Chapter 2

he main enigma I encountered during my research on Ashaninca ecology was that 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 for hours.


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.


The sophistication of this recipe has prompted Richard Evans Schultes, the most renowned ethnobotanist of the twentieth century, to comment:

"One wonders how peoples in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Pure experimentation? Perhaps not. The examples are too numerous and may become even more numerous with future research." 1

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.


And 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.2

Not many anthropologists have looked into this enigma 3 - but the failure of academics to consider this kind of mystery is not limited to the Amazon. Over the course of the twentieth century, anthropologists have examined shamanic practices around the world without fully grasping them.

A brief history of anthropology reveals a blind spot in its studies of shamanism.

In the nineteenth century, European thinkers considered that some races were more evolved than others.


Charles Darwin, one of the founders of the theory of evolution, wrote in 1871:

"With civilized nations, the reduced size of the jaws from lessened use, the habitual play of different muscles serving to express different emotions, and the increased size of the brain from greater intellectual activity, have together produced a considerable effect on their general appearance in comparison with savages."4

Anthropology was founded in the second half of the nineteenth century to study "primitive," "Stone Age" societies. Its underlying goal was to understand where "we" Europeans had come from.5

The problem for the young discipline was the unreasonable nature of its object of study. According to Edward Tylor, one of the first anthropologists:

"Savages are exceedingly ignorant as regards both physical and moral knowledge; want of discipline makes their opinions crude and their action ineffective in a surprising degree; and the tyranny of tradition at ever)' step imposes upon them thoughts and customs which have been inherited from a different stage of culture, and thus have lost a reasonableness which we may often see them to have possessed in their first origin.


Judged by our ordinary modern standard of knowledge, which is at any rate a high one as compared to theirs, much of what they believe to be true, must be set down as false."6

The question was: How could one study such incoherence scientifically?

The "father of modern anthropology," Bronislaw Malinovvski, found the answer by developing a method for the objective analysis of "savages." Called "participant observation," and used to this day, it involves living in close contact with the natives while observing them from a distance.


By considering native reality with a distant gaze, the anthropologist manages to introduce "law and order into what seemed chaotic and freakish." 7

From the 1930s onward, anthropology obsessively sought order in its study of others, to elevate itself to the rank of science.8 In the process it transformed reality into next to incomprehensible discourses.9

Here is an extract from Claude Levi-Strauss's book The elementary structures of kinship (1949), one of the texts by which anthropology claimed to attain the rank of science:

"For example, in a normal eight-subsection system the grandson would reproduce his fathers fathers subsection by marriage with the mothers mothers brothers daughters daughter.


The wavering of the Murinbata between the traditional system and the new order ends in practice with the identification of the mothers brothers daughter and the mother's mothers brother's daughter's daughter as the possible marriage partner, i.e., for TJANAMA: nangala = nauola. Hence, a TJIMIJ man marries a namij woman.


The father maintains that his daughter is naiycri (which is the 'conventional' Sub-section). However, a namij woman is by kinship purima, a 'marriageable' daughter of the sister's son, but according to the subsections she is a sister."


Consequently, her daughter is nabidjin. for according to the aboriginal rule, formulated in a matrilineal idiom: 'namij makes nahidjin.' From this the conflict arises of whether the subsections are patrilineal or matrilineal."10

Just when anthropology thought it had established itself within the scientific community thanks to such "structuralist" discourses, it experienced a fundamental setback.


Its object of study. those primitives living outside of time, started to vanish like snow in the sun: by the middle of the twentieth century, it had become increasingly difficult to find "real" natives who had never had any contact with the industrial world. Indeed, such people may never even have existed. As early as the second half of the nineteenth century, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, for instance, were dragooned on a grand scale into the construction of the industrial world, to which they contributed a vital component, rubber. Since then most of them have used metal tools of industrial origin.

During the 1960s, this crisis plunged anthropology into the doubt and self-criticism of "post-structuralism."


Anthropologists came to realize that their presence changed things, that they were themselves soils of colonial agents, and. worse yet. that their methodology was Hawed. Participant observation is a contradiction in terms, because it is impossible to observe people from above while participating in the action at their side, to watch the game from the stands while playing on the field.


The anthropological method condemns its practitioners to 'dance on the edge of a paradox"11 and to play the schizophrenic role of the player-commentator. Furthermore, the distant gaze of the anthropologist cannot perceive Itself, and those who aspire to objectivity by using it cannot see their own presuppositions.


As Pierre Bourdieu put it, objectivism "fails to objectify its objectifying relationship."12

Anthropologists discovered that their gaze was a tool of domination and that their discipline was not only a child of colonialism, it also served the colonial cause through its own practice. The "unbiased and supra-cultural language of the observer" was actually a colonial discourse and a form of domination.13

The solution for the discipline consisted in accepting that it was not a science, but a form of interpretation.


Claude Levi-Strauss himself came to say:

"The human sciences are only sciences by way of a sell-flattering imposture. They run into an insurmountable limit, because the realities they aspire to understand are of the same order of complexity as the intellectual means they deploy. Therefore they are incapable of mastering their object, and always will be."14

Anthropologists invented the word 'shamanism" to classify the least comprehensible practices of "primitive" peoples.

The word "shaman" is originally Siberian. Its etymology is uncertain.15 In the Tungus language, a saman is a person who beats a drum, enters into trance, and cures people. The first Russian observers who related the activities of these saman described them, is mentally ill.

From the early twentieth century onward. anthropologists progressively extended the use of this Siberian term and found shamans in Indonesia. Uganda, the Arctic, and Amazonia. Some played drums, others drank plant decoctions and sang; some claimed to cure, others cast spells. They were unanimously considered neurotic, epileptic, psychotic, hysterical, or schizophrenic.16

As George Devereux, an authority on the matter, wrote:

"In brief, there is no reason and no excuse for not considering the shaman as a severe neurotic and even a psychotic. In addition, shamanism is often also culture dystonic... Briefly stated, we hold that the shaman is mentally deranged. This is also the opinion of Kroeber and I anion."17

In the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists began to realize not only that "primitives" did not exist as such, but that shamans were not crazy.


The change came abruptly. In 1949, Claude Levi-Strauss stated in a key essay that the shaman, far from being mentally ill, was in fact a kind of psychotherapist - the difference being that "the psychoanalyst listens, whereas the shaman speaks." For Levi-Strauss, the shaman is above all a creator of order, who cures people by transforming their "incoherent and arbitrary pains" into "an ordered and intelligible form."18

The shaman as creator of order became the creed of a new generation of anthropologists. From I960 to 1980. the established authorities of the discipline defined the shaman as a creator of order, a master of chaos, or an avoider of disorder.19

Of course, things did not happen so simply.


Until the late 1960s, several members of the old school continued to claim that shamanism was a form of mental illness:

"and in the 1970s it became fashionable to present the shaman as a specialist in all kinds of domains who plays "the roles of physician, pharmacologist, psychotherapist, sociologist, philosopher, lawyer, astrologer, and priest."21

Finally, in the 1980s, a few iconoclasts claimed that shamans were creators of disorder.

So who are these shamans? Schizophrenics or creators of order? Jacks-of-all-trades or creators of disorder?

The answer lies in the mirror. When anthropology was a young science, unsure of its own identity and unaware of the schizophrenic nature of its own methodology, it considered shamans to be mentally ill.


When "structuralist" anthropology claimed to have attained the rank of science, and anthropologists busied themselves finding order in order, shamans became creators of order. When the discipline went into a "poststructuralist" identity crisis, unable to decide whether it was a science or a form of interpretation, shamans started exercising all kinds of professions.


Finally, some anthropologists began questioning their discipline's obsessive search for order, and they saw shamans as those whose power lies in,

"insistently questioning and undermining the search for order."22

It would seem, then, that the reality hiding behind the concept of "shamanism" reflects the anthropologist's gaze, independently of its angle.

In 1951, around the time Levi-Strauss was transforming the schizophrenic shaman into the psychoanalyst-creator of order. Mircea Eliade, one of the foremost authorities in the history of religions, published the now classic Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. To this day, it is the only attempt at a world synthesis on the subject.

Eliade, who was not a trained anthropologist, saw neither mental illness nor creation of order. Instead he identified astonishing similarities in the practices and concepts of shamans the world over.


Wherever these "technicians of ecstasy" operate, they specialize in a trance during which their,

"soul is believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld."

They all speak a "secret language" which they learn directly from the spirits, by imitation.


They talk of a ladder - or a vine, a rope, a spiral staircase, a twisted rope ladder - that connects heaven and earth and which they use to gain access to the world of spirits. They consider these spirits to have come from the sky and to have created life on earth.23

Anthropologists rarely appreciate it when library-based intellectuals use their work without muddying their boots and discover connections that they had not seen. They made no exception with Eliade, rejecting his work because of its "latent mysticism." They accused him of detaching symbols from their contexts, mutilating and distorting the facts, obliterating the sociocultural aspect of the phenomenon and locking it into a mystical dead end.


Recently, it was even said that Eliade s notion of celestial flight was,

"a potentially fascistic portrayal of third world healing."24

Nevertheless, despite these criticisms. Eliade understood before many anthropologists that it is useful to take people and their practices seriously and to pay attention to the detail of what they say and do.

Some anthropologists realized that the academic studies of shamanism were going around in circles. This led them to criticize the very notion of "shamanism."


Clifford Geertz, for instance, wrote that shamanism is one of those,

"insipid categories by means of which ethnographers of religion devitalize their data."25

However, abandoning the concept of "shamanism," as was done thirty years ago with the notion of "totemism,"26 will not clarify the reality to which it refers.


The difficulty of grasping "shamanism" lies not so much in the concept itself as in the gaze of those who use it. The academic analysis of shamanism will always be the rational study of the nonrational - in other words, a self-contradictory proposition or a cul-de-sac.

Perhaps the most revealing example in this respect is provided by Luis Eduardo Luna, the author of an excellent study of the shamanism of mestizo ayahuasqueros in the Peruvian Amazon, who practice what they call vegetalismo, a form of popular medicine based on hallucinogenic plants, singing, and dieting.


Luna focuses on the techniques of these shamans and reports their opinions without interpreting them.


He writes:

"They say that ayahuasca is a doctor. It possesses a strong spirit and it is considered an intelligent being with which it is possible to establish rapport, and from which it is possible to acquire knowledge and power if the diet and other prescriptions are carefully followed."

However, Luna writes in a rational language for a rational public ("us"), and it is not rational to claim that certain plants are intelligent beings capable of communication.


Luna, who explores the question of "plant-teachers" over several pages, ends up concluding:

"Nothing can be said... until we have some kind of understanding as to what these people are really talking about, when they say that the plants themselves reveal their properties."27

One cannot consider that what they say is real, because, in reality as "we" know it, plants do not communicate.

There is the blind spot.

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