"WHAT TOOK You So LONG?
In Rio, the governments of the world signed treaties that recognize
the ecological knowledge of indigenous people, as well as the
importance of compensating it "equitably."
However, as I think I
have shown in this book, the scientific community is not ready to
engage in a true dialogue with indigenous people, as biology cannot
receive their knowledge owing to several epistemological blocks.
Paradoxically, this is an advantage for indigenous people, because
it gives them time to prepare themselves. If the hypothesis
presented in this book is correct, it means that they have not only
a precious understanding of specific plants and remedies, but an
unsuspected source of biomolecular knowledge, which is financially
invaluable and mainly concerns tomorrows science.
I will continue working with the indigenous organizations of the
Amazon and will discuss with them the possible consequences of my
hypothesis. I will tell them that biology has become an industry
that is guided by a thirst for marketable knowledge, rather than by
ethical and spiritual considerations.
It will be up to them to decide which strategy to adopt.
Perhaps they will simply try to cash in on their knowledge, by
learning about molecular biology and then looking for marketable
biological information in the shamanic sphere. After all, the fact
that current biology cannot receive indigenous knowledge has not
stopped pharmaceutical companies from commercializing parts of it.
Over the last five hundred years, die Western world has demonstrated
that it is in no hurry to compensate the knowledge of indigenous
people, even though it has used this knowledge repeatedly. The years
that have gone past since the Rio treaties have changed nothing in
this regard. Under these circumstances, I can only think of advising
indigenous organizations to negotiate a hard line.
To start with, this would mean increasing controls on the scientists
who wish to gain access to their shamanism. In a world governed by
money and the race to success, where everything is patentable and
marketable (including DNA sequences), it is important to play the
game like everybody else and to protect one's trade secrets.
However, it does not seem probable that molecular biologists will be
able to steal the secrets of ayahuasqueros in the near future. There
is more to becoming a Western Amazonian shaman than just drinking
ayahuasca. One must follow a long and terrifying apprenticeship
based on the repeated ingestion of hallucinogens, prolonged diets,
and isolation in the forest to master one's hallucinations.
does not seem to be within the reach of most Westerners.1
I, for one,
would be incapable of it.
Furthermore, Western culture does not facilitate such an
apprenticeship; it considers the main hallucinogenic plants illegal,
and most "recreational" users, who disregard die law, fail to
practice the required techniques (fasting, abstinence from alcohol
and sex, darkness, chanting, etc.). To my mind, a truly
hallucinatory session is more like a controlled nightmare than a
form of recreation and demands know-how, discipline, and courage.
Throughout this book, my approach has consisted of translating the
shamanism of ayahuasqueros to make it understandable to a Western
audience. I believe it is in the interest of Amazonia s indigenous
people that their knowledge be understood in Western terms, because
the world is currently governed by Western values and institutions.
For instance, it was not until Western countries realized that it
was in their own interest to protect tropical forests that it became
possible to find the funds to demarcate the territories of the
indigenous people living there. Prior to that, most territorial
claims, formulated in terms of the indigenous peoples own interests,
led to nothing.
My conclusion can be accused of reductionism, as I end up presenting
in mainly biological terms practices that simultaneously combine
music, cosmology, hallucinations, medicine, botany, and psychology,
My interpretation, focusing on molecular biology,
certainly distorts shamanism's multidimensionality, but it at least
attempts to bring together a number of compartmentalized
disciplines, from mythology to neurology through anthropology and
botany. I do not mean that shamanism is equivalent to molecular
biology, but that for us fragmented Westerners, molecular biology is
the most fruitful approach to the holistic reality of shamanism,
which has become so unfamiliar to us.
Eleven years ago, I arrived for the first time as a young
anthropologist in the Ashaninca village of Quirishari and quickly
struck a deal with its inhabitants. They would allow me to live with
them and to study their practices so that I could explain them to
the people in my country and become a doctor of anthropology.
exchange I was to teach them an "accounting" course - that is,
arithmetic. Their position was clear: An anthropologist should not
only study people, but try to be useful to them as well.
Carlos Perez Shuma, who took me under his wing, often explained my
presence to his companions by saying,
"He has come to live with us
for two years because he wants to tell the people in his country how
These people had always been told by missionaries,
colonists, and governmental agronomists that they knew nothing - and
that their so-called ignorance even justified the confiscation of
So they were not displeased at the idea of
demonstrating their knowledge. This is the license on the basis of
which I wrote this book.
All the Ashaninca I met wanted to participate in the world market,
if only to acquire the commodities that make life easier in the
rainforest, such as machetes, axes, knives, cooking pots,
flashlights, batteries, and kerosene. They also needed money to meet
the minimal requirements of "civilization," namely clothes,
school-books, pens and paper, and everyone dreamed of owning a radio
or a tape recorder.
Beyond money and commodities, the indigenous people of the Amazon
aspire to survival in a world that has considered diem, until
recently, as little more than Stone Age savages. Now they all demand
the demarcation and titling of their territories, as well as the
means to educate their children in their own terms.
Western institutions seem finally to have understood, at least in
principle, the importance of recognizing indigenous
territories - though much remains to be done in practice on this
However, the indigenous claim to bilingual and intercultural
education has yet to be heard, even though it would seem to be a
prerequisite to the establishment of a truly rational dialogue with
After all, the word "rational" comes from the Latin
How can one establish the "equitable"
compensation of indigenous knowledge if the majority of indigenous
people do not understand the basics of accounting and money
management and require training in arithmetic?
This is not a gratuitous question. Research has shown that
Western-style education does not work with Amazonian Indians. Theirs
is an oral tradition, where knowledge is mainly acquired through
practice in nature. When one shuts young Indians into a schoolroom
for six hours a day, nine months a year, for ten years, and teaches
them foreign concepts in a European language, they end up reaching,
on average, a level of second-grade primary school. This means that
most of them barely know how to read and write and do not know how
to calculate a percentage.
The indigenous people themselves are the first to realize what a
disadvantage this gives them in a world defined by written words and
Practically speaking, they know that they are often
shortchanged when they sell their products on the market. This is
why they want bilingual and intercultural education. However, for
each indigenous society, speaking its own language, it is necessary
to develop a specific curriculum and to train indigenous instructors
capable of teaching it.3
This costs approximately U.S.$200,000 per
In the Peruvian Amazon alone, there are fifty-six different
cultures, each speaking a different language. For the moment, only
ten of these have access to bilingual, intercultural education.
so few? Because the small number of nongovernmental organizations
supporting this initiative have limited means, and the institutions
that are large enough to fund education programs for indigenous
people seem to be in no hurry to do so.
It is true that the results
of such an investment can only be measured in generations, rather
than in five-year periods.
After writing the original French version of this book, I returned
to the Peruvian Amazon and spent a week in Iquitos at a school for
bilingual, intercultural education, where young men and women from
ten indigenous societies are learning to teach both indigenous and
Western knowledge both in their mother tongue and in Spanish.
spent several fascinating days observing from the back of a class,
then the students asked whether I would tell them about my work. On
my last evening I addressed a roomful of students and told them my
hypothesis indicated there was a relationship between the entwined
serpents Amazonian shamans see in their visions and the DNA double
helix that science discovered in 1953.
At the end of the talk, a
voice called out from the back:
"Are you saying that scientists are
catching up with us?"
I also returned to Quirishari and met with Carlos Perez Shuma for
the first time in nine years.
He hadn't changed at all, and even
seemed younger. We sat down in a quiet house and began to chat,
making up for lost time. He told me about all the things that had
occurred in the Pichis Valley during my absence.
I listened to him
for about an hour, but then could no longer contain myself:
I said, "there is something important I have to tell you. You
remember all those things you explained into the tape recorder that
I had difficulty understanding? Well, after thinking about it for
years, and then studying it, I have just discovered that in
scientific terms all the things you told me were true."
I thought he
would be pleased and was about to continue when he interrupted.
"What took you so long?" he said.
We westerners have our paradoxes. Rationalism has brought us
unhoped-for material well-being, yet few people seem satisfied.
However, we are not alone, and indigenous people also have their
First, in order to recognize the true value of their knowledge, they
must face the loss history has inflicted on them. For the last 500
years. Western civilization has been teaching indigenous people that
they know nothing - to the point that some of them have come to
believe it. For them to appreciate the value of their own knowledge,
they must come to terms with having been misled.
Second, there is money. Over the last few years, one of the main
problems confronting the indigenous organizations of Amazonia has
been their own success. Friends of the rainforest have poured money
into the area, with the best intentions, but without rigorous
controls. This has mainly caused corruption and division.
is also ours, because we trusted them in a paternalistic fashion. We
thought that indigenous people were incorruptible, because we had
But this does not mean we should stop
working with them; rather, we should insist on greater controls in
the management of funds to avoid counterproductive generosity that
draws its roots in romantic paternalism.
Finally, the creation of compensation mechanisms for the
intellectual property of indigenous people will depend on the
resolution of the following dilemma. In shamanic traditions, it is
invariably specified that spiritual knowledge is not marketable.
Certainly, the shaman's work deserves retribution, but, by
definition, the sacred is not for sale; the use of this knowledge
for the accumulation of personal power is the definition of black
In a world where everything is for sale, including genetic
sequences, this concept will no doubt be difficult to negotiate.4
I speak of "indigenous people," or "Amazonian Indians," and I oppose
them to "us Westerners" - yet these words do not correspond to
Prior to European colonization, the
inhabitants of the Amazon already made up a patchwork of diversity,
with hundreds of cultures speaking different languages and enjoying
more or less constructive relations among each other. Some
indigenous societies did not wait for the conquistadores' arrival to
wage war on each other.
The diversified reality of indigenous Amazonia was assaulted by
European colonization, which decimated the population and fragmented
territories. Indigenous cultures survive, strong here, less so
there, necessarily transformed and hybridized.
But appearances are
misleading, and reality is often double-edged:
Hybridization, mestizo-ization, which implies a certain dilution, is one of the
oldest survival strategies in the world.
The "true Indian" who has
never left the forest, does not speak a word of Spanish or
Portuguese, uses no metal tools, and wanders around naked and
feathered exists only in the Western imagination. Which is just as
well for the real-life Indians, because they already have a hard
enough time leading their lives as they see fit.
Ayahuasca-based shamanism is essentially an indigenous phenomenon.
However, it is also true that this shamanism is currently enjoying a
boom thanks to the mixing of cultures. The case of
Pablo Amaringo is
eloquent in this respect.
Amaringo is a mestizo ayahuasquero. He
lives in the town of Pucallpa, his mother tongue is Quechua, and his
ancestry is a mix of Cocama, Lamista, and Piro. The songs he sings
in his hallucinatory trances have indigenous lyrics. Amaringo does
not consider himself an Indian, though he recognizes the indigenous
nature of his knowledge.
For instance, he says the Ashaninca are the
ones who know,
"better than any other jungle people the magical uses
of plant-teachers." 5
Meanwhile, the Ashaninca people I knew in the Pichis claimed that
the best shamans were Shipibo-Conibo (who live in the same area as
Ruperto Gomez, the ayahuasquero who initiated me, did his
apprenticeship with the Shipibo-Conibo, and this conferred
undeniable prestige on him. So it would seem that studies "abroad"
are considered better and that the high place of Amazonian shamanism
is always somewhere other than where one happens to be.6
Shamanism resembles an academic discipline (such as anthropology or
molecular biology); with its practitioners, fundamental researchers,
specialists, and schools of thought it is a way of apprehending the
world that evolves constantly.
One thing is certain:
and mestizo shamans consider people like the Shipibo-Conibo, the
Tukano, the Kamsá, and the Huitoto as the equivalents to
universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and the Sorbonne;7
they are the highest reference in matters of knowledge.
sense, ayahuasca-based shamanism is an essentially indigenous
It belongs to the indigenous people of Western Amazonia,
who hold the keys to a way of knowing that they have practiced
without interruption for at least five thousand years. In
comparison, the universities of die Western world are less than nine
hundred years old.
The shamanism of which the indigenous people of the Amazon are the
guardians represents knowledge accumulated over thousands of years
in the most biologically diverse place on earth. Certainly, shamans
say they acquire their knowledge directly from the spirits, but they
grow up in cultures where shamanic visions are stored in myths.
this way mythology informs shamanism:
The invisible, life-creating maninkari spirits are the ones whose feats Ashaninca mythology
relates, and it is also the maninkari who talk to Ashaninca shamans
in their visions and tell them how to heal.
An indigenous culture with sufficient territory, and bilingual and
intercultural education, is in a better position to maintain and
cultivate its mythology and shamanism.
Conversely, the confiscation
of their lands and imposition of foreign education, which turns
their young people into amnesiacs, threatens the survival not only
of these people, but of an entire way of knowing. It is as if one
were burning down the oldest universities in the world and their
libraries, one after another - thereby sacrificing the knowledge of
the worlds future generations.
In this book I chose an autobiographical and narrative approach for
several reasons. First, I do not believe in an objective point of
view with an exclusive monopoly on reality. So it seemed important
to expose the inevitable presuppositions that any observer has, so
that readers may come to their opinion in full knowledge of the
In this sense I belong to the recent movement within anthropology
that views the discipline as a form of interpretation rather than as
However, even among my colleagues who work in this fashion,
listening to people carefully, recording and transcribing their
words, and interpreting them as well as they can, there remains a
problem I have tried to avoid - namely, the compartmentalization of knowledge into disciplines, which means
that the discourse of a given specialist is only understandable to his or her immediate colleagues.9
In my opinion, subjects such as
DNA and the knowledge of indigenous people are too important to be
entrusted solely to the focalized gaze of academic specialists in
biology or anthropology; they concern indigenous people themselves,
but also midwives, farmers, musicians, and all the rest. I decided
to tell my story in an attempt to create an account that would be
comprehensible across disciplines and outside the academy.
This decision was inspired by shamanic traditions, which invariably
state that images, metaphors, and stories are the best means to
transmit knowledge. In this sense, myths are "scientific
narratives," or stories about knowledge (the word "science" comes
from the Latin scire, "to know").
I was fortunate to choose this approach, because it was in telling
my story that I discovered the real story I wanted to tell.
There was a price to pay for implicating myself in my work like
this. I spent many sleepless nights and put a strain on my personal
life. I was truly bowled over by working on this book. At the time,
I felt sure it was going to change the world. It took months of
talking with numerous friends to understand that my hypothesis was
not even receivable by official science, despite the scientific
elements it contains.
Since then, I've calmed down and no longer
talk away for hours.
We live in a time when it is difficult to speak seriously about ones
spirituality. Often one only has to state one's convictions to be
considered a preacher. I, too, support the idea that everybody
should be free to believe what they want and that it is nobody's
business to tell others what they should believe. So I will not
describe in detail the impact of my work on my own spirituality, and
I will not tell readers what to think about the connections I have
Here, too, I draw my inspiration from shamanism, which rests not on
doctrine, but on experience.
The shaman is simply a guide, who
conducts the initiate to the spirits. The initiate picks up the
information revealed by the spirits and does what he or she wants
with it. Likewise, in this book, I provide a number of connections,
with complete references for those who wish to follow a particular
trail. In the end, it is up to the readers to draw the spiritual
conclusions they see fit.
Is there a goal to life? Do we exist for a reason? I believe so, and
I think that the combination of shamanism and biology gives
interesting answers to these questions. But I do not feel ready to
discuss them from a personal point of view.
The microscopic world of DNA, and its proteins and enzymes, is
teeming inside us and is enough to make us marvel. Yet rational
discourse, which holds a monopoly on die subject, denies itself a
sense of wonder. Current biologists condemn themselves, through
their beliefs, to describe DNA and the cell-based life for which it
codes as if they were blind people discussing movies or objective
anthropologists explaining the hallucinatory sphere of which they
have no experience: They oblige themselves to consider an animate
reality as if it were inanimate.
By ignoring this obligation, and by considering shamanism and
biology at the same time, stereoscopically, I saw DNA snakes. They
The origin of knowledge is a subject that anthropologists
neglect - which is one of the reasons that prompted mc to write this
book. However, anthropologists are not alone; scientists in general
seem to have a similar difficulty.
On closer examination, the reason
for this becomes obvious:
Many of sciences central ideas seem to
come from beyond the limits of rationalism.
Descartes dreams of an angel who explains the basic principles of
materialist rationalism to him
Albert Einstein daydreams in a tram,
approaching another, and conceives the theory of relativity
Watson scribbles on a newspaper in a train, then rides his bicycle
to reach the conviction (having "borrowed" Rosalind Franklins radiophotographic work) that DNA has the form of a double helix.10
And so on...
Scientific discovery often originates from a combination of
focalized and defocalized consciousness. Typically, a researcher
spends months in the lab working on a problem, considering the data
to the point of saturation, then attains illumination while jogging,
daydreaming, lying in bed making mental pictures, driving a car,
cooking, shaving, bathing - in brief, while thinking about something
else and defocalizing.
W.I.B. Beveridge writes in The art of
"The most characteristic circumstances of
an intuition are a period of intense work on the problem accompanied
by a desire for its solution, abandonment of the work perhaps with
attention to something else, then the appearance of the idea with
dramatic suddenness and often a sense of certainty. Often there is a
feeling of exhilaration and perhaps surprise that the idea had not
been thought of previously."11
During this investigation I complemented months of straightforward
scholastic work (reading, note taking, and categorizing) with
defocalized approaches (such as walking in nature, nocturnal
soliloquies, dissonant music, daydreaming), which greatly helped me
find my way.
My inspiration for this is once again shamanic. But
shamans are not the only ones to seek knowledge by cultivating defocalization. Artists have done this throughout the ages.
As Antonin Artaud wrote:
"I abandon myself to the fever of dreams, in
search for new laws."12
Did I see imaginary connections in my fever? Am I wrong in linking
DNA to these cosmic serpents from around the world, these sky-ropes
and axis mundi? Some of my colleagues will think so.
Here's one of
In the nineteenth century the first anthropologists set about
comparing cultures and elaborating 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. This is why
anthropologists who study Western Amazonia's hallucinatory shamanism
limit themselves to specific analyses of a given culture - failing to
see the essential common points between cultures.
fine-grained analyses allow them to see that the diet of an
apprentice ayahuasquero is based on the consumption of bananas
and/or fish. But they do not notice that this diet is practiced
throughout Western Amazonia, and so they do not consider that it may
have a biochemical basis - which in fact it does.
By shunning comparisons between cultures, one ends up masking true
connections and fragmenting reality a little more, without even
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; to
believe otherwise, according to them, comes down to making the same
mistake as Mircea Eliade four decades ago, when he detached all
those symbols from their contexts, obliterated the sociocultural
aspect of phenomena, mutilated the facts, and so on.
The critique is
well known now, and it is time to turn it on its head.
In the name
of what does one mask fundamental similarities in human symbolism - if
not out of a stubborn loyalty to rationalist fragmentation?
one explain these similarities with a concept other than
chance - which is more an absence of concept than anything?
on taking reality apart, but never try putting it back together
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
Rationalism separates things to understand them. But its fragmented
disciplines have limited perspectives and blind spots. And as any
driver knows, it is important to pay attention to blind spots,
because they can contain vital information. To reach a fuller
understanding of reality, science will have to shift its gaze. Could
shamanism help science to defocalize?
My experience indicates that
engaging shamanic knowledge requires looking into a great number of
disciplines and thinking about how they fit together.
Finally, a last question: Where does life come from?
Over the last decade, scientific research has come up against the
impossibility that a single bacterium, representing the smallest
unit of independent life as we know it, could have emerged by chance
from any kind of "prebiotic soup."13
Given that a cosmic origin,
such as the one proposed by Francis Crick in his "directed panspermia" speculation, is not scientifically verifiable,
scientists have focused almost exclusively on terrestrial
According to these, precursor molecules took shape (by
chance!) and prepared the way for a world based on DNA and proteins.
However, these different scenarios - based on RNA, peptides, clay,
undersea volcanic sulfur, or small oily bubbles - all propose
explanations relying on systems that have, by definition, been
replaced by life as we know it, without leaving any traces.15
too, are speculations that cannot be verified scientifically.16
The scientific study of the origins of life leads to an impasse,
where agnosticism seems to be the only reasonable and rigorous
As Robert Shapiro writes in his book
Origins - A skeptic's
guide to the creation of life on Earth:
"We do not have the
slightest idea about how life got started. The very particular set
of chemicals that were necessary remains unknown to us. The process
itself could have included an improbable event, as it could have
happened according to a practically ineluctable sequence.
have required several hundred million years, or only a few
millennia. It could have happened in a tepid pool, or in a
hydrothermal source at the bottom of the ocean, in a bubble in the
atmosphere, or somewhere else than on Earth, out in the cosmos."17
Any certitude on this question is a matter of
So what do
shamanic and mythological traditions say in this regard?
to Lawrence Sullivan, who has studied the indigenous religions of
South America in detail:
"In the myths recorded to date, the
majority of South American cultures show little extended interest in
Where does life come from? Perhaps the answer is not graspable by
mere human beings.
Chuang-Tzu implied as much a long time ago, when
"There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be
a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning
to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not
yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a
not yet beginning to be nonbeing.
Suddenly there is nonbeing. But I
do not know, when it comes to non-being, which is really being and
which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I do not know
whether what I have said has really said something or whether it
hasn't said something."19
All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of
many things, but contemplation of the mystery.
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