Twelve months after the Rio conference a publisher accepted my proposal
for a book on Amazonian shamanism and ecology'. I was
going to call it Ecological hallucinations. Several weeks later
my employer agreed to let me spend part of my time working on the book.
I was set to investigate the enigma of plant communication. But
where was I to begin?
My initial impulse would have been to return to the Peruvian Amazon
and spend some time with the ayahuasqueros. However, my life had
changed. I was no longer a free-roaming anthropologist, but the
father of two young children. I was going to have to conduct my
investigation from my office and the nearest library, rather than
from the forests of Peru.
I started by rereading my fieldnotes and the transcripts of the
Carlos Perez Shuma interviews. I paid particular attention to the
strange passages I had left out of my thesis. Then, given that
writing is an extension of thinking. I drafted a preliminary version
of a first chapter on my arrival in Quirishari and my initial
During this immersion in mysterious moments of my past. I started
thinking about what Carlos had said.
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
"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 that 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.
This realization led me to decide, now that I was trying to map the
cul-de-sac of hallucinatory knowledge, that it would be useful not
only to establish its limits from a rational perspective, but to
suspend disbelief and note with equal seriousness the outline of the
ayahuasqueros' notions on the other side ol the apparent impasse.
I read for weeks. I started by refreshing my memory and going over
the basic texts of anthropology as well as the disciplines new.
self-critical vein. Then I devoured the literature on shamanism,
which was new to me. I had not read as much since my doctoral
examinations nine years previously and was pleased to rediscover
this purely abstract level of reality. With an enthusiasm that I
never had at university I took hundreds of pages of reading notes,
which I then categorized.
Five months into my investigation, my wife and I visited friends who
introduced us during the evening to a book containing colorful "three-dimensional images" made up of seemingly disordered
dots. To see a coherent and '3-D'' image emerge from the blur, one
had to defocalize one's gaze.
"Let your eyes go," our hostess told
me, "as if you were looking through the hook without seeing it.
Relax into the blur and be patient."
After several attempts, and
seemingly by magic, a remarkably deep stereogram sprang out of the
page that I was holding in front of me.
It showed a dolphin leaping in
the waves. As soon as I focused normally on the page, the dolphin
disappeared, along with the waves in front of it and behind it. and
all I could see were muddled dots again.
This experience reminded me of Bourdieu's phrase "to objectify one's
objectifying relationship." which is another way of saving "to
become aware of one's gaze." That is precisely what one had to do in
order to see the stereogram. This made me think that my
dissatisfaction with the anthropological studies of shamanism was
perhaps due to the necessarily localized perspective of academic
anthropologists, who failed to grasp shamanic phenomena in the same
way that the normal gaze failed to see "three-dimensional images."
Was there perhaps a way of relaxing ones gaze and seeing shamanism
During the following weeks I continued reading, while trying to
relax my gaze and pay attention to the texts' style. as much as to
their content. Then I started writing a preliminary version of a
second chapter on anthropology and shamanism. One afternoon, as I
was writing. I suddenly saw a strikingly coherent image emerge from
the muddle, as in a stereogram: Most anthropologists who had studied
shamanism had only seen their own shadow. This went for the
schizophrenics, the creators of order, the jacks-of-all-trades, and
the creators of disorder.
This vision shook me. I felt that I had finally found a warm trail.
Without wasting time. I continued in the same direction.
As I felt certain that the enigma of hallucinatory knowledge was
only an apparent dead end. and as I was trying to suspend disbelief.
I started wondering whether I might not be able to find a solution
after all. The passage that led to the shamanic world was certainly
hidden from normal vision, but perhaps there was a way of perceiving
Speculating in this way. I realized that the hallucinations I had
seen in Quirishari could also be described as three-dimensional
images invisible to a normal gaze. According to my Ashaninca
friends, it was precisely by reaching the hallucinatory state of
consciousness that one crossed the impasse.
For them, there was no
fundamental contradiction between the practical reality of their
life in the rainforest and the invisible and irrational world of
ayahuasqueros. On the contrary, it was by going back and forth
between these two levels that one could bring back useful and
verifiable knowledge that was otherwise unobtainable. This proved to
me that it was possible to reconcile these two apparently distinct
I also felt that I needed to improve my de-realization skills in
order to succeed. I live not far from a castle that belonged to the
family of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes
During my youth, I had often admired the famous
detective's "lateral" methods, where he would lock himself into his
office and play discordant tunes on his violin late into the
night - to emerge with the key to the mystery. In the wintry fogs of
the Swiss plateau. I started following Holmes's example. Once the
children were in bed. I would go down to my office and get to work
with hypnotically dissonant music playing in the background.1
Some evenings I would go further. Given that walking makes thinking
easier. I would dress up warmly and go for strolls in the
misty darkness with my tape recorder. Accompanied only by the rhythm
of Dry boot heels, I would think aloud about all the imaginable
solutions to the enigma that was beginning to obsess me. The
following day I would transcribe these nebulous soliloquies looking
for new perspectives.
Some passages truly helped me understand where
I was trying to go:
"You must defocalize your gaze so as to perceive
science and the indigenous vision at the same time. Then the common
ground between the two will appear in
the form of a stereogram "
My social life became nonexistent.
Apart from a few hours in the
afternoon with my children, I spent most of my time reading and
thinking. My wife started saying I was absent even when I was in the
room. She was right, and I could not hear her because I was
obsessed. The more I advanced with this unusual methodology, the
fresher the trail seemed.
For several weeks, I went over the scientific literature on
hallucinogens and their supposed effects on the human brain.
Here is a fact I learned during my reading: We do not know how our
visual system works. As you read these words, you do not really see
the ink, the paper, your hands, and the surroundings, but an
internal and three-dimensional image that reproduces them almost
exactly and that is constructed by your brain.
The photons reflected
by this page strike the retinas of your eyes, which transform them
into electrochemical information; the optic nerves relay this
information to the visual cortex at the back of the head, where a
cascade-like network of nerve cells separates the input into
categories (form, color, movement, depth, etc.). How the brain goes
about reuniting these sets of categorized information into a
coherent image is still a mystery. This also means that the
neurological basis of consciousness is unknown.2
If we do not know how we see a real object in front of us, we
understand even less how we perceive something that is not there.
When a person hallucinates, there is no external source of visual
stimulation, which, of course, is why cameras do not pick up
Strangely, and with few exceptions, these basic facts are not
mentioned in the thousands of scientific studies on hallucinations;
in books with titles such as Origin and mechanisms of
hallucinations, experts provide partial and mainly hypothetical
answers, which they formulate in complicated terms, giving the
impression that they have attained the objective truth, or are about
to do so.3
The neurological pathways of hallucinogens are better understood
than the mechanisms of hallucinations. During the 1950s, researchers
discovered that the chemical composition of most hallucinogens
closely resembles that of serotonin, a hormone produced by the human
brain and used as a chemical messenger between brain cells.
hypothesized that hallucinogens act on consciousness by fitting into
the same cerebral receptors as serotonin,
"like similar keys fitting
the same lock."4
LSD, a synthetic compound unknown in nature, does not have the same
profile as the organic molecules such as dimethyltryptamine or psilocybin.
Nevertheless, the great majority of clinical
investigations focused on LSD, which was considered to be the most
powerful of all hallucinogens, given that only 50-millionths of a
gram brings on its effects.5
In the second half of the 1960s, hallucinogens became illegal in the
Shortly thereafter, scientific studies of these
substances, which had been so prolific during the previous two
decades, were stopped across the board. Ironically it was around
this time that several researchers pointed out that, according to
sciences strict criteria, LSD most often does not induce true
hallucinations, where the images are confused with reality. People
under the influence of LSD nearly always know that the visual
distortions or the cascades of dots and colors that they perceive
are not real, but are due to the action of a psychedelic agent.
this sense, LSD is "pseudo-hallucinogenic." 6
So the scientific studies of hallucinogens focused mainly on a
product that is not really hallucinogenic; researchers neglected the
natural substances, which have been used for thousands of years by
hundreds of peoples, in favor of a synthetic compound invented in a
In 1979, it was discovered that the human brain seems to secrete
dimethyltryptamine - which is also one of the active ingredients of
ayahuasca. This substance produces true hallucinations, in which the
visions replace normal reality convincingly, such as fluorescent
snakes to whom one excuses oneself as one steps over them.
Unfortunately, scientific research on dimethyltryptamine is rare.
this day, the clinical studies of its effects on "normal" human
beings can be counted on the fingers of one hand.8
As I read, the seasons turned. Suddenly winter gave way to spring,
and the days began getting longer. I had just spent six full months
focusing on other peoples writings. Now I felt the time had come to
pause momentarily, and then to start writing my book.
Making the most of the first warm spell of the year, I took a day
off and went walking in a nature reserve with my tape recorder. The
buds were stalling to open, springs were gushing everywhere, and I
was hoping that my ideas would do the same.
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.9
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
claimed. However, I failed to see how this could work concretely.
With these thoughts in mind, I interrupted my stroll and sat down,
resting my back against a big tree. Then I tried to enter into
communication with it. I closed my eyes and breathed in the damp
vegetal scent in the air. I waited for a form of communication to
appear on my mental screen - but I ended up perceiving nothing more
than the agreeable feeling of immersion in sunshine and fertile
After about ten minutes, I stood up and resumed walking. Suddenly my
thoughts turned again to
Maybe I would find the answer by looking at both perspectives simultaneously, with 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 apparently divergent.
The path I was following led to a crystalline cascade gushing out of
a limestone cliff. The water was sparkling and tasted like
The next day I returned to my office with renewed energy. All I had
to do was classify my reading notes on Amazonian shamanism and then
I could start writing. However, before getting down to this task, I
decided to spend a day following my fancy, freely paging through the
piles of articles and notes that I had accumulated over the months.
In reading the literature on Amazonian shamanism, I had noticed that
the personal experience of anthropologists with indigenous
hallucinogens was a gray zone. I knew the problem well for having
skirted around it myself in my own writings. One of the categories
in my reading notes was called "Anthropologists and Ayahuasca."
consulted the card corresponding to this category, which I had
filled out over the course of my investigation, and noted that the
first subjective description of an ayahuasca experience by an
anthropologist was published in 1968 - whereas several botanists had
written up similar experiences a hundred years previously.10
The anthropologist in question was Michael Harner.
He had devoted
ten lines to his own experience in the middle of an academic
"For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself,
although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met
bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained
that they were the true gods of this world.
I enlisted the services
of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches
of the Galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural
seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself,
had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in
affecting native ideology."11
At first Michael Harner pursued an enviable career, teaching in
reputable universities and editing a book on shamanism for Oxford
Later, however, he alienated a good portion of his
colleagues by publishing a popular manual on a series of shamanic
techniques based on visualization and the use of drums.
One anthropologist called it,
"a project deserving criticism given M. Hamer's total ignorance about shamanism."12
In brief, Harner's work
was generally discredited.
I must admit that I had assimilated some of these prejudices. At the
beginning of my investigation, I had only read through Harner's
manual quickly, simply noting that the first chapter contained a
detailed description of his first ayahuasca experience, which took
up ten pages this time, instead of ten lines. In fact, I had not
paid particular attention to its content.
So, for pleasure and out of curiosity, I decided to go over Harner's
account again. It was in reading this literally fantastic narrative
that I stumbled on a key clue that was to change the course of my
Harner explains that in the early 1960s, he went 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. Harner accepted not without fear,
because the people had warned him that the experience was
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.
After arriving in a celestial cavern where
"a supernatural carnival of demons" was in full swing, he saw two
strange boats floating through the air that combined to form,
dragon-headed prow, not unlike that of a Viking ship."
On the deck,
he could make out,
"large numbers of people with the heads of blue
jays and the bodies of humans, not unlike the bird-headed gods of
ancient Egyptian tomb paintings."
After multiple episodes, which would be too long to describe here,
Harner became convinced that he was dying. He tried calling out to his Conibo friends for an antidote without managing to
pronounce a word.
Then 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, while
informing him that this information was reserved for the dying and
"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 language that they were fleeing
from something out in space.
They 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. I learned that the dragon-like creatures
were thus inside all forms of life, including man."
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."13
I paused. I had not paid attention to this footnote previously.
There was 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 imagine
the previous day in the forest.
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 double helix
of DNA resembled, in its form, two entwined serpents.
After lunch, I returned to the office with a strange feeling. The
reptilian creatures that Harner had seen in his brain reminded me of
something, but I could not say what. It had to be a text that I had
read and that was in one of the numerous piles of documents and
notes spread out over the floor. I consulted the "Brain" pile, in
which I had placed the articles on the neurological aspects of
consciousness, but I found no trace of reptiles.
around for a while, I put my hand on an article called "Brain and
mind in Desana shamanism" (Journal
of Latin American Lore - 1981 - 73-98) by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.
I had ordered a copy of this article from the library during my
readings on the brain. Knowing from Reichel-Dolrnatoffs numerous
publications that the Desana of the Colombian Amazon were regular
ayahuasca users, I had been curious to learn about their point of
view on the physiology of consciousness. But the first time I had
read the article, it had seemed rather esoteric, and I had relegated
it to a secondary pile.
This time, paging through it, I was stopped
by a Desana drawing of a human brain with a snake lodged between the
two hemispheres (below image).
I read the text above the drawing and learned that
consider the fissure occupied by the reptile to be a,
that was formed in the beginning of time (of mythical and embryological time) by the cosmic anaconda. Near the head of the
serpent is a hexagonal rock crystal, just outside the brain; it is
there where a particle of solar energy resides and irradiates the
Several pages further into the article, I came upon a second
drawing, this time with two snakes.
According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, the
below drawing shows that
within the fissure,
"two intertwined snakes are lying, a giant
anaconda (Eunectes murinus) and a rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) a
large river snake of dark dull colors and an equally large land
snake of spectacular bright colors.
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
Intrigued, I began reading Reichel-Dolmatoffs
article from the beginning. In the first pages he provides a sketch
of the Desana's
main cosmological beliefs.
The human brain. The fissure is occupied by an anaconda and a
(Redrawn from Desana sketches.) From ReicheUDolmatoff
(1981, p. 88).
My eyes stopped on the following sentence:
"The Desana say that in the beginning of time their
ancestors arrived in canoes shaped like huge serpents."16
At this point I began feeling 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 Amazon.
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.
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. This study by Jean-Pierre Chaumeil is, to my mind, one of the most rigorous on the subject. I
started paging through it looking for passages relative to
First I found a "celestial serpent" in a
drawing of the universe by a Yagua shaman.
Then, a few pages
away, another shaman is quoted as saying:
"At the very beginning,
before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth " Chaumeil adds that the Yagua
consider that all living beings were created by twins, who are "the
two central characters in Yagua cosmogonic thought."17
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:
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. However, I was getting used to suspending
disbelief, and I had decided to follow my approach through to its
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
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
More concretely, I established a new category in my reading notes
entitled "DNA Snakes."
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