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To browse Academia. Skip to main content. By using our site, you agree to our collection of information through the use of cookies. To learn more, view our Privacy Policy. Log In Sign Up. Peter Furst - Hallucinogens and Culture.

Ogie Eitas. And Nutmeg Derivatives Hallucinogens And "Archetypes" The "Diabolic Root" Hallucinogenic Snuffs And Animal Symbolism Hallucinogens And The Sacred Deer Obviously, many significant areas of research in psychopharmacology and ethnobotany, as well as some interesting and as yet little- understood nonchemical "techniques of ecstasy" have had to be slighted, in favor of in- depth treatment of some others of more general interest.

Still more await botanical and pharmacological identification beyond the native terms under which they appear in the ethnohistorical literature or reports of travelers and ethnographers. Even for Indian Mexico or Amazonia, whose extensive psychoactive pharmacopoeia has been relatively well studied, we still do not know the identity of every species used in native ritual, prehistorically or at present, nor do we as yet fully understand the pharmacological or cultural role of additives to plants of known or suspected psychoactivity.

Indeed, in the opinion of such authorities as Richard Evans Schultes, Director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, it is precisely the function of these additives to the botanical hallucinogens that presents one of the most exciting challenges to the modern investigator of the psychedelic phenomenon in indigenous societies. Clearly, then, there is a world yet to be discovered. The concerned reader is urged to keep up with the more specialized ethnobotanical publications and the rapidly growing literature on brain biochemistry and scientific and humanistic explorations into the uses and abuses of alternate states of consciousness.

In particular I would like to express my thanks to Dr. Weston La Barre, James B. Special personal and professional thanks are owed to Richard Evans Schultes, who never failed to give generously of his time and knowledge, be it in helping to identify esoteric plant motifs in pre-Columbian an or in clarifying problems of botany and psychopharmacology encountered in the field. Professor Schultes also read the manuscript for botanical-pharmacological accuracy, but he is obviously not responsible for any shortcomings.

Albany, N. Zinberg, M. One would be the discovery in that same year that a cult of divine psychedelic mushrooms had survived among Mexican Indians, and the rediscovery and systematic investigation of that cult in the mid's.

Another would be the identification of the seeds of morning glories as the sacred Aztec hallucinogen ololiuhqui in , and the startling finding nearly twenty years later that its active principles are closely related to lysergic acid derivatives.

Still another would be R. Wasson's definition of Soma as the psychotropic fly-agaric mushroom These discoveries have accompanied the realization over the past several years that the most important botanical hallucinogens are structurally related to biologically active compounds occurring naturally in the brain. For example, psilocybine and the psychoactive alkaloids in morning-glory seeds are indole- tryptamine derivatives and thus are similar in chemical structure to serotonine 5-hydroxy- tryptamine , while mescaline is related to noradrenaline.

In addition, norepenephrine in the brain has been found to correspond structurally to caffeic acid, derived from chemicals found in several plants, including coffee beans and potatoes. Chemical systems active in the human brain, then, are now known to be close kin to growth-promoting substances in plants, including several that are powerfully psychoactive, a discovery of no mean evolutionary as well as pharmacological implications.

One of my own favorite landmarks is a "conversation across the disciplines" in between ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes and anthropologist Weston La Barre that has helped to place the whole psychedelic phenomenon in a culture-historical and ideological framework and has given it a theoretical time depth reaching back into the Paleolithic. Schultes and La Barre were hardly strangers to the problem, or to each other.

Schultes has long been the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens, and La Barre is a leading scholar in the anthropology and psychology of religion, author, among other works, of The Peyote Cult , , , a classic study of the peyote religion of North American Indians.

It was, in fact, peyote that originally brought them together, when, in , Schultes, then a senior in biology at Harvard, accompanied La Barre, a doctoral candidate at Yale, to the Kiowa reservation in Oklahoma for field research on the nature and culture of peyote. La Barre incorporated the experience into his Ph. From a strictly botanical point of view, one would have expected the reverse to be true: the Old World has a much greater land mass than the New; its flora is at least as rich and varied and contains as many potential hallucinogenic plants; humanity or protohumanity has lived there for millions of years as against at most a few tens of thousands in the Americas and has had immeasurably longer to explore the environment and experiment with different species.

Given these circumstances, Schultes concluded, the answer could hardly be botanical but had to be cultural. Quite so, replied La Barre. American Indian interest in hallucinogenic plants is directly tied to the survival in the New World of an essentially Paleo-Mesolithic Eurasiatic shamanism, which the early big-game hunters carried with them out of northeastern Asia as the base religion of American Indians.

Shamanism is deeply rooted in the ecstatic, visionary experience, and the early Native Americans, as well as their descendants, were thus, so to speak, "culturally programmed" for a conscious exploration of the environment in search of means by which to attain that desired state. It was La Barre's hypothesis, then, 1 that the magicoreligious use of hallucinogenic plants by American Indians represents a survival from a very ancient Paleolithic and Mesolithic shamanistic stratum, and that its linear ancestor is likely to be an archaic form of the shamanistic Eurasiatic fly-agaric cults that survived in Siberia into the present century, and 2 that while profound socioeconomic and religious transformations brought about the eradication of ecstatic shamanism and knowledge of intoxicating mushrooms and other plants over most of Eurasia, a very different set of historical and cultural circumstances favored their survival and elaboration in the New World.

These insights, to which Wasson's work on the sacred fly-agaric of Eurasia and the Mesoamerican mushrooms made no small contribution, have since been enlarged, in print and in the numerous public and private discussions which over the past several years have brought together some of us in related and complementary fields. The insights are, I believe, so fundamental to the understanding of traditional hallucinogens that it will be useful to spell them out in somewhat more detail by way of introduction to the topics covered in this book.

The age of these early migrations is still a matter of dispute. Not counting some extravagant claims that range beyond a hundred thousand years, most scholarly estimates fluctuate from a high of , years ago for the oldest to , years for the terminal major movements before the melting of the glaciers raised the sea level by feet and inundated the overland passage from Asia, while at the same time opening a new ice-free corridor for southward movement.

There is an abundance of radiocarbon dates from Paleo- Indian occupation sites in North and South America that lie somewhere between these extremes. And we do know that some time before 10, years ago there were people virtually everywhere in the New World, from the Far North to the Tierra del Fuego.

We also know that the original Americans sustained themselves with now extinct big game, especially mammoth and mastodon, giant sloth, Pleistocene camel and horse, as well as smaller animals and wild plants, and that their technology and general adaptations resembled by and large those of their contemporaries in comparable environments in Eurasia.

Adaptation, however, has to be understood holistically, comprising metaphysics or ideology as much as physical environment and technology.

In other words, whatever their level of technological complexity, these first Americans moved in and interacted reciprocally with an ideational universe no less than the physical one, presumably with no more of a sharp dividing line between these two essential planes than one finds today in surviving hunting cultures and other traditional systems.

It is probably not too much to say that mysticism, or religion, has always been a fundamental aspect of the human condition, with its beginnings reaching back perhaps to the primitive origins of self-consciousness. But the first Americans were hardly "primitive. The direct ancestors of the American Indians, then, were not only biologically but also mentally the product of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution in Asia to a modern type, and as such can be assumed to have shared with other Asiatic populations a well-developed symbolic and ritual system along with other aspects of religion originating in and adapted to their lifeway as hunters of game and collectors of wild vegetable foods.

At the center of shamanistic religion stands the personality of the shaman and the ecstatic experience that is uniquely his, in his crucial role as diviner, seer, magician, poet, singer, artist, prophet of game and weather, keeper of the traditions, and healer of bodily and spiritual ills.

With his spirit helpers or familiars, the shaman is preeminently guardian of the physical and psychic equilibrium of his group, for whom he intercedes in personal confrontation with the supernatural forces of the Upperworld and Underworld, to whose mystical geography he has become privy through initiatory crisis, training, and ecstatic trance. Often, though not always or everywhere, the shaman's ecstatic dream has involved the use of some sacred hallucinogenic plant believed to contain a supernatural transforming power over and above the life force or "soul stuff that in animistic-shamanistic religious systems inhabits all natural phenomena, including those we would classify as "inanimate.

At Shanidar cave in northern Iraq archaeologists discovered pollen clusters of eight kinds of flowering plants in association with an adult male skeleton. Originally thought to be the expression of the survivors' love and regard for their deceased relative and proof of the high spiritual development of these Neanderthals, the plant remains may actually have also been part of a curing shaman's medicine kit. No less than seven of the eight species represented by pollen grains in the burial have now been identified by the noted French palynologist A.

Leroi-Gourhan as belonging to plants that still play a prominent role in herbal curing in the same area and elsewhere in the Old World e. Achillea, whose Anglo-Saxon name, yarrow, means "healer"; Althea, or hollyhock, whose Greek name likewise means "healer"; Senecio, one of whose common English names, groundsel, derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "pus swallower," and Ephedra, horsetail, a genus containing the well-known nerve stimulant ephedrine.

In the words of Columbia University archaeologist Ralph S. Solecki, who excavated the 60,year-old Shanidar cave burials, the presence of so many plants of proven medicinal value in one of the graves at least raises "speculation about the extent of the human spirit in Neanderthals" Solecki, It is certainly tempting to speculate that if these Neanderthals, whom Solecki and other scholars now believe to be in modern humanity's direct line of evolution, possessed knowledge of so many effective medicinal plants, they may likewise have been familiar with some of the psychedelic flora of the region.

But we should not fall into the common error of equating technological complexity with intellectual capacity. Besides, as Schultes and others have often pointed out, the most "primitive" of food gatherers possess sophisticated and effective traditional systems of classification for the natural environment, and some of them long ago discovered how to prepare complex psychopharmacological and therapeutic compounds that became available to the industrialized world only with the rise of modern biochemistry.

Mexican and Peruvian Indians, after all, experienced the otherworldly effects of mescaline thousands of years before Aldous Huxley. Nevertheless, there are demonstrably so many fundamental similarities between the core elements of the religions of the aboriginal New World and those of Asia that almost certainly at least in their basic foundations the symbolic systems of American Indians must have been present already in the ideational world of the original immigrants from northeastern Asia.

These foundations are shamanistic, and they include numerous concepts recognizable even in the highly structured cosmology and ritual of the hierarchic civilizations, such as the Aztecs, with their institutionalized cyclical ritual and professional priesthood such as: the skeletal soul of man and animal, and the restitution of life from the bones; all phenomena in the environment as animate; separability of the soul from the body during life e.

With the concept of transformation so prominent in these traditional systems, it is easy to see why plants capable of radically altering consciousness would have come to stand at the very center of ideology. Now, as La Barre's original hypothesis was developed, while Asia and Europe formerly shared in this shamanistic world view, the Neolithic Revolution and subsequent fundamental socioeconomic and ideological developments, often cataclysmic in nature, long ago brought about profound changes in the old religions or even their total suppression although ancient shamanistic roots are here and there still visible even in the institutionalized churches.

In the New World, in contrast, the ancestral lifeway of hunting and food gathering, and the religious beliefs and rituals adapted to this lifeway, persisted in time and space to a far greater extent than in the Old; and moreover, the fundamental shamanistic base was much better preserved, even in the agricultural religions of the great civilizations that rose in Mesoamerica and the Andes, as well as of simpler farming societies.

For it was generally characteristic even of the stratified, militaristic, and expansionist Indian civilizations that conquest by one group or another, if it affected religion at all, typically resulted in accretion or synthesis rather than in persecution, suppression, and forced conversion. These blessings of civilized life had to await the coming of the Europeans.

Without unduly idealizing the real situation, especially what eventually turned out to be nonadaptive aspects in such religions as that of the Aztecs, it is correct to say that most American Indians from north to south, and through all prehistory, seem to have valued above all individual freedom for each person to determine his own relationship to the unseen forces of the universe.

In many cases this process of determination included personal confrontation of these forces in the ecstatic trance, often with the aid of plants to which supernatural powers were ascribed. Significantly, there is not a shred of evidence that this ancient situation was fundamentally affected even by the rise of political and religious bureaucracies, or that it ever occurred to these bureaucracies to exercise police power over the individual's right to transform his consciousness by whatever means he wished.

Andrew T. Weil has argued that "the desire to alter consciousness periodically is an innate, normal drive analogous to hunger or the sexual drive" p. Weil may well be correct; certainly he makes a persuasive cross-cultural case that the desire for temporary states of altered consciousness is embedded in the neurophysiological structure of the brain rather than in social conditioning.

But while his hypothesis may be sound, for the present it must rest on circumstantial evidence. On the other hand. La Barre's proposition that the earliest Americans must have brought their fascination for the psychedelic flora with them from their Asian homeland, as a function of ecstatic visionary shamanism, now seems confirmed by prehistoric archaeology La Barre's and Weil's are not, of course, mutually exclusive hypotheses. What makes this proposition particularly interesting is that the evidence concerns one of the few physiologically hazardous though not addictive hallucinogens employed by American Indians.

This is the so-called "mescal bean," which in reality has nothing to do with mescal a distilled Mexican liquor produced from a species of agave but is the red, beanlike seed of Sophora secundiflora, a leguminous flowering shrub native to Texas and northern Mexico.

These seeds contain, like Genista canariensis, a nineteenth-century import from the Canary Islands whose small yellow flowers are now ritually smoked by Yaqui shamans in northern Mexico, a highly toxic quinolizidine alkaloid called cytisine. In high doses cytisine is capable of causing nausea, convulsions, hallucinations, and even death from respiratory failure Schultes, a. Historically, the potent seeds were the focus of a widespread complex of ecstatic visionary shamanistic medicine societies among the tribes of the Southern Plains, until in the final decades of the nineteenth century Sophora was finally replaced by the more benign peyote cactus, while the red-bean cults themselves were supplanted by the new syncretistic peyote religion that eventually was embraced as the Native American Church by , Indians from the Rio Grande in Texas to the Canadian Plains.

The first European mention of Sophora secundiflora dates back to , when Cabeza de Vaca reported the seeds as an item of trade among the Indians of Texas. But its history can be extended to the very beginnings of the settlement of the Southwest by the early hunters coming down from the north. At the very least this is strong circumstantial evidence for the La Barre hypothesis of Paleolithic roots for the hallucinogenic complex in the Americas. Caches of Sophora seeds and associated artifacts and rock paintings reminiscent of the historic red-bean cults of the Southern Plains were found by archaeologists in a dozen or more rock shelters in Texas and northern Mexico, often together with another narcotic species, Ungnadia speciosa.

At Frightful Cave, the earliest occurrence of Sophora was dated at BC, with a margin of error of only 85 years in either direction. The seeds were also found in all the later cultural strata, up to the abandonment of the site.

Of the greatest interest, however, were the radiocarbon dates from Bonfire Shelter. This well-studied rock-shelter site yielded Sophora seeds from its lowest occupational stratum, known as Bone Bed II, dated at to BC, or well into the Late Pleistocene big-game-hunting era. Indeed, the hallucinogenic seeds were found with Folsom and Plainview-type projectile points and the bones of a large extinct species of Pleistocene bison.


Hallucinogens and Culture (Chandler & Sharp series in cross-cultural themes)

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Hallucinogens and Culture


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