On the Origins of Ayahuasca

How could such a complex synergistic potion be discovered amongst over 80,000 catalogued plant species of the Amazon forest? Studying Ayahuasca, modern minds have puzzled the origins of the discovery of the Great Medicine, since it is commonly said that being a synergistic potion, there is no effect when only one of the plants are consumed.

Most indigenous Amazonian populations say they learned how to combine Ayahuasca directly from the plants and plant spirits as received instruction. For many westerners such an assertion is completely beyond their familiar paradigm and experience.

Some modern researchers have therefore appealed to blind chance, ‘coincidence’. Natural selection. Trial and error. An explanation that the scientific mind finds credible, and yet there is something improbable and lazy about the idea, unless factors were at work which raised the odds of the magical medicines discovery…


One often touted inaccuracy about Ayahuasca is that both plants have to be combined for psycho-activity. In fact, banisteriopsis caapi is a powerful shamanistic plant teacher in its own right. Many tribes drink the vine on its own.

The vine has been used as a kind of ‘divinator’ for other plant medicines for a long time because it allows the person injesting to get a kind of deep readout of the property of a plant taken in combination with vine.

The Rubiaceae family has many medicinal plants, and perhaps Chacruna may have already been taken medicinally. There are obviously many plants that the indigenous people consume as medicines that are not evidently psychoactive. And many of these plants also have a history of being used within the context of Yage (banisteriopsis caapi) based potions.

There is a medicinal employment of a plant closely related to Psychotria Viridis, called Psychotria Ipecacuanha – i-pe-kaa-guéne, which is said to mean ‘road-side sick-making plant.’ It is used as a treatment for “bloody flux” – dysentery. There is also a Psychotria called Psychotria Emetica – guess what that does.

There is another Psychotria, ‘Sampakatishi’, the leaf juice is squeezed into the eyes for a sharpening of the senses that aids in hunting, and also it is used as a treatment for migraine.

To summarise this idea : Psychotria Viridis was employed as a purgative and intestinal cleanser… the medicinal uses of P.Viridis and Caapi may have been occurring parallel, then at some point their paths crossed. (As for Diplopterys Cabrerana, another primary Ayahuasca plant, is a liana similar in appearance to Banisteriopsis Caapi. It is likely plants of similar taxonomic appearance were reasonably assumed to have similar properties.)


Here is another theory. It occurs to me that physiologically westerners are greatly different from the early inhabitants of the rainforest – in height, fat, and probably even vary with the basic processes of digestion and metabolism, because they had such a very different way of life, a completely different diet.

Is it possible that the early inhabitants, since they did not have a fermented/aged protein-rich diet, had not evolved a powerful MAO-A response ? And that consumption of psychotria, perhaps originally as an amoebic dysentery cure, could have induced some kind of mild psycho-activity in such sensitive beings with very ‘acute’ awareness (which was needed as hunters, gatherers and warriors within such an environment). ?

It is known that westerners have trouble getting strong entheogenic effects from the tryptamine snuffs such as virola and cebil without using very powerful basification and large doses. Similarly the amount of morning glory seeds consumed in traditional sessions are of an order of magnitude less than what Westerners seem to require for any psycho-activity. Could it be that the early forest dwellers were more sensitive to tryptamines because of their way of life as well as lacking a powerful MAO to break down environmental tryptamines ?

…what we think of as very grass roots tribes descended from civilisations such as the Inca or Tirona – had common roots where such knowledge was already established. The true gold of El Dorado was no metal…

Whilst a discovery like Ayahuasca may have occured against astronomical odds in an isolated context, such knowledge may have spread quickly. Tribes connect with each other through trade, through marriage, through war. A lot of tribes that are described as isolated were actually fugitives from the conquests… what we think of as very grass roots tribes descended from civilisations such as the Inca or Tirona – had common roots where such knowledge was already established. The true gold of El Dorado was no metal…


On an aesthetic level this is a cute theory : Humans learnt the use of the Vine from the Jaguar.

Jaguar’s chew the leaves of banisteriopsis caapi, the indians believe, to improve its sensitivity for hunting, and the indigenous people took it originally for the same reason. It seems from an evolutionary perspective all sacred medicines have selective advantages in their use, as anti-parasitic, immune-boosting, or increasing ones capacity to acquire more food.


And now to return to the indigenous assertion that the plants themselves, or spiritual being associated with the plants, revealed the Great Medicine.

It has to be pointed out that there are many variations of Ayahuasca origin myths, varying from tribe to tribe. They may point to an underlying truth, that of an ultimately spiritual ordinance, but the great variety of myth must necessarily lead us out of a singular literalistic view. Its a human tendency to generate narratives and imaginings when the truth is lost in primordial time.

However it is a modern human tendency to dismiss the exquisitely sensitive capacities of our being, to sense the qualities of plants, either in very small quantities, or even through smell or proximity.

In Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition, Stephen Larsen writes:

“I met with one of the jungle pharmacists, a woman who makes potent preparations from indigenous wild plants. In an amazing conversation hampered by my limited Portuguese, I learned how elemental spirits of the rain forest appeared to her, sometimes even before the physical plant was discovered, and helped her understand the pharmaceutical uses of their plant. “Yes, but do they really work?” I heard myself asking, half hating myself for the sceptic’s question. “Yes,” she said simply, “they work.” Here in the jungle, I realized, there is not much room for placebos or double-blind studies — or for remedies that don’t work! Life seems precarious and precious. Healers need to heal well.”

We see throughout the animal communities that monkeys, bears, hedgehogs, peccaries, and birds including eagles, avail themselves of the naturally occurring medicinal plants surrounding them. How do animals know what to munch on ? They have no written pharmacopoeia, or oral traditions. Acquired and learned behaviours are certainly possible, but this does not explain the broad instances of animals using medicinal plants of their bio-regions.

How does the jaguar know about Ayahuasca ? Perhaps they quite simply feel it. And if they can tune into these plants through deep intuition/instinct, then humans in can as well.

How do they know that a plant is good for them ? How does the jaguar know about Ayahuasca ? Perhaps they quite simply feel it. And if they simply feel it, if they tune into these plants through deep intuition/instinct, then humans in bio-centric cultures certainly can as well.

The question is how is such ‘intuition’ possible ?Westerners have inherited a concept of self or mind from a Cartesian framework, which (theoretically and often experientially) severs the mind from body, body and mind from its greater ecological milieu. Consciousness and matter, mind and body, subject and object, process and substance always go together, as a unity, a non-dual duality, which for the indigenous cultures of the world is a lived experience needing no special distinction.

We participate in nature’s process, and are participated within our selves by nature. Alfred North Whitehead’s world is filled with “organisms” from elementary particles to human beings and galaxies. An organism is a focus of unification, a holon (in Arthur Koestler’s language) in which other organisms are nested in various hyper-cycles that constitute and define it, support and maintain it.

Just as the body is a liquid-crystalline continuum which registers our experiences and allows us to then act upon our experiences, with spontaneous choice, Laszlo (1995,1996) has proposed that the universe is a quantum holographic memory-medium, one with the experiences of every being, which in turn feeds back on it. In this way, each being exists due to the influences of the quantum holographic sea of information. This is all another way of saying ‘as above, so below‘.

Dr Mae-Wan Ho :

“It is truly a creative universe in that the future is not pre-ordained but spontaneously and freely made by every being, from elementary particles to galaxies, from microbes to the giant redwood trees, all mutually entangled in a universal wave-function that never collapses, but like a constantly changing cosmic consciousness, maintains and informs the universal whole”

If the universe of all beings co-evolves in a mutually correlated fashion, then certainly Gaia may be understood as a super-organism within which communication and coherence (synchronic order) can be established in ecological relationships. Synergies, symbiosis, and human-plant partnerships become established, as the web of life evolves. There is a self-organising play at work, beyond natural-selection and blind coincidence.

Certainly, many people working with Ayahuasca rediscover sensitivity toward the realm of nature, as if the phantom self had come down from its ivory tower to finally touch the earth, the real. And what the real is, has levels of organisation beyond what we may previously have thought possible. In the collapse of the mundane, cerebro-tonic left-brain dogmas, a new, enchanting and mysterious aspect to the world is revealed, as Thomas Berry put it, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”.

Further reading



(With thanks to Sachahambi for her balance in this area.)

Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History
by Dennis J. McKenna, Ph.D.

Mae-Wan Ho


17 Responses to “On the Origins of Ayahuasca”
  1. Marcello says:

    great article on this mystery! and interesting speculation on the nature of intuition… reminds me of Michael Talbot’s ‘Holographic Universe’

  2. Jay says:

    Being that caapi is psychoactive all by itself — and is known to potentiate many substances — I cannot help but think that finding the recipe isn’t really on the order of monkeys typing Shakespeare. It seems perfectly logical that such a discovery would have been found through repeated mixtures featuring a known active component. The probability that natives were already drinking caapi mixed with all kinds of stuff when they stumbled upon chacruna seems almost obvious to me.

  3. Ipajii says:

    Great piece of writing, very up-lifting. My girlfriend wants to learn more about ayahuasca, can you recommend any links and sources in Spanish; or indeed is it possible to get translations from this site?

  4. EROCx1 says:

    I once asked the plant spirit about this mystery of how the shamanic knowledge of mixing the vine with the leaf to make this potion came to be. It is because the plants told them to do so as stated by many. But the how is not the most significant, its the “why” that pleasantly surprised me and they “why” is because Chacruna and Yagé are in love each other. That is how the brew came to be. It was all much more intense and visual then language allows as anyone here can imagine. But to put into words it was the most touching love story I have even known.

  5. Benny Shanon says:

    Very nice – both rational and inspirational. I admire the plurality of responses you consider. Having reflected on this quite a bit, my personal bottom line would be your last, intuitive response. But, indeed, in order to get to it one may have to go through the consideration of the others.

  6. Evan Martin says:

    I am curious what your source is for Jaguars consuming ayahuasca. Is it just the popular video circulating online or is it a known phenomenon that jaguars consume the leaves? If so, could you verify some sources? Thanks.

  7. Rose Starr says:

    I have tried Ayahuasca twice and nothing happened to me. I opened my heart to the spirit of it and I didn’t feel a thing. The ceremony was beautiful, the music magic and the environment in which the ceremony took place was quite unique. The person who gave us the ayahuasca has had a lot of experience with it and have travel to the jungle of the amazon both in Brazil and Peru and learn with the shamans of the region. She truly is a beautiful person and I trust her. She has told me that the more I drink it the more chances I will have to hear it and feel it. Is this the case?

  8. linda says:

    for me was the same- I was at a ceremony with Ecuadorian shaman with more than 100 people, but for me absolutely nothing happened except nosia, and I drank 3 times this night!!! Most of the people were ok with only 1 cup, there was one guy who didn’t feel anything – like me. The shamans told me maybe I had expectations- but I think everybody had some expectations and this could not be the reason. Does anybody suggest any other explanation. Why Ayahuasca did nothing to me?

  9. Jiggity James "Jilkman" says:

    It would be nice if how I imagined it was true. That is; as imagined in my beliefs, the Ayahuasca experience find’s you. When you are ready within your paradigm of ideas to have this kind of experience, it will show itself through the personal bonds you have made. Speaking to those of you seeking the spiritual gains from Ayahuasca, which are of the Ayahuasca experience, must be ready for its lessons. Which being ready for its lessons, would cause you to be seeking spiritual gains.

    Again, this is merely how I imagine it and hope it would be. This based on my own experience and perceptions.

  10. Mona-Lisa says:

    Hi folks,
    Je regrette mais je ne comprend rien. ayahuasca or mandrake or ephedra? which substance-abuse is good for making contact with the ‘good spirits’ of nature?
    I’ve never been to Middle-or South-America but I’ve heard that native americans drink mate-tea along with chewing coca-leafes a.s.o.
    So, is it cool to ‘get high ‘ on the level of some natives by any means in a precinct that we have (for the most part) nothing to do with?

  11. Ellin Callvis says:

    All around the world there are more people than not who have taken mind-altering drugs… AND THEY LIKE IT – and no harm has come to those who practise even just a little bit of caution and moderation.

    As this article points out, it has been going on for millenia!!

    I conclude that “humans are chemical beings” – and we now know that our mind operates on specific naturally occuring chemicals, and so tweeking it a bit isn’t a bad thing at all, it seems perfectly “natural”…. it IS natural!!

    Meanwhile, there is the UN-NATURAL…. the mean spirited War on Drugs works on behalf of the mainstream Pharmceutical Industry, and in combination with the Chemicals Industry they both help the oil industry use up leftover products of refining oil – coal tars are the source of most pharmaceutical drugs. All of those things harm us – the oil, it’s toxic by-products from burning and refining it. Oil is deep underground, it was meant to stay there.

    We need a War on Hydrocarbons [oil]. Nature is “god”.

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