Ayahuasca refers to a psychotropic brew made by indigenous Indians of the Amazon jungle from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, or B. quitensis) and the leaves of the chakruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Although the name ayahuasca is often used to describe the B. caapi vine, it also refers to the mixture of these two very different plants (DeKorne, 1994). Local medicine men, or shamans, prepare the mixture, sometimes substituting plants for chakruna (also known as sami ruca and amirucapanga), and adding different plants to the mixture depending on the nature of the ceremony (Ott, 1993). Ayahuasca is used by shamans to induce an altered state during which the shaman can look into the future, travel in spirit form, induce healing, remove spells, and cast spells on others.
The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechuan Indian words aya ("spirit," "ancestor," or "dead person") and huasca ("vine"). Together these words refer to the "vine of the soul" or "vine of the dead," a vine that reportedly can free the soul or spirit (McKenna, 1992). Different Amazonian Indian tribes call the plant by names such as yage' (pronounced "yah - hey"), yaje', caapi, natem, pinde, karampi, dapa, mihi, kahi, and many other local names (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992).
Historical Use Of Ayahuasca
Evidence from pre-Columbian rock drawings suggests hundreds of years of ayahuasca use in the Amazon, although Western scientists and explorers have only been exposed to the brew over the last 150 years. In 1851 British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, discovered the Tukanoan Indians in the upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon using a liana (vine) known as caapi to induce a state of intoxication. Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio first mentioned ayahuasca in 1858 while he was exploring the jungles of Ecuador. He described how the source of the drink was a vine used to foresee the future battle plans of enemies, diagnose illness, determine which spells were used and which to use, welcome foreign travelers, and insure the love of their womenfolk (Shultes, 1961). Villavicencio took the drink himself and described the experience of "flying" to marvelous places.
How Ayahuasca Works
Scientific analysis isolated the main chemicals responsible for the hallucinogenic properties of Ayahuasca. In 1923, Fischer analyzed the B. caapi vine and isolated a compound he named telepathine (from the telepathic powers one reportedly gains when under the influence of ayahuasca). It was not until 1969 that a full chemical analysis was carried out (Shultes & Hoffman, 1992), and the compound was actually found contain three active molecules - harmine, harmiline, and d-1,2,3,4-tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmiline were shown to be the primary molecules of the B. caapi vine responsible for the altered state of the ayahuasca drinker; however, these chemicals alone could not account for the intense visions and experiences of ayahuasca.
The beta-carboline chemicals like harmine found in the B. caapi vine can be psychedelic, but only in toxic doses (McKenna, 1993). Further research revealed P. viridis (chakruna) as a common admixture to ayahuasca. Assays showed this plant to contain small but significant amounts of the potent hallucinogen DMT or N, N- dimethyltryptamine. However, DMT is rendered in active when taken orally. How does the DMT in chakruna get into the blood when drinking ayahuasca? In the presence of the harmine (found in the B. caapi vine), DMT from the P. viridis plant becomes orally active in the body. Harmine alkaloids inhibit enzymes in the stomach that normally destroy DMT. In other words, the B. caapi vine allows the hallucinogen DMT to make its way to the brain to help induce hallucinations (Turner, 1994). Of the thousands of plants in the Amazon rain forest, only these two types of plants when combined and drank will allow the user to experience a slow, sustained release of DMT and the resulting hallucinations.
Ayahuasca Analogues: Chemicals Without Ceremony
There are a growing number of people in this country using what are known as ayahuasca analogues. These are plants, extracts, and drugs that have chemicals in them similar to those in B. caapi and P. viridis. The purpose of taking these analogues is to simulate the ayahuasca experience by ingesting similar chemicals found in plants such as Peganum harmala (with its harmine alkaloids) and the DMT containing Desmanthus illinoensis (Ott, 1993). Reports flourish on the experiences of individuals experimenting with these analogues, with the most detailed studies found in Jonathan Ott's Pharmacotheon. This amounts to experimentation with plants having no long history of shamanic use such as ayahuasca, and for that reason it is not recommended. Ayahuasca and it's analogues are not recreational drugs - uneducated use could be fatal (DeKorne, 1994). Although chemicals similar to those in ayahuasca can create definite physical reactions in the user, there are still some vital missing elements. For one, there is the role of the shaman.
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