Chapter 11

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.


This 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, among others.2


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.


In 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 we work."

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 their lands.


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 count.

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 these people.


After all, the word "rational" comes from the Latin ratio, "calculation."


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 numbers.


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 culture.


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.


Why 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.


I 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:

"Uncle," 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 dilemmas.

  • 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.


    The fault is also ours, because we trusted them in a paternalistic fashion. We thought that indigenous people were incorruptible, because we had romantic presuppositions.


    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 magic.

    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 monolithic realities.


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 Amaringo).


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:

Both indigenous 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.

In this sense, ayahuasca-based shamanism is an essentially indigenous phenomenon.


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.


In 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 setting.8

In this sense I belong to the recent movement within anthropology that views the discipline as a form of interpretation rather than as a science.


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 established.

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 were alive.

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.

  • René 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

  • James 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 scientific investigation:

"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 the reasons:

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.


So their 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 realizing it.

Is the cosmic serpent of the Shipibo-Conibo, the Aztecs, the Australian Aborigines, and the Ancient Egyptians the same?


No, will 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?

  • How can one explain these similarities with a concept other than chance - which is more an absence of concept than anything?

  • Why insist on taking reality apart, but never try putting it back together again?

According to my hypothesis, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information.

  • But what actually goes on in the brain/mind of an ayahuasquero when this occurs?

  • What is the nature of a shamans communication with the animate essences of nature?

The clear answer is that more research is needed in consciousness, shamanism, molecular biology, and their interrelatedness.

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 scenarios.14


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


These, 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 position.


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.


It could 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 faith.


So what do shamanic and mythological traditions say in this regard?


According 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 absolute beginnings."18

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 he wrote:

"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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