Monday, September 06, 2010

Thoughts on the Age of Ayahuasca

Someone on a forum I post to occasionally has been pushing the idea that Ayahuasca has been in use for 10,000 years. I put up with about a dozen posts on the subject before I thought I had to weigh in. And this is what I weighed in with:

Thoughts on the Age of Ayahuasca
Another $0.02 from Gorman. There is no stone in northwestern Amazonia. There is stone along the Andes and there is stone along the upper reaches of the Amazon from west to east, but not in the Amazon basin. So no stone, nothing lasts. No written language in the Amazon, plus no stone, means the only early records we have of the entire basin come from Jesuit and Franciscans who traveled with the Conquistadores. And they wrote history like any conquering people--from their perspective. So to demand solid information from an area of the world where there was nothing concrete to carve into, paint on, draw on or build with and which didn't have a written language is a silly question. We know that early Spanish records talk about some indigenous using a substance that we can be pretty sure was ayahuasca, but that's it. Further than that is accepted speculation but that's all it is.
And this is true for a lot of things. Sapo, frog sweat--also, recently used by tribes that call it kambo--was only first mentioned in the literature by Bob Carniero, in his work with the Amahuaca--though he never saw it used despite living with the Amahuaca for a full year or more (he is currently the Director of South American Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC). And he didn't have a name for the material, just relayed a myth in a 26 page pamphlet he published in 1972 or so. When I brought out sapo and wrote about it, it was the first time it was written about, ever, as something seen and experienced. And that wasn't until 1986. So while it might have been in use for thousands of years, all we can go on is that it's been in use since 1986. Kambo doesn't appear in the literature until about 2002 or so, so if those tribes were using it before then--highly unlikely, as it appears the Matses are the only people who perfected collecting, and using, the material and that others copied it when word spread in the last 20 years--there is no record. And as there is no stone in most of the Amazon, there are no petro glyphs we can go back to see what might have happened.
The reality is that what happens in the Amazon is lost within 20 years, when the trees in the building decay. That's just life. In the mountains and desert you can have records going back thousands of years, but not in the rainforest, where there is no permanence. I know that Ecuador is a bit different in places from most of Peru's jungle, and Colombia has its foot in the northern stone mountain crest, but nothing has been found in those places to indicate early ayahuasca use.
Which doesn't mean it wasn't used 10,000 years ago. Just that you're gonna have a hard time proving it.


Matthew Meyer said...

Peter, I think your larger point is correct: there is not much historical evidence for the antiquity of ayahuasca use that we can be sure of. However, I think that the "geoglyphs" of Acre are a kind of durable evidence (not about ayahuasca). Also, unless you are putting all your weight on kampo as something experienced by the writer, your assertion that there is nothing on kampo before the 1980s is incorrect. For one, there are the reports of Constant Tastevin, the French missionary who wrote about "campon" as early as 1925.

Peter Gorman said...

I dont know the Tastevin citation. Did he use it? Did he identify the frog? Did he describe it being used? Not trying to be testy, just curious, because as far as I know, and this comes from Mark Plotkin, not me, my description of its use on me was not only the first time it was described that way in literature but was also the first time any one had ever described the use of an animal product put directly in the bloodstream for medicinal purposes.
Now I know that Vittorio Erspamer, the late scientist, had collected tons of proteins from amphibian skins, but he said he was unable to proceed past simple identification because there was no known history of their use on humans. Until my report went to him.
So I'd love to see a translation of the Tastevin work. I'll look it up on the net, but if you know quickly how to find it, that would be fantastic.

alan shoemaker said...

In the National Museum in Quito, Ecuador is a small wooden cup, has some simple designs scrolled into it and has been carbon dated to 4,000 years ago. the tests have also been run on the scrapings of the inner section of the bowl to determine what it had been used for. They found harmala, harmine, etc.. It was a cup used to drink ayahuasca.

Matthew Meyer said...

Peter, thanks for your reply. The originals of Tastevin are in French, of course, but here is a Portuguese translation that Beatriz Labate and Edilene Coffaci de Lima used:
"O exército de batráquios é incontável. O mais digno de ser notado é o campon dos Kachinaua. (...) Quando um indígena fica doente, se torna magro, pálido e inchado; quando ele tem azar na caça é porque ele tem no corpo um mau princípio que é preciso expulsar. De madrugada, antes da aurora, estando ainda de jejum, o doente e o azarado produzem-se pequenas cicatrizes no braço ou no ventre com a ponta de um tição vermelho, depois se vacinam com o "leite" de sapo, como dizem. Logo são tomados de náuseas violentas e de diarréia; o mau princípio deixa o seu corpo por todas as saídas: o doente volta a ser grande e gordo e recobra as suas cores, o azarado encontra mais caça do que pode trazer de volta; nenhum animal escapa da sua vista aguda, o seu ouvido percebe os menores barulhos, e a sua arma não erra o alvo." (Tastevin 1925)
I don't know enough about Tastevin to say whether he ever participated in these things with the locals. And it is not too surprising that you haven't seen his writing on this, as his stuff is often quite hard to locate.
I'll be happy to send you the original if you like in pdf.
As an aside, I'll be happy to learn more about YOUR role in this, I didn't know that you spurred Erspamer.
As for Alan's comment, I encourage you to review the study to which he refers; as I recall, the authors were less certain in their conclusions.

Peter Gorman said...

Matthew: Well, I was the guy who took the sapo and wrote the report. I was collecting for the Am. Museum of Nat. History at the time--mostly throw away stuff from the Matses--and when I brought that story back I was brought to Chuck Meyers, head of Herpetology for the museum. His partner was John Daly, who later wrote a couple of papers about sapo's proteins. But Erspamer was given a copy of my paper for some reason, and he had me send him samples of the material, and then--through the Fidia Research area of the University of Rome--sent me back and collect live specimens for him.
The Tastevin quote--though reading Portugese through Spanish, so to speak makes it imperfect--is interesting, but still not the same thing as a first person use. That was the problem with Carniero's as well: he heard about it but didn't see it, couldn't sketch how the frog was 'milked' or even swear it was used. I'm sure it was, but he was still repeating.
One thing that strikes me as odd with Labate's translation is that they still refer to it as "sapo" in Portugese. If Tastevin had actually seen it used he would have known it was a frog, not a toad--in the case of tree frogs with elongated legs and toes that's not hard--and so would have called it whatever the "frog" word is in French, which would have been translated to "rana" by Labate. So I'm not sure he ever saw the material collected.
The Matses made the mistake of calling it a toad because they didn't have enough grasp on Spanish at that time to distinguish little things like that. Now they do. They still call the material sapo but call the frog a rana. I followed through with the mistake and named it "sapo" because I didn't speak enough Spanish at the time to know that "sapo" meant toad, not frog.
If you want to see one of my early pieces on it, you can look up "Making Magic--Peter Gorman" on the net and see a 1993 article I did for Omni. The 1986 High Times article is out there somewhere but I don't know where.
Thanks for the heads up on Tastevin.
Peter G