The Cosmic Serpent -
DNA and The Origins of Knowledge
Q&A with Jeremy Narby
by Todd Stewart
DNA and The Origins of
The Cosmic Serpent
DNA and The Origins of Knowledge
by Jeremy Narby
Jeremy Narby, PhD, grew up in Canada and Switzerland, studied
history at the University of Canterbury, and received his doctorate
in anthropology from Stanford University. He is author of "The
Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge"
The first time an
Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the
medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I
thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a
bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly
"One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca," he said.
he was not smiling.
It was early 1985, in the community of Quirishari in the Peruvian
Amazon’s Pichis Valley. I was 25 years old and starting a two-year
period of field-work to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from
Stanford University. My training had led me to expect that people
would tell tall stories.
I thought my job as an anthropologist was
to discover what they really thought, like some kind of private
During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari
regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros, or
shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the
forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of
knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when
they said this.
My fieldwork concerned Ashaninca resource use - with particular
emphasis on their rational and pragmatic techniques.
the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge would
have been counterproductive to the main argument underlying my
research. Nevertheless, the enigma remained: These extremely
practical and frank people, living almost autonomously in the
Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge
came from plant-induced hallucinations.
How could this be true?
The enigma was all the more intriguing because the botanical
knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists.
The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point. Amazonian
shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millennia. The brew is a
necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together
The first contains a hallucinogenic substance,
dimethyltryptamine, which also seems to be secreted by the human
brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a
stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant,
however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise
stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among
some 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing
a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine
containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive
tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect.
they do this to modify their consciousness. It is as if they knew
about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining
them, and when one asks them how they know these things, they say
their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic plants.
I had not come to Quirishari to study this issue, which for me
relates to indigenous mythology. I even considered the study of
mythology to be a useless and "reactionary" pastime. My focus as an
anthropologist was Ashaninca resource development. I was trying to
demonstrate that true development consisted first in recognizing the
territorial rights of indigenous people. My point of view was
materialist and political, rather than mystical - yet I found myself
quite impressed with the pragmatism of the Quirishari.
This is a people who teach by example, rather than by explanation.
Parents encourage their children to accompany them in their work.
The phrase "leave Daddy alone because he’s working" is unknown.
People are suspicious of abstract concepts. When an idea seems
really bad, they will say dismissively, "Es pura teoría" ("That’s
pure theory"). The two key words that cropped up over and over in
conversations were práctica and táctica, "practice" and "tactics"
doubt because they are requirements for living in the rainforest.
After about a year in Quirishari, I had come to see that my hosts’
practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my
academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical
knowledge was undeniable, but their explanations concerning the
origin of their knowledge were unbelievable to me.
My attitude was
ambivalent. On the one hand, I wanted to understand what they
thought - for instance, about the reality of "spirits" - but on the
other, I couldn’t take seriously what they said because I did not
believe it. On leaving Quirishari, I knew I had not solved the
enigma of the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological
I left with the strange feeling that the problem had more
to do with my incapacity to understand what people had said, rather
than the inadequacy of their explanations. They had always used such
In June 1992, I went to Rio to attend the world conference on
development and environment. At the "Earth Summit," as it was known,
everybody was talking about the ecological knowledge of indigenous
people, but certainly no one was talking about the hallucinatory
origin of some of it, as claimed by the indigenous people
Colleagues might ask,
"You mean Indians claim they get
molecularly verifiable information from their hallucinations? You
don’t take them literally, do you?"
What could one answer?
nothing one can say without contradicting two fundamental principles
of Western knowledge.
First, hallucinations cannot be the source of real information,
because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis.
Western knowledge considers hallucinations to be at best illusions,
at worst morbid phenomena.
Second, plants do not communicate like
human beings. Scientific theories of communication consider that
only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures and
that plants do not relay information in the form of mental images.
For science, the human brain is the source of hallucinations, which
psychoactive plants merely trigger by way of the hallucinogenic
molecules they contain.
It was in Rio that I realized the extent of the dilemma posed by the
hallucinatory knowledge of indigenous people. On the one hand, its
results are empirically confirmed and used by the pharmaceutical
industry; on the other hand, its origin cannot be discussed
scientifically because it contradicts the axioms of Western
When I understood that the enigma of plant communication was a blind
spot for science, I felt the call to conduct an in-depth
investigation of the subject.
Furthermore, I had been carrying the mystery of plant communication
around since my stay with the Ashaninca, and I knew that
explorations of contradictions in science often yield fruitful
results. It seemed to me that the establishment of a serious
dialogue with indigenous people on ecology and botany required that
this question be addressed.
I had myself ingested ayahuasca in Quirishari, an experience that
brought me face to face with an irrational and subjective territory
that was terrifying, yet filled with information. In the months
afterwards, I thought quite a lot about what my main Ashaninca
consultant, Carlos Perez Shuma, had said. What if it were true that
nature speaks in signs and that the secret to understanding its
language consists in noticing similarities in shape or in form? What
if I took him literally?
I liked this idea and decided to read the anthropological texts on
shamanism, paying attention not only to their content but to their
style. I taped a note on the wall of my office:
"Look at the FORM."
One thing became clear as I thought back to my stay in Quirishari.
Every time I had doubted one of my consultants’ explanations, my
understanding of the Ashaninca view of reality had seized up;
conversely, on the rare occasions when I had managed to silence my
doubts, my understanding of local reality had been enhanced - as if
there were times when one had to believe in order to see, rather
than the other way around.
It had become clear to me that ayahuasqueros were somehow gaining
access in their visions to verifiable information about plant
properties. Therefore, I reasoned, the enigma of hallucinatory
knowledge could be reduced to one question:
Was this information
coming from inside the human brain, as the scientific point of view
would have it, or from the outside world of plants, as shamans
Both of these perspectives seemed to present advantages and
On the one hand, the similarity between the molecular
profiles of the natural hallucinogens and of serotonin seemed well
and truly to indicate that these substances work like keys fitting
into the same lock inside the brain. However, I could not agree with
the scientific position according to which hallucinations are merely
discharges of images stocked in compartments of the subconscious
I was convinced that the enormous fluorescent snakes that I
had seen thanks to ayahuasca did not correspond in any way to
anything that I could have dreamed of even in my most extreme
nightmares. Furthermore, the speed and coherence of some of the
hallucinatory images exceeded by many degrees the best rock videos,
and I knew that I could not possibly have filmed them.
On the other hand, I was finding it increasingly easy to suspend
disbelief and consider the indigenous point of view as potentially
correct. After all, there were all kinds of gaps and contradictions
in the scientific knowledge of hallucinogens, which had at first
seemed so reliable: Scientists do not know how these substances
affect our consciousness, nor have they studied true hallucinogens
in any detail. It no longer seemed unreasonable to me to consider
that the information about the molecular content of plants could
truly come from the plants themselves, just as ayahuasqueros
However, I failed to see how this could work concretely.
Maybe I would find the answer by looking at both perspectives
simultaneously, one eye on science and the other on shamanism. The
solution would therefore consist in posing the question differently:
It was not a matter of asking whether the source of hallucinations
is internal or external, but of considering that it might be both at
the same time. I could not see how this idea would work in practice,
but I liked it because it reconciled two points of view that were
My research revealed that in the early 1960s, anthropologist Michael Harner had gone to the Peruvian Amazon to study the culture of the
Conibo Indians. After a year or so he had made little headway in
understanding their religious system when the Conibo told him that
if he really wanted to learn, he had to drink ayahuasca.
accepted, not without fear, because the people had warned him that
the experience was terrifying. The following evening, under the
strict supervision of his indigenous friends, he drank the
equivalent of a third of a bottle. After several minutes he found
himself falling into a world of true hallucinations.
He saw that his visions emanated from "giant reptilian creatures"
resting at the lowest depths of his brain.
These creatures began
projecting scenes in front of his eyes.
"First they showed me the
planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I
saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks
dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on
the barren landscape.
I could see the ‘specks’ were actually large,
shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge
whale-like bodies.... They explained to me in a kind of thought
they were fleeing from something out in space.
had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy. The creatures
then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to
hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their
presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation
and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place
on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe.
that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life,
At this point in his account, Harner writes in a
footnote at the bottom of the page:
"In retrospect one could say
they were almost like DNA, although at that time, 1961, I knew
nothing of DNA."
I had not paid attention to this footnote previously.
indeed DNA inside the human brain, as well as in the outside world
of plants, given that the molecule of life containing genetic
information is the same for all species. DNA could thus be
considered a source of information that is both external and
internal - in other words, precisely what I had been trying to
I plunged back into Harner’s book, but found no further
mention of DNA. However, a few pages on, Harner notes that "dragon"
and "serpent" are synonymous. This made me think that the
helix of DNA resembled, in its form, two entwined serpents.
The reptilian creatures that Harner had seen in his brain reminded
me of something, but I could not say what.
After rummaging around my
office for a while, I put my hand on an article called "Brain and
Mind in Desana Shamanism" by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff. Paging
through it, I was stopped by a Desana drawing of a human brain with
a snake lodged between the two hemispheres.
Several pages further
into the article, I came upon a second drawing, this time with two
snakes. According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, within the fissure,
intertwined snakes are lying.... In Desana shamanism these two
serpents symbolize a female and male principle, a mother and a
father image, water and land...; in brief, they represent a concept
of binary opposition which has to be overcome in order to achieve
individual awareness and integration. The snakes are imagined as
spiraling rhythmically in a swaying motion from one side to
Concerning the Desanas’ main cosmological beliefs, Reichel-Dolmatoff
"The Desana say that in the beginning of time their
ancestors arrived in canoes shaped like huge serpents."
I was astonished by the similarities between Harner’s account, based
on his hallucinogenic experience with the Conibo Indians in the
Peruvian Amazon, and the shamanic and mythological concepts of an
ayahuasca-using people living a thousand miles away in the Colombian
In both cases there were reptiles in the brain and
serpent-shaped boats of cosmic origin that were vessels of life at
the beginning of time. Pure coincidence?
To find out, I picked up a book about a third ayahuasca-using
people, entitled (in French) Vision, Knowledge, Power: Shamanism
Among the Yagua in the North-East of Peru. In this study by
Jean-Pierre Chaumeil (to my mind, one of the most rigorous on the
subject), I found a "celestial serpent" in a drawing of the universe
by a Yagua shaman.
Then, a few pages away, another shaman is quoted
"At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth,
this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another
Chaumeil adds that the Yagua consider that all living
beings were created by twins, who are "the two central characters in
Yagua cosmogonic thought."
These correspondences seemed very strange, and I did not know what
to make of them. Or rather, I could see an easy way of interpreting
them, but it contradicted my understanding of reality: A Western
anthropologist like Harner drinks a strong dose of ayahuasca with
one people and gains access, in the middle of the twentieth century,
to a world that informs the "mythological" concepts of other peoples
and allows them to communicate with life-creating spirits of cosmic
origin possibly linked to DNA.
This seemed highly improbable to me,
if not impossible. Still, I had decided to follow my approach
through to its logical conclusion. So I casually penciled in the
margin of Chaumeil’s text: "twins = DNA?"
These indirect and analogical connections between DNA and the
hallucinatory and mythological spheres seemed amusing to me, or at
most intriguing. Nevertheless, I started thinking that I had perhaps
found with DNA the scientific concept on which to focus one eye,
while focusing the other on the shamanism of Amazonian ayahuasqueros.
About this time, as I continued looking out for new connections
between shamanism and DNA, I received a letter from a friend who
suggested that shamanism was perhaps,
"untranslatable into our logic
for lack of corresponding concepts."
I understood what he meant, and
I was trying to see precisely if DNA, without being exactly
equivalent, might be the concept that would best translate what ayahuasqueros were talking about.
As I browsed over the writings of authorities on mythology, I
discovered with surprise that the theme of twin creator beings of
celestial origin was extremely common in South America, and indeed
throughout the world. The story that the Ashaninca tell about
Avíreri and his sister, who created life by transformation, was just
one among hundreds of variants on the theme of the "divine twins."
Another example is the Aztecs’ plumed serpent,
symbolizes the "sacred energy of life," and his twin brother
Tezcatlipoca, both of whom are children of the cosmic serpent Coatlicue.
When I read the following passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ latest
book, I jumped:
"In Aztec, the word coatl means both ‘serpent’ and
‘twin.’ The name Quetzalcoatl can thus be interpreted either as
‘Plumed serpent’ or ‘Magnificent twin.’"
A twin serpent, of cosmic origin, symbolizing the sacred energy of
life? Among the Aztecs?
I wondered what all these twin beings in the
creation myths of indigenous people could possibly mean. I was
trying to keep one eye on DNA and the other on shamanism to discover
the common ground between the two. I reviewed the correspondences
that I had found so far.
Ruminating over this mental block, I
recalled Carlos Perez Shuma’s challenge:
"Look at the FORM."
looked up DNA in several encyclopedias and had noted in passing that
the shape of the double helix was most often described as a ladder,
or a twisted 'rope ladder',
or a spiral staircase.
It was during the following split second,
asking myself whether there were any ladders in shamanism, that the
"THE LADDERS! The shamans’ ladders, ‘symbols of
the profession’ according to Métraux, present in shamanic themes
around the world according to Eliade!"
I rushed back to my office and plunged into Mircea Eliade’s book
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy and discovered that there
were "countless examples" of shamanic ladders on all five
continents, here a "spiral ladder," there a "stairway" or "braided
In Australia, Tibet, Nepal, ancient Egypt, Africa,
North and South
"the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder,
necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by
means of a rope or a ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain
of arnyaw, etc.) that the gods descend to earth and men go up to the
Eliade even cites an example from the Old Testament, where
Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven,
"with the angels of
God ascending and descending on it."
According to Eliade, the
shamanic ladder is the earliest version of the idea of an axis of
the world, which connects the different levels of the cosmos, and is
found in numerous creation myths in the form of a tree.
I had considered Eliade’s work with suspicion, but suddenly I viewed
it in a new light. I started flipping through his other writings in
my possession and discovered: cosmic serpents.
This time it was
Australian Aborigines who considered that the creation of life was
the work of a,
"cosmic personage related to universal fecundity, the
Rainbow Snake," whose powers were symbolized by quartz crystals.
How could it be that Australian Aborigines, separated from the rest
of humanity for 40,000 years, tell the same story about the creation
of life by a cosmic serpent associated with a quartz crystal as is
told by ayahuasca-drinking Amazonians?
The connections that I was
beginning to perceive were blowing away the scope of my
investigation. How could cosmic serpents from Australia possibly
help my analysis of the uses of hallucinogens in Western Amazonia? I
tried answering my own question: One, Western culture has cut itself
off from the serpent/life principle, in other words DNA, since it
adopted an exclusively rational point of view.
Two, the peoples who
practice what we call "shamanism" communicate with DNA. Three,
paradoxically, the part of humanity that cut itself off from the
serpent managed to discover its material existence in a laboratory
some three thousand years later.
People use different techniques in different places to gain access
to knowledge of the vital principle. In their visions
to take their consciousness down to the molecular level. This is how
they learn to combine brain hormones with monoamine oxidase
inhibitors, or how they discover 40 different sources of muscle
paralyzers, whereas science has only been able to imitate their
When they say their knowledge comes from beings they see
in their hallucinations, their words mean exactly what they say.
According to the shamans of the entire world, one establishes
communication with spirits via music. For the ayahuasqueros, it is
almost inconceivable to enter the world of spirits and remain
Angelika Gebhart-Sayer discusses the "visual music"
projected by the spirits in front of the shaman’s eyes: It is made
up of three-dimensional images that coalesce into sound and that the
shaman imitates by emitting corresponding melodies. I should check
whether DNA emits sound or not.
It seemed that no one had noticed the possible links between the
"myths" of "primitive peoples" and molecular biology.
No one had
seen that the double helix had symbolized the life principle for
thousands of years around the world. On the contrary; everything was
It was said,
that hallucinations could in no way
constitute a source of knowledge
that Indians had found their
useful molecules by chance experimentation
that their "myths" were
precisely myths, bearing no relationship to the real
knowledge discovered in laboratories
At this point, I remembered that Michael Harner had said that this
information was reserved for the dead and the dying.
Suddenly, I was
overcome with fear and felt the urge to share these ideas with
someone else. I picked up the phone and called an old friend, who is
also a writer. I quickly took him through the correspondences I had
found during the day: the twins, the cosmic serpents, Eliade’s
Then I added:
"There is a last correlation that is slightly
less clear than the others. The spirits one sees in hallucinations
are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images, and they speak a
language made of three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other
words, they are made of their own language, like DNA."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
"Yes, and like DNA they replicate themselves to relay
I jotted this down, and it was later in
reviewing my notes on the relationship between the hallucinatory
spirits made of language and DNA that I remembered the first verse
of the first chapter of the Gospel according to John:
beginning was the logos" - the word, the verb, the language.
That night I had a hard time falling asleep.
My investigation had
led me to formulate the following working hypothesis: In their
visions, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular
level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call
"animate essences" or "spirits."
This is where they see double
helixes, twisted ladders, and chromosome shapes. This is how
shamanic cultures have known for millennia that the vital principle
is the same for all living beings and is shaped like two entwined
serpents (or a vine, a rope, a ladder ... ). DNA is the source of
their astonishing botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be
attained only in defocalized and "nonrational" states of
consciousness, though its results are empirically verifiable.
myths of these cultures are filled with biological imagery. And the
shamans’ metaphoric explanations correspond quite precisely to the
descriptions that biologists are starting to provide. Like the axis
mundi of shamanic traditions, DNA has the form of a twisted ladder
(or a vine ... ); according to my hypothesis, DNA was, like the axis
mundi, the source of shamanic knowledge and visions.
To be sure of
this I needed to understand how DNA could transmit visual
I knew that it emitted photons, which are
electromagnetic waves, and I remembered what Carlos Perez Shuma had
told me when he compared the spirits to "radio waves":
turn on the radio, you can pick them up. It’s like that with souls;
with ayahuasca... you can see them and hear them."
So I looked into the literature on photons of biological origin, or
In the early 1980s, thanks to the development of a sophisticated
measurement device, a team of scientists demonstrated that the cells
of all living beings emit photons at a rate of up to approximately
100 units per second and per square centimeter of surface area. They
also showed that DNA was the source of this photon emission.
During my readings, I learned with astonishment that the wavelength
at which DNA emits these photons corresponds exactly to the narrow
band of visible light. Yet this did not constitute proof that the
light emitted by DNA was what shamans saw in their visions.
Furthermore, there was a fundamental aspect of this photon emission
that I could not grasp.
According to the researchers who measured
it, its weakness is such that it corresponds,
"to the intensity of a
candle at a distance of about 10 kilometers," but it has "a
surprisingly high degree of coherence, as compared to that of
technical fields (laser)."
How could an ultra-weak signal be highly
coherent? How could a distant candle be compared to a "laser"?
I came to understand that in a coherent source of light, the
quantity of photons emitted may vary, but the emission intervals
remain constant. DNA emits photons with such regularity that
researchers compare the phenomenon to an "ultra-weak laser." I could
understand that much, but still could not see what it implied for my
I turned to my scientific journalist friend, who explained it
"A coherent source of light, like a laser, gives the
sensation of bright colors, a luminescence, and an impression of
My friend’s explanation provided me with an
The detailed descriptions of ayahuasca-based
hallucinatory experiences invariably mention bright color, and,
according to the authors of the dimethyltryptamine study:
described the colors as brighter, more intense, and deeply saturated
than those seen in normal awareness or dreams: It was the blue of a
desert sky, but on another planet. The colors were 10 to 100 times
It was almost too good to be true. DNA’s highly
coherent photon emission accounted for the luminescence of
hallucinatory images, as well as their three-dimensional, or
On the basis of this connection, I could now conceive of a
neurological mechanism for my hypothesis. The molecules of nicotine
or dimethyltryptamine, contained in ayahuasca, activate their
respective receptors, which set off a cascade of electrochemical
reactions inside the neurons, leading to the stimulation of DNA and,
more particularly, to its emission of visible waves, which shamans
perceive as "hallucinations."
There, I thought, is the source of knowledge:
DNA, living in water
and emitting photons, like an aquatic dragon spitting fire.
Am I wrong in linking DNA to these cosmic serpents from around the
world, these sky-ropes and axis mundi?
Some of my colleagues would
undoubtedly say yes. They would remind me that nineteenth century
anthropologists had compared cultures and elaborated theories on the
basis of the similarities they found. When they discovered, for
instance, that bagpipes were played not only in Scotland, but in
Arabia and the Ukraine, they established false connections between
these cultures. Then they realized that people could do similar
things for different reasons.
Since then, anthropology has backed away from grand generalizations,
denounced "abuses of the comparative method," and locked itself into
specificity bordering on myopia. Yet by shunning comparisons between
cultures, one ends up masking true connections and fragmenting
reality a little more, without even realizing it.
Is the cosmic serpent of the Shipibo-Conibo, the Aztecs, the
Australian Aborigines, and the Ancient Egyptians the same?
reply the anthropologists who insist on cultural specificity; but it
is time to turn their critique on its head. Why insist on taking
reality apart, but never try putting it back together again?
According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to
the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information.
The clear answer is that more research
is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their
Back to Contents
The Cosmic Serpent - DNA and the Origins
Q&A with Jeremy Narby by Todd Stewart
Could you sum up your book "The
Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge"?
Research indicates that shamans access an intelligence, which
they say is nature's, and which gives them information that has
stunning correspondences with molecular biology.
Your hypothesis of a hidden intelligence contained within the
DNA of all living things is interesting. What is this
Intelligence comes from the Latin inter-legere, to choose
between. There seems to be a capacity to make choices operating
inside each cell in our body, down to the level of individual
proteins and enzymes. DNA itself is a kind of "text" that
functions through a coding system called "genetic code," which
is strikingly similar to codes used by human beings.
enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA text and add new
letters to it; any error made during this editing can be fatal
to the entire organism; so these enzymes are consistently making
the right choices; if they don't, something often goes wrong
leading to cancer and other diseases.
Cells send one another
signals, in the form of proteins and molecules. These signals
mean: divide, or don't divide, move, or don't move, kill
yourself, or stay alive. Any one cell is listening to hundreds
of signals at the same time, and has to integrate them and
decide what to do.
How this intelligence operates is the
DNA has essentially maintained its structure for 3.5 billion
years. What role does DNA play in our evolution?
DNA is a single molecule with a double helix structure; it is
two complementary versions of the same "text" wrapped around
each other; this allows it to unwind and make copies of itself:
twins! This twinning mechanism is at the heart of life since it
began. Without it, one cell could not become two, and life would
And, from one generation to the next, the DNA text
can also be modified, so it allows both constancy and
transformation. This means that beings can be the same and not
the same. One of the mysteries is what drives the changes in the
DNA text in evolution. DNA has apparently been around for
billions of years in its current form in virtually all forms of
The old theory - random accumulation of errors combined with
natural selection - does not fully explain the data currently
generated by genome sequencing. The question is wide open.
The structure of DNA as we know it is made up of letters and
thus has a specific text and language. You could say our bodies
are made up of language, yet we assume that speech arises from
the mind. How do we access this hidden language?
By studying it. There are several roads to knowledge, including
science and shamanism.
The symbol of the Cosmic Serpent, the snake, is a central
theme in your story, and in your research you discover that the
snake forms a major part of the symbology across most of the
world’s traditions and religions. Why is there such a consistent
system of natural symbols in the world? Is the world inherently
This is the observation that led me to investigate the cosmic
serpent. I found the symbol in shamanism all over the world.
Why? That's a good question.
My hypothesis is that it is
connected to the double helix of DNA inside virtually all living
beings. And DNA itself is a symbolic Saussurian code. So, yes,
in at least one important way, the living world is inherently
We are made of living language.
You write of how the ideology of "rational" science,
deterministic thought, is and has been quite limiting in its
approach to new and alternative scientific theories; it is
assumed that "mystery is the enemy." In your book you describe
how you had to suspend your judgement, to "defocalize," and in
this way gain a deeper insight. Why do you think we are often
limited in our rational, linear thought and why are so few
willing and able to cross these boundaries?
I don't believe we are. People spend hours each day thinking
non-rationally. Our emotional brain treats all the information
we receive before our neo-cortex does.
Scientists are forever
making discoveries as they daydream, take a bath, go for a run,
lay in bed, and so on.
Vision of the Snakes
By Pablo Amaringo
Gallery of Usko-Ayar Art
What are the correspondences between the Peruvian shamans’
findings and microbiology?
Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a
hidden unity under the surface of life's diversity; both
associate this unity with the double helix shape (or two
entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two
vines wrapped around each other); both consider that one must
deal with this level of reality in order to heal.
One can fill a
book with correspondences between shamanism and molecular
Do you think there is not only an intelligence based in our DNA
but a consciousness as well?
I think we should attend to the words we use. "Consciousness"
carries different baggage than "intelligence."
Many would define
human consciousness as different from, say, animal
consciousness, because humans are conscious of being conscious.
But how do we know that dolphins don't think about being
dolphins? I do not know whether there is a "consciousness"
inside our cells; for now, the question seems out of reach; we
have a hard enough time understanding our own
consciousness - though we use it most of the time.
I propose the
concept of "intelligence" to describe what proteins and cells
do, simply because it makes the data more comprehensible. This
concept will require at least a decade or two for biologists to
consider and test.
Then, we might be able to move along and
consider the idea of a "cellular consciousness."
Alchemical vision of chromosomal DNA?
The implications of some of your findings in The Cosmic Serpent
could be quite large. How do you feel about the book and what it
says? Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book because I felt that certain things needed
saying. Writing a book is like sending out a message in a
bottle: sometimes one gets replies. Judging from the responses,
a surprising number of people have got the message loud and
Actual photo of chromosomal DNA.
How can shamanism complement modern science?
Most definitions of "science" revolve around the testing of
Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book The Savage
Mind that human beings have been carefully observing nature and
endlessly testing hypotheses for at least ten thousand years.
This is how animals and plants were domesticated. Civilization
rests on millennia of Neolithic science. I think the science of
shamans can complement modern science by helping make sense of
the data it generates.
Shamanism is like a reverse camera
relative to modern science.
The shamans were very spiritual people. Has any of this affected
you? What is spiritual in your life?
I don't use the word "spiritual" to think about my life. I spend
my time promoting land titling projects and bilingual education
for indigenous people, and thinking about how to move knowledge
forward and how to open up understanding between people; I also
spend time with my children, and with children in my community
(as a soccer coach); and I look after the plants in my garden,
without using pesticides and so on.
But I do this because I
think it needs doing, and because it's all I can do, but not
because it's "spiritual."
The message I got from shamans was: do
what you can for those around you (including plants and
animals), but don't make a big deal of it.
Back to Contents
DNA and the origins of knowledge
Much is written lately about 'indigenous knowledge" especially
in the field of traditional plant and medical knowledge. The
indigenous societies in the Amazon region have received much
fame recently in this area because of their knowledge and use of
Modern pharmaceutical companies are
especially interested in this knowledge and many indigenous
leaders have spoken about the need to protect their intellectual
and cultural property rights, as well as to capture some of the
economic benefits of such knowledge
The Comic Serpent written by
James Narby places the discussion
of indigenous knowledge in a deeper philosophical and
cosmological framework, arguing for an epistemic correspondence
between the knowledge of Amazonian shamans and modern
biologists. Narby unfolds in his book a very interesting theory
about the human DNA and the origins of knowledge.
He came to this after living for several years in the Amazonian
rainforest while he was studying the etnobothanical knowledge of
different Amazonian Indian tribes.
His book starts with the
"The first time as an Ashaninca man told me that he
had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a
hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking. We were in the
forest squatting next to a bush whose leaves, he claimed, could
cure the bite of a deadly snake.
"One learns these things by
drinking ayahuasca," he said.
It was early in 1985, in the
community of Quirishari in the Peruvian Pichis Valley.
I was twenty-five years old and starting a two-year period of
fieldwork to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford
University. During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in
Quiishari regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of
ayahuasqueros, or shamans. In conversions about plants, animals,
land or the forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the
source of knowledge.
And each time I asked myself what they really meant when they
"While living their for months doing investigations
and asking a lot of questions a member of the tribe tells him:
"Brother Jeremy, to understand what interests you, you must
drink ayahuasca. Some say it is occult, which is true, but it is
not evil. In truth, ayahuasca is the television of the forest.
You can see images and learn things."
Narby is very curious and agrees with it.
He describes his
experience with the following: (At one point in his visions he
meet some snakes and they tell him that he's just a human
"I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the
bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. It is profoundly
true that I'm just a human being, and, most of the time, I have
the impression of understanding everything, whereas here I find
myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at
all and that in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed.
I feel like crying in view of the enormity of these
And a bit later he writes:
"I sit down next to
Ruperto( the shaman) and he resumes his song. I have never heard
more beautiful music, these slender staccatos that are so high-pitsched
they verge on humming. I follow his song and take flight. I fly
in the air; thousands of feet above the earth and looking down I
see ann all-white planet. Suddenly the song stops and I feel
myself on the ground, thinking: He can't stop now."
After a few ayahuasca experiences Narby goes back home to rural
Switzerland to write his dissertation.
later, after becoming a 'doctor of anthropology' I felt
compelled to put my ideas to practice. Under Ashaninca influence
I had come to consider that practice is the most advanced form
I was tired of doing research. Now I wanted to act."
started working for a Swiss organization that promotes community
development in Third World countries.
He travels around the
Amazon Basin, talking with indigenous organizations and
collecting projects for the legal recognition of indigenous
territories. He gathers funds for these projects in Europe for
Then Narby decides to write a book about Amazonian shamanism and
ecology. He's still wondering about the statements from the
Amazonian shamans that their knowledge of the medicinal value of
plants has been taught to them by the plants themselves through
their hallucinations. He wants to call his book Ecological
hallucinations and he wants to investigate the enigma of the
possibility of communications with plants.
He's looking again in the interviews he did with the Ashaninca
people and he writes:
"For them there was no fundamental
contradiction between the practical reality of their life in the
rainforest and the invisible and irrational world of the ayahuasqueros, On the contrary, it was by going back and forth
between those two levels that one could bring back useful and
verifiable knowledg that was otherwise unobtainable.
This proved to me that is was possible to reconcile these two
apparently distinct worlds."
Then he starts very serious with his
research what finally led's to the publication of "The Cosmic
Serpent, DNA and the origins of knowledge."
His study is too
complicated to describe in such a short article, but I highly
recommend this book to anyone who is interested in shamanism,
hallucinogenic plants and the correspondences between this and
the latest scientific research about DNA and the origins of our
Back to Contents
Essay about the Book "The Cosmic Serpent"
of Jeremy Narby
by Patricia Burgos
FIRST CHAPTER - "THE JUNGLE TV"
In 1985 Jeremy Narby, a 25-year-old Frenchman, an
anthropologist, visited the native community of the Ashaninkas,
located between the Pichis and Perene River valleys, in Peru's
He was interested in carrying out anthropological research to
obtain a PhD in anthropology in an American university. At the
beginning of his investigations he discovered that all the
biological knowledge of the community was based on the
interpretation of what the community shamans perceived during
the intake of a drink called "Ayahuasca". These Amazon shamans
were the Ayahuasqueros.
He did not know how to interpret this new concept and understand
its true sense.
He wanted to deal with the topic in a sensible way to avoid
falling into subjectivity, which in the long run would be
Considering that the Peruvian government at the time was
interested in confiscating land from the natives arguing that
their extractive activities meant an irrational employment of
the forest and that the best alternative for the country's
economic development was to fell trees and create plantations,
Narby understood that his research was vital to defend the
conception of the Amazon held by the natives within a system
that had saved the forest for centuries.
At the same time this would help the Ashaninkas gain recognition
of their territories by the Peruvian government.
During the contact between Narby and the community, there were
doubts about the anthropologist's intentions.
Narby's interest in the Ashaninkas' botanical knowledge led him
to collect some plant species and some people grew suspicious of
his motives. They thought that the anthropologist was trying to
make money based on their knowledge of plants.
Considering the natives' justified distrust due to many bad
experiences they may have had with foreigners, Narby gave the
samples back and they calmed down.
In everyday contact with different groups inside Ashaninka
society, he met Ruperto, an Ayahuasquero who proposed him to
drink Ayahuasca, in order to get closer to understanding the
jungle. Ruperto gave him some indications and some days went by
before the experience.
Narby, still doubtful, had not followed the Ayahuasquero's
instructions previous to the ceremony.
Here we have a description based on notes taken by Narby the
night after the Ayahuasca ceremony:
First, Ruperto sprayed us with perfumed water and smoked us with
his tobacco. He then sat with us and began whistling a melody of
I could already see kaleidoscopic images in front of my eyes,
but I did not feel well. Despite Ruperto's melody, I stood up to
go and vomit. Having eliminated the remains of the deer and
fried yucca meal, I went back to my seat feeling relieved.
Ruperto told me that, without doubt, I had also thrown up the
Ayahuasca and that I could take it again if I wanted so. I
He checked my pulse and declared me strong enough for a
"regular" dose, which I swallowed.
Ruperto whistled again while I sat down on the dark platform.
Images began to flood my head. In my notes, I describe them as,
"unusual or horrible: an agouti
baring his teeth inside a bloody mouth, multicolour
serpents, very brilliant and shining, a policeman that
caused trouble, my father looking at me with a worried
I found myself trapped by what I
perceived as two giant boas, approximately sixty centimeters
high and twelve to fifteen meters long. I was absolutely
"These enormous serpents are
there, I have my eyes shut and I see a spectacular world of
bright lights, and in the middle of my entangled thoughts
the serpents begin to speak to me without words.
They explain to me that I am
only a human being. I feel my spirit break, and in the crack
I see the bottomless arrogance of my a priori.
It is deeply true that I am only
a human being and that most of the time I have the sensation
of understanding everything, while here I find myself in a
more powerful reality that I do not understand in any way
and that, due to my arrogance, I did not even suspect it
I feel like crying before the
enormity of these revelations, but I get the idea that this
self-compassion is a part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed
that I dare not feel ashamed again. Nevertheless, I must
I got up totally disoriented, and
sincerely asking the fluorescent serpents for pardon, I jumped
over them as a drunken somnambulist and went to the tree next to
the house, below the kitchen.
Although I now tell about this experience with words on paper,
in that moment language itself seemed insufficient. This
situation was profoundly torturing, as if my last bond with
"reality" had been cut. Moreover, "reality" here seems to be a
faraway and one-dimensional memory. However, I come to mentally
understand my feelings, as a "poor and small human being who has
lost his language and feels pity for himself."
I had never felt so deeply humble until that moment. Leaning on
the tree, I regurgitated again. In Ashaninka language,
Ayahuasca is called Kamarami, from the verb kamarank,
I closed my eyes and only saw red. I
saw inside my body, red.
"I regurgitate an electric red
liquid, like blood, my throat is bad. I open my eyes and I
feel presences by my side, an obscure presence on my left,
about a meter away from my head, and a clear presence on my
right, also a meter away. Since I am turning more to the
left, I am not upset by the obscure presence because I am
conscious of it.
But I am startled when I become
conscious of the clear presence, and turning to look at it,
I do not truly get to see it with my eyes. I feel so bad and
I have so little control of my sense that I do not have a
real desire to see the clear presence. I am lucid enough to
know that I am not vomiting blood.
After a moment I ask myself what
is to be done. I have so little control that I abandon
myself to instructions that seem to come from outside me
(from the obscure presence?): now it is time to stop
vomiting, now it is time to spit, to blow your nose, to
rinse your mouth, to avoid swallowing water. I am thirsty
but my body stops me from drinking."
In a given moment, in the midst of
these ablutions, I raised my head and I saw an Ashaninka woman,
dressed with a long traditional cotton gown (Cushma), who
stopped about seven meters away from me.
She seemed to be
levitating above the ground. I saw her in the darkness, which
had become clear. Light resembled a film showing an "American
night", namely, a scene filmed during the day but using a dark
filter to make it look like night.
Looking at this woman who watched me
silently in this suddenly clear night, I was once again
profoundly thunder-struck by the familiarity of these people
with a reality that transformed all my axioms and which I
"I am still confounded when I
consider I am done, and I even wash my face and go back in
amazement to the fact that I have accepted doing all this
complacently alone. I leave the tree, the kitchen, the two
presences and the floating woman, and I return to the group.
Ruperto asks: 'Did they tell you
not to swallow water?' I respond: 'Yes.' 'Are you dizzy?'.
'Yes.' I settle down and he restarts his singing. I never
heard such beautiful music, little fluid tremors, a high
voice almost chirping. I follow it and take off. I fly in
the air, hundreds of meters above the ground, and looking
down, I see a white planet. All at once, the singing stops
and I find myself on the ground telling me: 'It is not
possible for him to stop now.'
I only see confusing images with
a certain erotic content, such as a woman with twenty
breasts! He restarts his singing and I see a green leaf with
its nervures, then a human hand with its lines, and so on
without rest. It is impossible to remember it all"
Little by little, the images
disappear. I was exhausted. A little after midnight, I fell
SECOND CHAPTER - "ANTROPOLOGIST AND
It was strange for Narby to realize that the botanical knowledge
of Amazon tribes that surprised ethno botanists was based on the
visions or "hallucinations" produced by Ayahuasca.
Here I quote Narby's description of the composition of Ayahuasca:
The first plant in the mixture contains a hormone which is
naturally produced by the brain, dimethyltriptamine,
which, however, is inactive when taken orally, since it is
inhibited by an enzyme in the digestive system,
monoaminooxydase. Now, the second plant in the mixture
contains precisely various substances that protect the hormone
from the enzyme's assault.
This made Richard Evans Schultes,
the most famous ethno-botanist of the XXth century, say:
can ask how the people of primitive societies, without knowledge
of chemistry or psychology, have managed to find a solution to
the activation of an alkaloid via a monoaminooxydase
inhibitor. By pure experimentation? Maybe not. There are too
many examples and they could be more with supplementary
Here we have people who, without an electronic microscope or a
background in biochemistry, select, among approximately eighty
thousand Amazon species of superior plants, the leaves of a
shrub that contain a precise cerebral hormone, which combines
with a substance found in a liana that blocks the action of a
precise enzyme of the digestive system, with the purpose of
deliberately modifying their conscious state.
It is as if they knew the molecular properties of plants and the
art of combining them. And when you ask them how they know these
things, they respond that their knowledge comes directly from
diverse hallucinogenic plants.
Few anthropologists have given attention to this type of
statements and for that reason most of them have failed to
understand what is essential about tribal cultures.
In this chapter, Narby refers to the incidence of
anthropologists in the interpretation of what a shaman is and to
the transference of their limitations to the shamans all along
For the first anthropologists of the XIXth century, shamans,
who, in the case of the Peruvian Amazon would be the
Ayahuasqueros, were extremely ignorant and inefficient.
In those days anthropological studies were in their infancy and
there was total ignorance of their subject matter.
Then, with the advent of so-called "modern anthropology", they
attempted to analyze natives as if they were laboratory
formulas. This was done because anthropologists were trying to
be considered scientific.
Narby tells us that when anthropology pretended to become
established within the scientific community,
"its subject matter, those
primitive humans living outside time, began to melt like
snow in the sun."
In fact, it became more and more
difficult to find "true" natives that had never had contact with
the Western world.
Due to this incongruity of anthropology, we understand that
anthropology can only interpret facts.
In the XXth century the term "shamanism" is invented by
anthropologists to classify hard to understand practices of
The word "shaman" comes from Siberia.
In Tungus language a "Saman" is a person who beats a drum, goes
in trance and heals people. For the first Russian observers,
tells Narby, "they were mentally ill."
Now we know these people, with authority inside a tribal
community and known as "shamans" by anthropologists, are
recognized for their knowledge and behind those apparently
irrational activities there is nothing but ancestral lore.
"This vision of an ordering
shaman became the creed for a new generation of
anthropologists. From 1960 to 1980, the best established
authorities in the field defined the shaman as, before
anything else, a creator of order, a master of chaos or an
avoider of disorder.
Certainly, things have not happened in such a simple way.
Until the end of the 1960s, some survivors of the old school
still affirmed that shamanism was a mental disease. In the
1970s, there was a new discourse that presented the shaman
not just as creator of order, but also as a specialist in
all kinds of trades - that he was, at the same time, 'a
doctor, a pharmacologist, a psychotherapist, a sociologist,
a philosopher, a lawyer, an astrologist and a priest.'
Finally, during the 1980s, certain iconoclasts, stated that
shamans were, before anything else, creators of chaos!
So then, what are shamans? Schizophrenic or creators of
order? Men who do everything or creators of disorder?
I think the answer is in the mirror. Let me explain myself:
when anthropology was a young growing science, still unhappy
with itself, unaware of the schizophrenic nature of its
methodology, the shaman was perceived as mentally ill. Then,
when ('structural') anthropology pretended to attain
scientific status and anthropologists busied themselves with
finding order amidst disorder, the shaman became a creator
From the moment this discipline
is going through an identity crisis ('post-structural
anthropology'), not sure anymore if it is a science or a
form of interpretation, the shaman has began to pursue all
kinds of trades. Finally, certain anthropologists have only
recently began to question the obsessive search for order in
their discipline, and have seen shamans whose power
precisely rests on 'undermining the search for order.'
So it seems that reality behind the concept of 'shamanism'
systematically reflects the view of the anthropologist,
whatever his or her focusing angle."
THIRD CHAPTER - "TOBACCO'S MOTHER IS A
Talking to a Tabaquero Ayahuasquero, Narby understood
that for Ashaninka natives, Ayahuasca-induced visions were as
real as computer screens for our readers.
Narby carried out a long series of interviews with this man and
here is the transcription of one of them:
Carlos, the Tabaquero
Ayahuasquero, tells him:
"My uncle was a Tabaquero. I
used to watch him lay out a lot of tobacco, dry it in
the sun and cook it, and I would ask myself what it was
'It's tobacco,' my uncle
told me, and once the mixture was black, he would start
tasting it with a little stick. I thought it was sweet,
like Chancaca (sugarcane concentrate). When he took his
tobacco, he would counsel everyone, he could tell them
'this is good' or 'this is not good'. I don't know what
intellectuals might say now, but at the time Adventist
missionaries used to say: 'He is listening to his bats;
He had no book to read from,
but what he said was true: 'everybody has left these
things, everybody now goes to the missionary's house. I
can't read but I know how to do these things, I know how
to take tobacco and I know all these things.' Then, when
he talked to me, I would listen.
He used to tell me: 'Listen,
nephew, when you become a man, look for a woman to take
care of, but before this happens, you must not only
learn to write, but also learn these things.'
- Did he mean, learn to consume tobacco?
- Consume tobacco and heal. When somebody came to look
for him, my uncle would say: 'Why do you come asking me
to heal you if you say that you know God now that you
are in the mission and I don't? Why don't you ask the
reverend to pray for you, since he says he can heal an
ill person through prayer? Why don't you go with him?'
But he would heal them
anyhow, pull out his coca and started chewing it, and he
would sit like we do now. Then he would suck at his
tobacco and during those moments I would watch him and
wonder what he would do. The first healing session I saw
him in, he said: 'Alright, bring me the sick baby.'
He has begun, he has
palpated him and felt his pulse: 'Oh, I can see, he is
really screwed up. The sickness is here.' Then he has
begun to suck in that place (to suck loudly). Then he
has spit making a noise: ptt! Then once more, then a
third time: ptt! 'Alright, it's enough.'
He then tells the mother:
'Something has shocked this baby, here is a Piri piri (a
medicinal herb) to bathe him in. Then let him rest.'
The next day it could be
seen that the baby was better. Then I began to like this
and I decided to learn. Uf! The first time I took
tobacco I was unable to sleep. - How old were you? - I
was eight years old. I thought it was sweet like
Chancaca. But it was so bitter I could not even swallow
it. My uncle told me: this is the secret of tobacco.
Then he taught me everything. He gave me a gourd with
tobacco. Little by little I learned to take it and
resist it. Very soon, I did not vomit anymore.
- And was it your uncle who also taught you about
Ayahuasca? - No, I learned that later, with my
During this search period, Narby
experimented on himself the effects of different treatments with
medicinal plants practiced by the Ashaninkas. Narby understood
that practice is more important than words for a native
"They taught by example and not
Many times, as Narby tells, it was
not easy to explain how they healed.
But they healed:
- When you have healed someone,
as you have healed Sabino the other day, how does tobacco
work? If you are the one inhaling the smoke, how can tobacco
heal the person who is not smoking?
- I always say that it is tobacco's property to show me real
things. I can see things the way they really are. And he
drives out all pains.
- Oh, but how has that property been discovered? Does
tobacco only grow in the jungle?
- There is a place, for example, in Napiari, where tobacco
- On the Perene. We have learned about its power through
Ayahuasca, that other plant, since it is the mother.
- Which is the mother, tobacco or Ayahuasca?
- And tobacco is its son?
- It is its son.
- Because tobacco is not as strong, right?
- It is less strong.
- You have told me that both tobacco and Ayahuasca contain
- That is so.
- And you have told me that souls love tobacco. Why?
- Because tobacco has its method, its strength. It attracts
the maninkari. It is the best contact for a human being's
- And those souls, what are they like?
- I know that every living or dead soul is like those radio
waves flying around in the air.
- In the air. This means that you can't see them but they
are there, like radio waves. Once you turn on the radio, you
can receive them. It is the same with souls, with Ayahuasca
and tobacco you can see them and hear them.
- And how is it that when the Ayahuasquero sings we hear
music that we had never heard before, such beautiful music?
- Well, that attracts the spirits, and as I have always
said, when you think it over… (long silence) It is like a
tape recorder. You put it there, you start it, it starts
singing: hum, hum, hum, hum, hum. And you begin to sing
along it. Once you sing, you get to understand it and you
can follow its music because you have heard its voice. So
music is born, it comes and you can see it. As it happened
the other time when Ruperto was singing.
- Tabaquero and Ayahuasquero, are they the same thing?
- The same.
- Well, and I want to know why we see serpents when we take
- It's because Ayahuasca's mother is a serpent. Can't you
see they have the same shape?
- But I thought that Ayahuasca was tobacco's mother?
- It is so.
- But then, who is the owner of these plants?
- The owners of these plants are really like gods. They are
the Maninkari. It is them who help us. Their existence has
no end or disease. That is the reason why they tell the
Ayahuasquero to put his head in the very dark house:
'If you want me to help you,
do it well, then. I give you this power not just for you
but for everyone.'
Then, clearly, there it is, the
force to decide if you want more life by believing in the plant.
It is the way. For that reason they say there is a very narrow
road that no one can pass, not even with a machete. It is not a
straight path, but at least it is a road.
I abide by these
words, and also where it says that truth is not for sale, that
wisdom is for you but it should be shared. In other words, this
means that to make money out of this is wrong.
FOURTH CHAPTER - "FULFILLMENT IN RIO"
After almost two years of living together with the Ashaninkas,
at the end of 1986, Narby returned to Switzerland to write his
After obtaining his PhD, feeling deeply
involved with the problems faced by the indigenous peoples of
the Peruvian Amazon to save their land, he turned his eyes to
those plants able to communicate. So he worked on a project for
four years, including the propagation of knowledge he had
acquired during his life with the Ashaninkas. However, he
refused to deal with certain topics.
And so came the Cumbre de la Tierra in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil, in 1992.
Narby saw a favorable and adequate context to expose his ideas
without being called a madman, which he had not done before.
However he was surprised to learn that despite the habitual use
of medicinal plants to cure diseases by tribal societies in
Brazil, very few people referred to the visionary effects of
master plants. Those who accepted these qualities did not dare
This led him to the conclusion that his trip deserved an
exhaustive study to throw light on the topic. Thus, Narby
decided to write the book we are currently analyzing.
FIFTH CHAPTER - "STEREOGRAMS"
After fulfilling all the requisites to edit a paper on the
topic, Jeremy Narby began his book.
He delved into writings about humanist anthropology and used the
notes he had gathered during his life with the Ashaninkas.
He tried to visualize what he had gone through without making
any value judgments. He gave himself to an exhaustive
investigation of the topic during five months.
During a visit to some friends' house, they presented him a
design made of many dots. Looking carefully at them, he saw
clear images that were hidden amidst that apparent set of dots.
Each detail of his life was important in that moment to
understand what he had gone through with the Ashaninkas.
He compared all this to his Ayahuasca-induced visions and
interpreted that what he had seen with Ayahuasca had been what
we have in front of us but which is not perceptible by our eyes
at first glance.
Ayahuasca facilitates perception beyond the habitual state known
In the same fashion, we can use our sight to identify an image
within a set of dots.
It was more and more clear for Narby that native Amazon
inhabitants accessed information about the properties of plants
in their Ayahuasca-induced visions, and that information could
be scientifically verified. There were too many coincidences.
The question he asked himself was: 'Did this information come
from inside the human brain, as stated by science, or from the
external world of plants, as the Indians claimed?'
Narby was totally convinced that everything he saw with
Ayahuasca had not previously existed in his mind and that it was
impossible that his mind had processed it.
Anthropologist Michael Harner, one of the first scholars that
found a relation between Ayahuasca and DNA, narrated his
experience with Ayahuasca in his writings, which I know quote:
"They first showed me planet
Earth the way it was eons of time ago, before the presence
of life. I saw an ocean, a sterile landscape and a deep blue
sky. Then, black grains fell from the sky by the hundreds
and landed in front of me on the arid land. I could see the
"grains" were really big black and shiny creatures with wide
pterodactyl wings and whale bodies (…)
They explained to me, in a sort
of mental language, that they were escaping from something
in the Cosmos. They had come to planet Earth to escape from
their enemies. Next, the creatures showed me how they had
created life on Earth to hide in the midst of a multitude of
forms and so dissimulate their presence.
In front of my eyes, the
magnificence of the creation of plants and animals and
species differentiation - active for hundreds of millions of
years - developed at a scale and with vigor impossible to
describe. I realized that creatures similar to dragons thus
resided inside all living beings, including man.
Retrospectively, we could say
they were almost like DNA, except that at the time, in 1961,
I did not know anything about the subject of DNA."
Narby perceives that the double
helix of DNA was similar to two intertwined serpents.
into the subject, he quotes an article titled "Brain and
Consciousness in Desana Shamanism" by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatuff.
Two pictures come with the text.
The first picture shows a Desana representation of the human
brain with a serpent between the two hemispheres:
The second design shows the two
brain hemispheres separated by two intertwined serpents
In Desana shamanism, these tow
serpents symbolize a "female principle and a male principle", an
image of father and mother, water and Earth.
The Desana say that in the beginning of times their ancestors
had arrived in canoes shaped like enormous serpents.
Narby starts to find similarities between Hearne's account of
his experience with the Conibo in the Peruvian jungle, and the
one by Reichel-Domlatoff about his experience with the Desana in
Both concurred with the representation of the human brain with
reptiles separating the two hemispheres and ships shaped like
cosmic serpents that bring life to Earth.
Narby continues with his search and reaches what he considers
the most rigorous treatise on the subject:
Jean Pierre Chaumeil, in his
book "Voir, Savoir, Pouvoir; le chamanisme chez les yagua du
He first discovers a "celestial serpent", a design by a
Yagua shaman that represented the universe. He then
indicates that, according to Chaumeil, the Yagua consider
that all living beings have been created by two twin
brothers who are the two most important characters in yagua
After an infinity of doubts and
despite the typical incredulity of his academic background,
Narby decides to set his background aside and as he himself
states it, with a playful spirit, he wrote the title "ADN -
SIXTH CHAPTER - "CORRESPONDENCES"
Gathering all his data, Narby finds coincidences.
Ayahuasca is taken during the night, in darkness, with a
previous diet that avoids the consumption of fat, sweet, salty
or spicy food. The consumption of alcoholic beverages and sexual
activity are forbidden during the diet.
The ceremony is in all cases led by an Ayahuasquero who guides
the participants and cures them, if such is the case, through
chanting. In the case of Ayahuasquero apprentices, they isolate
themselves from human contact for months and eat abundant fish
and bananas, both rich in serotonin.
The long term consumption
of hallucinogens, on the other hand, as Narby indicates,
precisely diminishes the levels of that neurotransmitter in the
brain. 1) These methods are far from being the outcome of
randomness. How have they reached this knowledge? There are many
In this chapter, Narby concludes that shamans, or Ayahuasqueros
in this case, while their consciousness is in an altered state
induced by Ayahuasca, perceive animation in all types of life
and this animation is the transmission in images and sound of
the DNA molecule that all living creatures possess. The four
chemical elements, A, G, C and T, which form the double helix of
DNA, present themselves in visions as intertwined serpents.
Researching writings by many cultures and relating them to the
scientific knowledge of DNA, Narby understands that the cosmic
serpent mentioned by many cultures and which can be seen through
the intake of Ayahuasca, is no other but DNA itself which fell
to Earth and became the principle of life.
There was a close link between the "myths" of "primitive"
peoples and molecular biology. The question for Narby now was:
Who are we and where do we come from?
SEVENTH CHAPTER - "MYTHS AND
Narby focuses on the alluded "cosmic serpent" and the origin of
life. He was looking for the relation between this "cosmic
serpent" and DNA. He thus finds that the DNA representation is
in all points similar to what the serpent symbolizes.
Stretching the DNA contained in the nucleus of a human cell, we
obtain a two-meter-long thread with a diameter of just a few
atoms. This thread is one billion times longer than its own
width. Keeping the proportions, it is as if our little finger
stretched from Paris to Los Angeles.
A DNA thread is much smaller than visible light perceived by
humans. Even going beyond the limits of the naked eye with the
most powerful optic microscopes, it is impossible to perceive
it: DNA is approximately one hundred and twenty times thinner
than the smallest wavelength of visible light.
The nucleus of a cell measures approximately as much as the
two-millionth part of a pin head. DNA, two meters long, is
compacted inside this minute volume wrapping itself ad
infinitum, thus combining extreme length with infinitesimal
An average human being is formed by nearly one hundred billion
This means there are two hundred billion kilometers of DNA in a
human body - equivalent to seventy round trips from the Sun to
Saturn. You could travel your whole life in a Boeing 747 at full
speed and you would not even reach one hundredth part of this
distance. Your personal DNA is capable of coiling round the
Earth five million times.
All the cells in the world - human, animal, vegetal or bacterial
- contain DNA. On the other hand, they are all full of salty
water, a content of mineral salts that resembles the one of
primitive oceans: we weep and transpire what is essentially sea
water. So DNA is bathed in water, and this plays a crucial role
in establishing its shape and, therefore, its function.
In fact, the aquatic medium confers
DNA its intertwined ladder shape, because the four DNA bases
(Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine) are insoluble in water
and turn towards the molecule interior to form, by joining in
couples, the steps of the ladder; they then wrap around
themselves to avoid any contact with the wet environment that
So the DNA molecule is a long chain formed by two intertwined
ribbons bound together by four bases. These bases can only join
forming specific couples - A with T, G with C. This implies that
one of the two ribbons is a duplicate of the other one and that
the genetic message is double: it contains a main text on one of
the ribbons which is read in a precise direction by reading
enzymes, and a complementary reserve text which is not read
because it is inverted.
The second ribbon plays two essential roles. It allows repairing
enzymes to rebuild the main text in case it has been damaged,
and, above all, it supplies the mechanism for the reproduction
of genetic messages. In fact, it is enough to open the double
helix like a zipper to obtain two separate and complementary
ribbons which can then be immediately rebuilt into double
ribbons by duplication enzymes.
These enzymes can only couple an A
with a T, and so on, since any other base coupling is
impossible. This process allows the reconstitution of two twin
double helixes, identical to the original at all levels.
Without this duplication mechanism, a cell could never divide
and life would not exist.
DNA is the information molecule of life and its essence consists
in being, at the same time, simple and double.
DNA and its duplication mechanisms are the same for all living
From one species to the other the only change is in the order of
letters. This constancy goes back to the very origins of life on
According to biologist Robert Pollack:
"The surface of the planet has
changed many times, but DNA and its duplication cellular
machinery have remained constant. Schrödinger has said that
DNA was an non periodic crystal, but this minimizes its
stability: no stone, no mountain, no ocean, nor even the sky
over our heads has remained so stable and constant over such
a period of time.
There is nothing inanimate, whatever its
complexity, which has lasted without changes even for a
fraction of the time that DNA and its duplication machinery
At the beginning of its existence,
about four thousand five hundred million years ago, Earth was a
completely inhospitable place for life: its melting surface was
radioactive, water did not exist except as water vapor, and the
atmosphere was full of poisonous gases like cyanide and
formaldehyde, and deprived of breathable oxygen.
About 3.9 billion years ago, the Earth's surface became cool
enough to form a thin crust lying on the fusing magma. Strangely
enough, life - and therefore DNA - appeared relatively quickly
after this. There are sedimentary rocks which indicate possible
bacterial deposits about 3.8 billion years old, and true
microbial fossils which date back 3.5 billion years.
During the first two billion years of life, there were only
anaerobic bacteria on Earth, which regarded oxygen as poison.
Living in water, some of them had learned to use hydrogen and to
expel oxygen contained in the H2O molecule, activating new
metabolic pathways which were more efficient in energy terms.
The gradual enrichment of oxygen in
the atmosphere permitted the apparition of a new type of cells
capable of using oxygen and provided with a nucleus to regroup
DNA. These nuclear cells are much larger than bacteria, at least
thirty times more voluminous.
According to biologists Lynn
Margulis and Dorion Sagan:
"Biological transition between
bacteria and nuclear cells is so sudden that it cannot be
explained by gradual changes in time."
Ever since that moment, life as we
know it took form. Nuclear cells associated to form the first
multi-cellular beings, such as algae.
These also produced oxygen
by photosynthesis. Oxygen rates in the atmosphere reached about
21%, a level that seems to have been fortunately stable for the
last five hundred million years, since a bit higher percentage
of oxygen would cause living creatures to ignite spontaneously.
For Margulis and Sagan, this fact,
"gives the impression of a
conscious decision to keep the balance between danger and
opportunity, risk and benefit."
About five hundred million years ago
there is an explosion of life in a true lavishness of
multi-cellular species, algae, more complex plants and animals
which not only live in water, but also on the ground and in the
air. None of the living species of those days subsist nowadays.
According to some calculations,
almost all species that have existed on Earth have already
disappeared, while currently there are between three and fifty
million species on the planet.
DNA is a master of transformation: life based on cells informed
by DNA has formed the air we breath, the landscape we see and
the disturbing diversity of living beings which we are a part
of. In four billion years it has multiplied itself in an
incalculable number of different species, rigorously remaining
Inside the nucleus, DNA forms curves and unrolls itself, it
contours and oscillates. Frequently, specialists compare the
shape and the movements of this large molecule with the ones of
Molecular biologist Christopher
Wills, for example, writes:
"The two DNA chains are similar
to two intertwined serpents in a kind of love ritual."
In sum, DNA is a master of
transformation with serpent shape, which lives in the water, at
the same time long and minuscule, simple and double. Such as the
In fact, the genome or necessary information to build a human
being (for example) is in three billion letters displayed along
a single DNA thread. In some places this thread wraps around
itself to form twenty-three more compact segments called
chromosomes. We all inherit a complete set of chromosomes from
our parents and so we possess twenty-three pairs of them.
Each chromosome is formed by a very
long thread of DNA which is basically a double message, with the
main text in one of the ribbons of the double helix and its
complementary duplicate in the other ribbon. In this way, all
our cells contain two complete genomes as well as their copies.
Our genetic message, therefore, is twice double and contains a
total of six billion pairs of bases or twelve billion letters.
The DNA contained in the nucleus of a human cell measures about
two meters. Along its length, the two ribbons of the double
helix coil around themselves hundreds of millions of times.
At the level of its material aspect, or its shape, DNA is thus a
doubly double text that wraps around itself, in other words, a
Reading enzymes only read DNA segments that codify the
construction of proteins and enzymes. These segments, called
genes, only represent 3% of the human genome. The rest 97% is
never read; its usefulness is a mystery.
Calladine and Horace Drew sum up the situation:
"The largest part of DNA in our
body does things we do not understand at the moment."
DNA is the key to life that
possesses the shape of a long simple or double serpent, or a
tressed linen wick, that allows passing from one to many and it
is located in water.
However, this is just a group of clues that every investigator,
or member of the jury, is free to interpret.
EIGHT CHAPTER - "THE EYES OF THE ANT"
Narby, sitting at home in the garden next to his children, began
to imagine thousands of million kilometers of DNA that
"The DNA molecule, about ten
atoms wide, is a kind of ultimate technology; it is organic
and so miniaturized that it approaches the very limits of
He interpreted that the spirit of
living species alluded by Ayahuasqueros, which has consciousness
and spirit and sees it all, and that they can perceive when they
are deeply intoxicated, is simply DNA.
We transcribe a fragment of his account:
"Lost in thought I stared at the
grass and began to follow a black and shiny ant that made
its way through the lawn. It crossed the thick grass with
the determination of an agile tank and moved towards the
tree at the back of the garden that sheltered a colony of
ant cows. This ant actually belonged to a species that
raised and milked ant cows for their sugary secretions.
I began to think about the fact that this ant had a
different visual system than mine but it apparently worked
as well. Despite our differences in size and shape, both had
been built due to instructions written in the same language
- a language we were incapable of seeing, since DNA is
smaller than visible light, even for the eyes of an ant.
I found it interesting that the
language which contained the instructions for the
elaboration of different visual systems was in itself not
visible. It was as if the instructions had to be hidden from
their beneficiaries; as if we were wired in such a way that
we could not perceive the wires…
I tried again to approach the subject from a shaman point of
view. It was as if those beings inside us wanted to hide…
But that is what the Ashaninkas say! They call those
invisible beings that have created life 'Maninkari',
literally 'Those who are hidden'!"
With Ayahuasca, in that alternate
state of consciousness it brings about, Ayahuasqueros perceive
all surrounding nature as colour lights with sound.
They compare their visions with a TV screen. For that reason
Ayahuasca is also known as jungle TV.
Narby makes an evaluation of the functions of his own eyes and
finds an extremely sophisticated organic technology.
This system of miniature muscles and glands, highly
sophisticated, gives us an image of reality, processed in our
own brain. But we can never know which the true reality is or
how others see it.
Sight plays a very important part in learning through Ayahuasca.
As we get deeper into alternate states of consciousness, we
learn to handle better this hidden capability of perceiving what
we cannot see in a normal state.
The World is an immense network full of life orchestrated by
From unicellular beings to the ozone layer that protects our
genetic substance from sun rays and makes the atmosphere
breathable. Anaerobic bacteria at the bottom of the sea.
Everything that is alive contains DNA.
This DNA network encircles the Earth.
In this chapter Narby refers to a description by a
Shipibo-Conibo Ayahuasquero, Luis Ancon, of his perception of
"The Earth we live in is a disk
swimming in big waters. The serpent of the World, "Ronin",
half-way submerged, entirely surrounds it."
Narby finds here a direct analogy
between DNA encircling the Earth and that cosmic serpent alluded
Still with many unknown issues to
solve, Narby starts a series of inquiries and realizes that in
most cultures of the World the serpent is presented as a source
of knowledge. Even in places where this animal is not commonly
known, they are present in their ideological world, such as it
happens in Siberia, where serpent designs can be seen on shaman
NINTH CHAPTER - "RECEPTORS AND
In this chapter Narby tries to understand why Ayahuasqueros
constantly allude to spirits with their own light and what their
relation with the consumption of Ayahuasca is during the
Ayahuasca activates the perception of DNA which is found in
every cell of our organism. Nicotine contained in tobacco
accelerates the function of DNA. For that reason Ayahuasqueros
refer to tobacco as "something delightful for the spirits".
Equally, the DNA contained in the rest of living beings is
emitted by them as photons. In that way, and recognizing the
identical side of DNA in all living beings, these can
communicate, becoming receptors and emitters at the same time.
It is convenient to establish the main differences between the
shamanic use of tobacco and the consumption of industrial
cigarettes. In principle, the botanical variety used in the
Amazon contains up to eighteen times more nicotine than Virginia
type plants used in cigarettes.
Amazonic tobacco is grown
without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and it does not
contain any of the ingredients added to cigarettes such as
aluminium oxide, potassium nitrate, ammonium phosphates,
polyvinyl acetate and hundreds of others that make up about ten
percent of their fundamental matter.
During combustion, a cigarette
liberates about four thousand substances, mostly toxic.
them, some are even radioactive, making cigarettes the main
source of radiation in the daily life of the average smoker.
Smoking one or two packs a day, we absorb radioactivity,
according to some calculations, equivalent to two hundred and
fifty lung radiographs per year. Cigarette smoke is directly
involved in more than twenty-five serious illnesses, seventeen
of them some form of cancer.
On the contrary, in the Amazon
tobacco is considered a remedy. Among the Ashaninkas, the word
for healer or shaman is Sheripiari, literally "one that uses
The oldest Ashaninka men are
Sheripiari. They all enjoy very good health and maintain great
Tobacco used in the Amazon belongs to the Nicotina rustica
species, wild tobacco. It does not produce the damage registered
for the Nicotina tabacum species.
A determining factor is the additives used in the manufacture of
brand or industrialized cigarettes.
It seems clear that it is not nicotine that causes cancer, since
it notoriously acts on the brain, and cigarettes do not cause
brain cancer, but lung, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, rectum,
kidney or bladder cancer, in other words, where cancer causing
tars penetrate after being also swallowed.
TENTH CHAPTER - "THE BIOLOGICAL DEAD
In this chapter Narby refers to that part of modern biology that
does not reach the exact origin of things.
For modern biologists the essence of life is inanimate. But if
we consider Narby's study as we read his work, we find a
different reality in that tribal world he got to know.
For Ayahuasqueros, the essence of life which exists in
all nature has, besides a shape, sound and image. Narby finds a
relation between the animation that can be perceived by
Ayahuasqueros and what molecular biology identifies as DNA.
Modern science recognizes in DNA the inclusion of all the
characteristics of the living being. However it does not dare to
attribute with self-animation this life principle that precisely
contains all the genetic information which bears our own
consciousness as a fruit.
Considering each of its cells, the length of DNA contained in
the human body is two hundred billion kilometers. Narby relates
these dimensions with the heavenly string alluded by the
Ashaninkas when they speak of their Cosmo vision. In a part of
it they mention how life came to Earth.
Ayahuasqueros refer to their knowledge of the cosmos in a
metaphorical way. On the other hand, modern scientists use new
terms to refer to new discoveries.
When Ayahuasqueros speak of the heavenly string that came
from the cosmos to bring life, it is very probable that they are
referring to DNA, which has been the subject of modern science
for some years.
For Ayahuasqueros this heavenly string is inside every
living creature and it is life itself. Besides a shape, it has
sound and transmits information, which can be received and
processed by the DNA contained in another living being, be it an
animal or a vegetal.
However, for biologists, DNA is a simple chemical product. They
describe it as a molecule or a language. But it is not
considered conscious or living. They take into account that
chemical products are inert.
Narby asks himself how is it possible for that cumulus of
characteristics contained in the cell nucleus not to be itself
For both biologists and Ayahuasqueros, their motivation
to establish postulates is more a question of faith than
Narby ends his book by rescuing an attitude of respect for
others and their beliefs. Both the positions of biologists and
Ayahuasqueros are respectable; there are still many
obscure sides for our eyes.
To finish, Narby presents a hypothesis that I now transcribe:
"…my hypothesis asserts that the
vital principle is animate and that nature as a whole is
capable of communicating, which contradicts the founding
principle of this molecular biology that is current
As well as Narby, not just in the
process of this analysis, but considering my experience with
Ayahuasca within the context of tribal communities of the Amazon
and their shamanic tradition, I have understood that,
"beyond seeing to believe, you have
to believe to see".
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