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Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic drug favored by many traditional peoples of South America, has in the twentieth century become the center of a major new religious movement in Brazil and began to spread among neo-shamanistic groups in North America and Europe in the 1990s. Ayahuasca (or vine of the dead) is also known as yage (Colombia) and caapi (Brazil). It is prepared from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi by boiling vine segments with various other plants. The resulting drink contains several hallucinogenics including harmine and/or N, N-dimethyltryptamine.

Archeological evidence, including mythology and pre-Columbian rock drawings, strongly suggest that ayahuasca has been used for centuries. It first became known in the outside world through the account published in 1858 by Manuel Villavicencio, who described his own experiences from its use. The notes of Richard Spruce, a British explorer who traveled in the upper reaches of the Amazon in the 1850s, were published in 1908 and subsequent accounts appeared through the twentieth century. These were buried in professional journals until the 1960s when ayahuasca was rediscovered in the context of the wave of interest in LSD and other hallucinogenics throughout the West. In 1968, Michael Harner wrote a pioneering paper, "The Sound of Rushing Water," describing his experience after taking the drug in 1961 while doing field work in Ecuador. A variety of people during the hippie era sampled ayahuasca but it never gained the popularity of LSD, peyote, or other more easily obtained psychedelic drugs.

Among the indigenous peoples of South America, ayahuasca is a healing substance. It is gathered, prepared, and used with proper ceremony and reverence. In the Upper Amazon, Banisteriopsis Caapi is mixed with another plant, Psychotria viridis, and boiled for a full day and then stored until needed for a ceremony. It is believed that in using the drug, the individual is connected to the force that interconnects all things.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Raimundo Irineu Serra had an apparition of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Conceiçao. During the vision, she began to teach him new doctrine. He was under the influence of ayahuasca at the time. From this experience he began to construct what became a new religion, Santo Daime, the Religion of the Rainforest. That religion grew slowly, but in the decades since World War II (1939-45) has spread across Brazil and in recent decades has spread to North America and Europe as Brazilian members have migrated. The appearance of ayahuasca as a sacramental substance by an ethnic religious community has presented legal problems. At the beginning of 2000, members were arrested in Spain, and the movement has begun an effort to have the drug legalized in the United States and several countries of western Europe.

As of the beginning of 2000, the legal situation of ayahuasca consumption is ambiguous. In the United States, for example, the plants from which ayahuasca is made are not illegal; however, some of the substances they contain are. Ayahuasca is not listed as a controlled substance, but N, N-dimethyltryptamine is a controlled substance and illegal. European drug control agencies have demonstrated much more interest in controlling the spread of ayahuasca than has the America Drug Enforcement Agency.


Ayahuasca Home Page. http://www.ayahuasca.com/. June 12, 2000.

Luna, Eduardo. Ayahuasca Visions. North Atlantic Books, 1999.

, and Steven F. White, eds. Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine. Synergistic Press, 2000.

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In 1851, the botanist Richard Spruce observed natives along the Rio Negro in Brazil preparing a beverage from the roots of a vine, which he called Banisteria caapi, of the family Malpighiaceae (it was recently designated Banisteriopsis caapi.) He later observed the use of a similar drink in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, where it was called ayahuasca (from the Quechua language, spoken in the Andes). He noted that the brew was often a mixture of Banisteria caapi with the roots of another indigenous plant. There were apparently several variations in the recipe for caapi and most of those who have studied it believe that each recipe produces somewhat different psychic effects. In 1929, the great pioneer of psychopharmacology, Louis Lewin, published a monograph describing the pharmacological actions and possible therapeutic uses of Banisteria caapi, whose actions he believed to be due to an active alkaloid, harmine. In early studies in patients with Parkinsonism, harmine produced improvements in chewing, swallowing, and movement that lasted from two to six hours. Curiously, it was reported to have little or no psychic effects. It was later shown that harmine acts to inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase, thereby raising levels of the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Norepinephrine.

Mixtures containing Banisteriopsis caapi are still in use among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. A tea brewed from it and the leaves of Psychotria viridis has been used in shamanistic rituals for hundreds of years in Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. In recent years, a number of people seeking alternatives to Western medicine, and for other reasons, have participated in Santo Daime rituals, in which drinking ayahuasca is a central feature. The tea is said to induce ecstatic states, during which the participants claim to experience great insight. In southern Brazil, some psychotherapists and homeopaths have been known to bring clients or patients to participate in such rituals.

(See also: Hallucinogenic Plants ; Hallucinogens )


Deulofeu, V. (1967). Chemical compounds isolated from Banisteriopsis and related species. In D. H. Efron, B. Holmstedt, & N. S. Kline (Eds.), Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs. Washington, DC: Public Health Service Publication no. 1645.

Lewin, L. (1964). Phantastica: Narcotic and stimulating drugs. New York: Dutton.

Schultes, R. E. (1967). The place of ethnobotany in the ethnopharmacologic search for pychotomimetic drugs. In D. H. Efron, B. Holmstedt, & N. S. Kline, (Eds.), Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs. Washington, DC: Public Health Service Publication no. 1645.

Jerome H. Jaffe

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Ayahuasca is a brew made by indigenous (native) peoples of South America. The brew is prepared from the roots of a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and sometimes other plant roots. It has been a part of ritual practices for hundreds of years in Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. People seeking alternatives to Western medicine have participated in rituals in which drinking ayahuasca tea is a central feature. These people report that the tea produces feelings of ecstasy and a sense of experiencing great insight. In southern Brazil, some psychotherapists bring patients to participate in such rituals.

see also Drugs Used in Rituals; Hallucinogens.

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