THROUGH THE EYES OF AN ANT
One sunny afternoon that spring I was sitting in the garden with my
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.
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,
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.
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."
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
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
A magnified section of a leaf illustrating its organized,
The iris, which functions as the eyes diaphragm, is
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
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
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
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
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
"The maninkari taught us how to spin and weave cotton."
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
bacterium contains approximately ten million units of genetic
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
"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
Ayahuasquero Laureano Ancon explains the
"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
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
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
serpents are omnipresent in the visionary paintings of Pablo Amaringo 14 (above
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
"There is hardly any need to recall that this
contribution was fundamental for the development of organic
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
Balaji Mundkur, author of the only global study on the
"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
In my opinion, this is a typical example of a reductionist,
illogical, and inexact answer.
Do people really venerate what they
Do people suffering from phobia of spiders, for instance,
decorate their clothes with images of spiders, saying,
these animals because we find them repulsive"?
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.
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
The answer, for me, lies elsewhere - which docs not mean that primates
do not suffer from an instinctive, or even a "programmed," fear of
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.
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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