century, missionaries of the Christian faith from Portugal and Spain encountered indigenous people in South America using ayahuasca; they called it ‘the work of the devil’.

By the time the 20th century came around, the active chemical in Ayahuasca was named telepathine, but then it was discovered that it was identical to the already named chemical harmine. Writer, William Burroughs read a paper about Ayahuasca written by Richard Evans Schultes and while visiting South America in the early 50s sought it out, in the hope that it may be able to treat or even cure addiction to opiate drugs.

Schultes sent Claudio Naranjo on a journey via canoe up the Amazon river to study the herbs within Ayahuasca with many South American tribes. He returned with samples of the drug and its ingredients and went on to share the first scientific information about the impact of active alkaloids on the mind and body.

Later, Ayahuasca became better known when the McKenna brother shared their experience when visiting the Amazon in their published works named True Hallucinations. One of the brothers, Dennis McKenna, later chose to study the botany, pharmacology and chemistry of Ayahuasca, with this becoming the topic of his master thesis.

While in Brazil, over the years a number of modern religions have emerged that are based on the use of Ayahuasca, with the most well-known being Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal also known as the UDV. Usually, these religions are celebrated in an animistic context that can include shamanistic teachings or can sometimes be integrated with the Christian religion. Today, both Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal have churches and members across the wider world. In the Western world, in the US and Europe, there are an increasing number of these religious groups cropping up that use Ayahuasca as part of their religion. Some Western religions have teamed up with South American tribes and Shamans, believing that this special brew is the answer to a range of mental and physical health problems, as well as allowing communication with the spiritual world.

Over the past few years, the Ayahuasca brew has become increasingly popular thanks to the likes of Wade Davis and his incredibly successful book, One River. English author, Martin Goodman who wrote I was Carlos Castaneda, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, writer Jay Griffiths who wrote Wild: An Elemental Journey, and Steven Peck, are among the famous names that have played a part.