Chapter 8

One sunny afternoon that spring I was sitting in the garden with my children.


Birds were singing in the trees, and my mind began to wander. There I was, a product of twentieth-century rationality, my faith requiring numbers and molecules rather than myths. Yet I was now confronted with mythological numbers relative to a molecule, in which I had to believe. Inside my body sitting there in the garden sun were 125 billion miles of DNA.


I was wired to the hilt with DNA threads and until recently had known nothing about it.


Was this astronomical number really just a "useless but amusing fact,"1 as some scientists would have it? Or did it indicate that the dimensions, at least, of our DNA are cosmic?

Some biologists describe DNA as an "ancient high biotechnology," containing "over a hundred trillion times as much information by volume as our most sophisticated information storage devices." Could one still speak of a technology in these circumstances? Yes, because there is no other word to qualify this duplicate, information-storing molecule.


DNA is only ten atoms wide and as such constitutes a sort of ultimate technology: It is organic and so miniaturized that it approaches the limits of material existence.2

Shamans, meanwhile, claim that the vital principle that animates all living creatures comes from the cosmos and is minded.


As ayahuasquero Pablo Amaringo says:

"A plant may not talk, but there is a spirit in it that is conscious, that sees everything, which is the soul of the plant, its essence, what makes it alive."

According to Amaringo, these spirits are veritable beings, and humans are also filled with them:

"Even the hair, the eyes, the ears are full of beings. You see all this when ayahuasca is strong."3

During the past weeks, I had come to consider that the perspective of biologists could be reconciled with that of ayahuasqueros and that both could be true at the same time.


According to the stereoscopic image I could see by gazing at both perspectives simultaneously, DNA and the cell-based life it codes for are an extremely sophisticated technology that far surpasses our present-day understanding and that was initially developed elsewhere than on earth - which it radically transformed on its arrival some four billion years ago.

This point of view was completely new to me and had changed my way of looking at the world. For instance, the leaves of trees now appeared to be true solar panels. One had only to look at them closely to see their "technological," or organized, aspect (below image).

This revelation was troubling. I started thinking about my eyes, through which I was looking at the plants in the garden. Over the course of my readings, I had learned that the human eye is more sophisticated than any camera of similar size.


The cells on the outer layer of the retina can absorb a single particle of light, or photon, and amplify its energy at least a million times, before transferring it in the form of a nervous signal to the back of the brain.

A magnified section of a leaf illustrating its organized, technological aspect.

The iris, which functions as the eyes diaphragm, is automatically controlled.


The cornea has just the right curvature. The lens is focused by miniature muscles, which are also controlled automatically by feedback. The final result of this visual system, still imperfectly understood in its entirety, is a clear, colored, and three-dimensional image inside the brain that we perceive as external. We never see reality, but only an internal representation of it that our brain constructs for us continuously.4

What troubled me was not so much the resemblance of the human eye to an organic and extremely sophisticated technology born of cosmic knowledge, but that they were my eyes.


Who was this "I" perceiving the images flooding into my mind? One thing was sure: I was not responsible for the construction of the visual system with which I was endowed.

I did not know what to make of these thoughts. Staring blankly at the lawn in front of me, I started following a shiny, black ant making its way across the thick blades of grass with die determination of a tank. It was heading toward the colony of aphids in the tree at the bottom of the garden. This was an ant belonging to a species that herds aphids and "milks" them for their sweet secretions.

I began thinking that this ant had a visual system quite different from my own that apparently functioned every bit as well. Despite our differences in size and shape, our genetic information was written in the same language - which we were both incapable of seeing, given that DNA is smaller than visible light, even to the eyes of an ant.

I found it interesting that the language containing the instructions for the creation of different visual systems should be itself invisible. It was as if the instructions were to remain hidden from their beneficiaries, as if we were wired in such a way that we could not see the wires....


I tried reconsidering the question from a "shamanic" point of view. It was as if these beings inside us wanted to hide... But that's what the Ashaninca say! They call the invisible beings who created life the "maninkari," literally "those who are hidden"!

Later that afternoon, I returned to my office and started rereading the passages concerning the maninkari in Gerald Weiss s exhaustive study on Ashaninca cosmology. According to Weiss, the Ashaninca believe that the most powerful of all maninkari is the "Great Transformer" Avíreri, who created life on earth, starting with the seasons and then moving on to the entirety of living beings.


Accompanied sometimes by his sister, at others by his nephew, Avíreri is one of the divine trickster twins who create by transformation and are so common in mythology.

It was in reading the last story about the end of Avíreri's trajectory that I had a shock. Having completed his creation work, Avíreri goes to a party where he gets drunk on manioc beer. His sister, who is also a trickster, invites him to dance and pushes him into a hole dug in advance.


She then pretends to pull him up by throwing him a thread, then a cord - but neither is strong enough. Furious with his sister, whom he transforms into a tree, Avíreri decides to escape by digging a hole into die underworld. He ends up at a place called Rivers End, where a strangler vine wraps around him. From there, he continues to sustain to this day his numerous children on earth.5

How could I have missed the connections between the twin being Avíreri, the Great Transformer, and the DNA double helix, first creating the breathable atmosphere ("the seasons"), then the entirety of living beings by transformation, living in the microscopic world ("underworld"), in cells filled with seawater ("Rivers End"), taking the form of a thread, a cord, or a strangler vine which wraps around itself, and, finally, sustaining to this day all the living species of the planet?

For weeks I had been finding connections between myths and molecular biology.


I was not even surprised to see that the creation myth of an indigenous Amazonian people coincided with the description made by today's biologists of the development of life on earth. What shook me, and even filled me with consternation, was that I had had this evidence under my nose for years without giving it the slightest importance. My gaze had been too narrow.

Sitting in my office, I remembered the time Carlos Perez Shuma had told me,

"The maninkari taught us how to spin and weave cotton."

Now the meaning seemed obvious; the two ribbons of the DNA double helix wrap around each other 600 million times inside each human cell:

"Who else could have taught us to weave?"

The problem for me was that I had not believed him. I had not considered for one moment that his words corresponded to something real.

Under these circumstances, what did my title "doctor of anthropology" signify - other than an intellectual imposture in relation to my object of study?
These revelations overwhelmed me. To make amends, I resolved then and there to take shamans at their word for the rest of my investigation.

What had become of the investigation that posed the enigma of the hallucinatory knowledge of Western Amazonia's indigenous people? Why had it ended up with cosmic serpents from around the world entwined with DNA molecules?

For some weeks now, I had been in a sort of trance, my mind Hooded with an almost permanent flux of strange, if not impossible, connections. My only discipline had been to note them down, or to tape them, instead of repressing them out of disbelief.


My worldview had been turned upside down, but I was slowly coming back to my senses, and the first question I asked myself was: What did all this mean?

I was now of the opinion that DNA was at the origin of shamanic knowledge. By "shamanism," I understood a series of defocalization techniques: controlled dreams, prolonged fasting, isolation in wilderness, ingestion of hallucinogenic plants, hypnosis based on a repetitive drumbeat, near-death experience, or a combination of the above.


Aboriginal shamans of Australia reach conclusions similar to those of Amazonian ayahuasqueros, without the use of psychoactive plants, by working mainly with their dreams.


What techniques did Chuang-Tzu, the Egyptian pharaohs, and the animists of Benin use, to name but a few? Who could say?


But they all spoke, in one form or another, of a cosmic serpent - as did the Australians, the Amazonians, and the Aztecs.

By using these different techniques, it therefore seemed possible to induce neurological changes that allow one to pick up information from DNA. But from which DNA? At first I thought that I had found the answer when I learned that, in each human cell, there is the equivalent of "the information contained in one thousand five hundred encyclopedia volumes" 6 - in other words, the equivalent of a bookcase about ten yards long and two yards high.


There, I thought, is the origin of knowledge.

On reflection, however, I saw that this idea was improbable. There was no reason why the human genome, no matter how vast, should contain information about the Amazonian plants necessary for the preparation of curare, for example. Furthermore, the ayahuasqueros said that the highly sophisticated sound-images that they saw and heard in their hallucinations were interactive, and that it was possible to communicate with them.


These images could not originate from a static, or textual, set of information such as 1,500 encyclopedia volumes.

My own experience with ayahuasca-induced hallucinations was limited, but was sufficient to suggest a trail. Ayahuasquero Ruperto Gomez, who had initiated me, had called the hallucinogenic brew "the television of the forest," and I had indeed seen sequences of hallucinatory images flashing by at blinding speed, as if they were truly transmitted from outside my body, but picked up inside my head.7

I knew of no neurological mechanism on which to base this working hypothesis, but I did know that DNA was an aperiodic crystal that traps and transports electrons with efficiency and that emits photons (in other words, electromagnetic waves) at ultra-weak levels currently at the limits of measurement - and all this more than any other living matter.8


This led me to a potential candidate for the transmissions: the global network of DNA-based life.

All living beings contain DNA, be they bacteria, carrots, or humans. DNA, as a substance, does not vary from one species to another; only the order of its letters changes. This is why biotechnology is possible. For instance, one can extract the DNA sequence in the human genome containing the instructions to build the insulin protein and splice it into the DNA of a bacterium, which will then produce insulin similar to that normally excreted by the human pancreas.


The cellular machines called ribosomes, which assemble the proteins inside the bacterium, understand the same four-letter language as the ribosomes inside human pancreatic cells and use the same 20 amino acids as building blocks.


Biotechnology proves by its very existence the fundamental unity of life.

Each living being is constructed on the basis of the instructions written in the informational substance that is DNA.

  • A single bacterium contains approximately ten million units of genetic information

  • A microscopic fungus contains a billion units

  • In a mere handful of soil, there are approximately ten billion bacteria and one million fungi

This means that there is more order, and information, in a handful of earth than there is on the surfaces of all the other known planets combined.9


The information contained in DNA makes the difference between life and inert matter.

The earth is surrounded by a layer of DNA-based life that made the atmosphere breathable and created the ozone layer, which protects our genetic matter against ultraviolet and mutagenic rays. There are even anaerobic bacteria living half a mile beneath the ocean floor; the planet is wired with life deep into its crust.10

When we walk in a field, DNA and the cell-based life it codes for are everywhere: inside our own bodies, but also in the puddles, the mud, the cow pies, the grass on which we walk, the air we breathe, the birds, the trees, and everything that lives.

This global network of DNA-based life, this biosphere, encircles the entire earth.

"Cosmovision" From Gebhart-Sayer (1987, p. 26),

What better image for the DNA-based biosphere than Ronín, the cosmic anaconda of the Shipibo-Conibo?


The anaconda is an amphibious snake, capable of living both in water and on land, just like the biosphere's creatures.


Ayahuasquero Laureano Ancon explains the above image:

"The earth upon which we find ourselves is a disk floating in great waters. The serpent of the world Ronín is half-submerged and surrounds it entirely."11

Here is, according to my conclusions, the great instigator of the hallucinatory images perceived by ayahuasqueros: the crystalline and biospheric network of DNA-based life, alias the cosmic serpent.

During my first ayahuasca experience I saw a pair of enormous and terrifying snakes. They conveyed an idea that bowled me over and later encouraged me to reconsider my self-image. They taught me that I was just a human being. To others, this may not seem like a great revelation; but at the time, it was exactly what the young anthropologist I was needed to learn.


Above all, it was a thought that I could not have had by myself, precisely because of my anthropocentric presuppositions.

I also felt very clearly that the speed and the coherence of certain sequences of images could not have come from the chaotic storage room of my memory. For example, I saw in a dizzying visual parade the superimposing of the veins of a human hand on those of a green leaf. The message was crystal clear: We are made of the same fabric as the vegetal world.


I had never really thought of this so concretely. The day after the ayahuasca session, I felt like a new being, united with nature, proud to be human and to belong to the grandiose web of life surrounding the planet. Once again, this was a totally new and constructive perspective for the materialistic humanist that I was.

This experience troubled me deeply. If I was not the source of these highly coherent and educational images, where did they come from? And who were those snakes who seemed to know me better than myself?


When I asked Carlos Perez Shuina, his answer was elliptic:

All I had to do was take the snakes' picture the next time I saw them. He did not deny their existence - on the contrary, he implied that they were as real as the reality we are all familiar with, if not more so.

Eight years after my first ayahuasca experience, my desire to understand the mystery of the hallucinatory serpents was undiminished


I launched into this investigation and familiarized myself with die different studies of ayahuasca shamanism only to discover that my experience had been commonplace. People who drink ayahuasca see colorful and gigantic snakes more than any other vision 12 - be it a Tukano Indian, an urbanized shaman, an anthropologist, or a wandering American poet.13


For instance, serpents are omnipresent in the visionary paintings of Pablo Amaringo 14 (above image).

Over the course of my readings, I discovered that the serpent was associated just about everywhere with shamanic knowledge - even in regions where hallucinogens are not used and where snakes are unknown in the local environment.


Mircea Eliade says that in Siberia the serpent occurs in shamanic ideology and in the shamans costume among peoples where,

"the reptile itself is unknown."15

Then I learned that in an endless number of myths, a gigantic and terrifying serpent, or a dragon, guards the axis of knowledge, which is represented in the form of a ladder (or a vine, a cord, a tree...)


I also learned that (cosmic) serpents abound in the creation myths of the world and that they are not only at the origin of knowledge, but of life itself. Snakes are omnipresent not only in the hallucinations, myths, and symbols of human beings in general, but also in their dreams.


According to some studies,

"Manhattanites dream of them with the same frequency as Zulus."

One of the best-known dreams of this sort is August Kekule's, the German chemist who discovered the cyclical structure of benzene one night in 1862, when he fell asleep in front of the fire and dreamed of a snake dancing in front of his eyes while biting its tail and taunting him.


According to one commentator,

"There is hardly any need to recall that this contribution was fundamental for the development of organic chemistry."16

Why do life-creating, knowledge-imparting snakes appear in the visions, myths, and dreams of human beings around the world?

The question has been asked, and a simple and neurological answer has been proposed and generally accepted: because of the instinctive fear of venom programmed into the brains of primates such as ourselves.


Balaji Mundkur, author of the only global study on the matter, writes,

"The fundamental cause of the origin of serpent cults seems to be unlike any which gave rise to practically all other animal cults; that fascination by, and awe of, the serpent appears to have been compelled not only by elementary fear of its venom, but also by less palpable, though quite primordial psychological sensitivities rooted in the evolution of the primates.


That unlike almost all other animals, serpents, in varying degree, provoke certain characteristically intuitive, irrational, phobic responses in human and nonhuman primates alike;... and that the serpents power to fascinate certain primates is dependent on the reaction of the latter's autonomic nervous system to the mere sight of reptilian sinuous movement - a type of response that may have been reinforced by memories of venomous attacks during anthropogenesis and the differentiation of human societies...


The fascination of serpents, in short, is synonymous with a state of fear that amounts, at least temporarily, to morbid revulsion or phobia. whose symptoms few other species of animals - perhaps none - can elicit" (original italics).17

In my opinion, this is a typical example of a reductionist, illogical, and inexact answer.


Do people really venerate what they fear most?


Do people suffering from phobia of spiders, for instance, decorate their clothes with images of spiders, saying,

"We venerate these animals because we find them repulsive"?



Therefore, I doubt that Siberian shamans embellish their costumes with a great number of ribbons representing serpents simply because they suffer from a phobia of these reptiles. Besides, most of the serpents found in the costumes of Siberian shamans do not represent real animals, but snakes with two tails. In a great number of creation myths, the serpent that plays the main part is not a real reptile; it is a cosmic serpent and often has two heads, two feet, or two wings or is so big that it wraps around the earth.


Furthermore, venerated serpents are often non-venomous.


In the Amazon, the non-venomous snakes such as anacondas and boas are the ones that people consider sacred, like the cosmic anaconda Ronín. There is no lack of aggressive and deadly snakes with devastating venom in the Amazon, such as the bushmaster and the fer-de-lance, which are an everyday threat to life - and yet, they are never worshipped.18

The answer, for me, lies elsewhere - which docs not mean that primates do not suffer from an instinctive, or even a "programmed," fear of snakes.


My answer is speculative, but could not be more restricted than the generally accepted theory of venom phobia. It is that the global network of DNA-based life emits ultra-weak radio waves, which are currently at the limits of measurement, but which we can nonetheless perceive in states of de-focalization, such as hallucinations and dreams.


As the aperiodic crystal of DNA is shaped like two entwined serpents, two ribbons, a twisted ladder, a cord, or a vine, we see in our trances serpents, ladders, cords, vines, trees, spirals, crystals, and so on. Because DNA is a master of transformation, we also see jaguars, caymans, bulls, or any other living being. But the favorite newscasters on DNA-TV seem unquestionably to be enormous, fluorescent serpents.

This leads me to suspect that the cosmic serpent is narcissistic - or, at least, obsessed with its own reproduction, even in imagery.

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