Exploring Visionary Art, Shamanism and the Transpersonal Vision


Neil Logan

By Neil Logan

December 1999

Plants containing entheogenic tryptamines are known around the world and are represented in nearly every Family. These plants commonly have an abundance of folk and medicinal history associated with their use. One well-known genus is Anadenanthera. Its use in snuff preparations through out the Caribbean Islands and South America is well substantiated. It is high in methylated tryptamines and has a long, documented history of use. Until recently there have been many overlooked aspects of this genus and those with similar chemistry. Their influence on art and culture and the uncanny resemblance in chemistry between that of plant and mammal must be explored.

This story begins with the comparison of two mythologies:

In the beginning, the sun created various beings to serve as intermediaries between Him and the earth. He created hallucinogenic snuff powder so that man could contact Supernatural beings. The sun had kept this powder in his navel, but the Daughter of the Sun found it. Thus it became available to man-a vegetal product acquired directly from the gods. (Schultes & Hofmann, 1992)

The Mashco people say that a primitive woman (pre-Mashco) went to the river to gather water. A winged jaguar came from under the bottom of the river. The women had sex with the jaguar at the river. She later gave birth to twins which taught the people how to heal and use hallucinogenic plants in order to keep in touch. The people were told to use the snuff when they needed to contact the twins or to modify the behavior of the tribe or when ever necessary and especially in times of change. (Torres 1992)

There are creation myths the Taino use to describe how the Caribbean Islands were made. In one myth they speak of two mischievous twins who, one day, sneak up and see a man snuffing inside a hut. The man hears the twins, grabs some of the snuff mucous running down his nose and hits one of them on the back with it. The next day a large lump formed on his back and from this the first turtle is born. These two also stole a gourd which they found hanging on the doorway of a woman sorcerer. The woman watched them steal it. She tried to stop them but they ran. While running from her the twin holding the gourd dropped it and spilt out the contents. So much water came from this gourd that it caused a great flood, which covered the land leaving only the tallest mountain peaks, which in turn became the islands. (Torres 1992)

The Taino people say that when they are walking through the forest the tree will speak to them. They will walk by the Cohoba tree and it says, "go get the shaman." The shaman comes and snuffs and then introduces himself to the tree. The shaman gives tithes to the plant entity. During their conversation the tree says to cut a certain part, then to carve it in such a way, and to put this artifact in their house and do snuff ceremonies at certain times. (Torres 1992)

The use of Anadenanthera derived snuff contributes to the construction of belief systems. The seeds are considered a door, which allows access to a space where learning can occur. The seeds are a door where a being is found which enters into them by snuffing and acts as an intermediary between two worlds. These stories are meant to represent the worldview of the indigenous peoples who have the most experience with the Anadenanthera trees. To view this from inside of Western culture, one might see this as an archaic or unsophisticated way of explaining the world. However, upon careful scrutiny using the mythology of Western culture known as Science, it is possible to see similarities in the two explanations. In order to do this I must use a multidisciplinary approach that calls on Botany, Chemistry, Physics and more.

Family: Leguminosae (Bean family) Genus: Anadenanthera Common names: cébil, Huilca, Vilca, yopo, cohoba

Related species: Also known as Piptadenia colubrina, Anadenanthera perigrina, (curupáy); A. columbrina var. cébil (= Piptadenia macrocarpa; curupáy-curú) and A. Rigida ( curupáy- rá; Costantini 1975).

Description: A mimosa-like tree native to the open grasslands of South America. It can grow to 18-20 meters high and have a trunk diameter of up to 60 cm. The bark is blackish and somewhat armored. The leaves are in the standard mimosa type arrangement having 15 - 30 pairs of pinnae; each covered by a myriad of small leaflets. The flowers are spherical and covered in many small white hairs and form clusters. The seeds are thin and glossy black-brown, and form in woody pods. There are usually 3 - 10 seeds in each pod. A. perigrina differs in its range, in that it requires more tropical warm climate conditions, and its pods are constricted around the beans. The variety cebil (cevil) is considered the origin species and is always found further south.

Native to: Orinoco River basin, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Peru and Puerto Rico and the South Central Andes. N. Chile in the Andes, where Argentina & Bolivia meet is where the bulk of the A. colubrina region lies.

Cultivation parameters: Plants need full sunlight and prefer well-drained soil. Let the soil dry completely between watering. A. colubrina can handle some short term freezing conditions, but A. perigrina does not tolerate frosts.

Active constituents: The chemistry of these species consists of alkaloidal derivatives of the amino acid L-tryptophan and therefore to the class of indole-alkamines known as Tryptamines. A. colubrina = The seeds of this tree contain only Bufotenine in active quantities, (~200 mg per seed (3-4 seeds per dose)), the pods and bark contain only trace ammounts of DMT and related compounds. Bufotenine, N, N-dimethyltryptamine, N-oxides of both alkaloids as well as 2-methyl- and 1,2-dimethyl-6-methoxytetrahydro-B-carboline (harmine & harmaline, respectively) were discovered. A. perigrina includes all of the above as well as 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine. As a side note: many legumes contain similar chemistry to the genus Anadenanthera. Mimosa hostilis used in Brazil as an entheogenic tea known as Jurema contains 1% DMT in its root bark. Desmanthus illinoensis found through out North America contains .64% DMT in its root bark. The Mesquite bush of the southwest contain substantial ammounts of serotonin (5-Hydroxy-tryptamine) in its pods, which have been used as food.

Traditional/medicinal uses: The seeds of A. colubrina are still used by the Mashco Indians of Northern Argentina as a hallucinogen to: 1) cure sick 2) benefit and protect the community 3) oracular or divinatory purposes. It is widely believed that the tribes of Argentina and Southern Peru utilized the snuff since pre-colonial times. Inca Shamans reportedly used a snuff made from the seeds of this plant in the sixteenth century. There is some evidence that Vilca was/is used as an enema, but whether it was used as a purgative or as a hallucinogen is not known. The people of the Dominican Republic also use A. perigrina in their zombie potions. Two sacks of Entheogenic snuff over 1200 years old was found at an archeological dig in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. The snuff was found buried attached to a mummy with the snuffing paraphernalia still present. Some of these samples still exhibited psychoactivity even 12 centuries after burial. The seeds of this plant were on occasion added to a maize beer called chicha. This drink was said to open doors into invisible worlds. The roasted and ground up seeds were also used in purifying rituals via an enema. There was a special device called a "vilca-china" or "vilca fruit servant" that was used for that purpose in this ceremony. (Torres 1992)

Evidence for Antiquity: There is documentation for 4,000 years of continuous use, as well as a wealth of iconography. Incaguava is the oldest site thus far, dated at ~2500BC and is found at an elevation of 136 meters. Oscia, and a monumental site just south of Lake Titikaka known as Tiahuanaco are two more examples of very old archeological sites both containing many artifacts pertaining to snuffing. In Oasis D'' Atacama in the Atacama desert it is believed that between 200-900BC, 22-24% of the male population used snuff. It is hard to say how many women were snuffing because the men carried the equipment, but the women could have be doing it too. In this region, there are over 500 complete kits in the museum. The climate at this site is roughly 60% humidity and rain is very rare which is conducive to the preservation of artifacts. In the town of Arica there are 60 snuff kits in the museum. In this area Dr. Manuel Torres has catalogued over 1000 snuff kits. The list of evidence is exhausting. (Torres 1992) In determining the use of various plants researches often run into difficulties proving the time periods during which said plant was used. For instance, plants used as preparations in the form of teas often only have various kinds of sacred bowls, which may or may not be associated with their use. However, in the case of Anadenanthera we have certain paraphernalia of preparation, which are specific to the task. A standard snuff kit which has been found countless numbers of times is comprised of the following: 1) woolen bag 2) small spoon 3) leather pouches 4) snuff tray 5) tube 6) item (the use of which is unknown). Crushed malachite is often found with the remains of people who have snuff kits but it is not yet understood why? (Torres 1992) The iconographic evidence is central to the antiquity and importance of snuff. There are many plant representations found in the iconography of the people who use the snuff. During the 3rd century BC there was little to no artwork on the western slope of the Andes until the snuff trade occurred. Consistently where the seeds go the iconography follows. The use of ceramic pipes appears in 680BC at the same time as ceramics. There is even a kind of complex symbology used by some tribes in association with snuffing. They use their art not as a spoken language system but as an artistic system of communication, which is very sophisticated.

Modes of ingestion: In the 1200 year old site which yielded the snuff samples a bone smoking apparatus, which was carved into a jaguar figurine with bowl on its head and was smoked through the tail was found. Smoking the seeds of Anadenanthera with pipes is the preferred method of ingestion in NW Argentina into the 900''sBC when it is replaced by snuffing. This brings up some questions due to the pharmacological action of bufotenine. The bufotenine molecule (5-hydroxy-dimethyltryptamine) would be converted to DMT upon implementation of a flame to the hydroxy ion on the five position of the benzene ring. DMT needs to get into the system of the user in a hurry. Smoking the seeds even at a concentration of 1% alkaloids is probably insufficient for full DMT like effects unless they are somehow able to consume a large quantity at once. The smoking may have been enough to wet the whistles of these people and entice them into using the plant long enough to develop a new method of ingestion. This would lead to the forceful act of snuffing large quantities up into the nasal passages. However, there is one glitch. Bufotenine according to modern pharmacology is not fat soluble, which means that technically it should not be able to cross the blood brain barrier. So how does it work? Dr. Torres identified the source of the snuff found at the archeology sites by comparing the chemistry of the seeds analyzed to that of seeds still in use. The chemical analysis of both the archeological remains and the seeds of A. colubrina positively identified this species as the source of the snuff. Despite modern science''s inability to explain why it works, the fact is the seeds are active! The technology of snuffing represents a clever, intelligent search for and highly technologically advanced ways of ingesting DMT. They really put a lot of effort into getting these Tryptamines into their system. The way it is most often prepared is to first roast the seeds in a similar manner to the process for roasting coffee. This is considered a kind of enrichment process. Next the seeds are ground up into a fine powder and then mixed with dried tobacco or the ashes of an acacia. The ashes help the snuff to be absorbed in the nose better. Sometimes the snuff will be made really fine like flour by taking a stick and rag and beating it into a fine powder. People often report that the first time they snuff it hurts because of the ashes but the 2nd time it doesn''t hurt and it can be done every 30 minutes with no tolerance. Bioassay experiments performed on site by Dr. Torres and others found that the ground seeds gave clear effects in 7/8 people. The effects were described as typical of Tryptamine entheogens, with a peak lasting 5-15 minutes and an afterglow lasting approximately 45 minutes to one hour. In addition to the snuff, Dr. Torres felt it necessary to point out that most people were masticating coca all day and when this was done "they felt more free of certain body noises". He proposed that this could be considered a type of indirect admixture. "Cohoba", (A. perigrina) is the name of the tree and the snuff. It is often taken to purge. The natives use a foot long cane or a tube for self-snuffing, which fits around the nose. Ceremonies are often performed within the huts. Before entering the house to snuff a large spatula is used to vomit. Inside the huts are often found low-lying benches used to sit on. These "power stools" are carved into many shapes and allow the people to think better. This brings up the idea of sacred postures and the release of "Kundalini" energy from the base of the spine.

Shamanic Techniques: The user snuffs through a hollow tube made of bird bone. This is where the idea of magical breath comes in; which allows the user to take flight and break into other spaces. Upon snuffing the shaman will either blow through a flute and then transform into a bird or beats his/her chest to release the "anusec" (soul?). Bird imagery is another consistent motif. Condors are often found on the trays, which are very ergonomically designed to fit the curvature of the hand. There is a crossover between shamanistic characteristics derived from the use of plants other than Anadenathera. Much like the Peyote of the Southwest and the Fly Agaric of Siberia, the deer is often associated with A. colubrina. The animals mostly associated with snuffing are birds, jaguars, llamas and deer. Skeleton images of a man being defleshed, reassembled and reborn is another common motif shared by this genus. Snuff using Curanderas balance the four energy fields around the patient. The field on the left is said to be evil and the one on the right is considered good. Shamanic healing is also different in some ways with snuff use. Ayahuasca shamanism is often done in a group setting where as the Anadenathera shamanism is a one to one relationship with the shaman and patient using more of a private healing ceremony.

Cultural Influences: "Modernity messes up by discounting the past. We need to understand the past to know the present. So the challenge is to find an equivalent of past cultures in post industrial times."(Torres 1992) The Mosche was a coastal culture in the Peruvian Andes around 900-1200bc. They are thought to have had a decentralized culture with no hierarchy. They had wealth because of trade but not as power over people. There was really no difference in status. They were easily taken over by the Inca because they were pacifists! These people functioned in normal daily life with DMT use, not just the "shamanic out skirt of town types", but everyone. They often start snuffing at age 14, which is fairly old in a culture where most die at around age 40-45. The idea of substance addiction as is known in western culture is foreign to these cultures. They often fall into a category more close related to that of "sustainable" & "symbiotic mutualism" rather than parasitic. The influence of snuffing on cultural ideology, art and as an important commodity in trade is fairly substantiated. Could these behavioral characteristics be linked to the use of Anadenanthera?

Chemical comparisons: Secondary metabolites in plants play a role that is at best shrouded in mystery. The idea that they are useless byproducts does not sit well with me. Dennis McKenna (1996) has presented a convincing argument that secondary and tertiary metabolites in plants may act as pheromones, which aid the plant in survival on a long-term evolutionary scale. A. perigrina made it to the West Indies because of migrating tribes that brought it with them. This coincides with the stories of indigenous people. The idea of plants as ambassadors or intermediaries between worlds is highly plausible after review of the chemistry behind the phenomena. Could there be a kind of biochemical communication system set up between species? The pathways which create the active ingredients in Anadenanthera derived snuff also occur in the human metabolism. They are essential aspects of our circadian (sleep/wake) rythum cycle. Practically all living organisms, from the smallest amoebae to the praying mantis to a modern human, possess internal clocks that manage a variety of natural rhythms. These internal clocks evolved in order to adapt to life on this planet. Since the earth rotates around its axis every 24 hours, with roughly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, organisms created chemicals to help them easily adapt to light and dark. It was also necessary to adapt to the varying number of hours of daylight during different seasons. Temperature, humidity, latitude, and altitude were other environmental conditions to which life has had to adapt. It involves the cooperation of the pineal gland along with other regions of the brain. The process can be summarized like so: We intake the essential amino acid L-tryptophan through diet. Light photons enter through our pupils and stimulate rods and cones in the back of our eyes, an area called the retina as well as the top of our head, and other thin skinned areas of the body. The energy from light photons is converted to electrical and chemical impulses, which are relayed through a small bundle of nerves, called the optic tract, to the hypothalamus. Information from the hypothalamus is in turn relayed through several other nerve tracts to the pineal gland. (Aronson, 1993) In the pineal gland, tryptophan is converted to serotonin or 5- hydroxy-tryptamine by 5hydroxylation and decarboxylation. Serotonin is used as our predominate daily-waking neurotransmitter. An acetyl group is added to serotonin by an enzyme called serotonin-N-acetyl-transferase (NAT). NAT is believed to be the rate-limiting enzyme, that is, the amount of melatonin produced depends on the activity of this enzyme. Activation of NAT depends not only on signals induced by light hitting the retina, but also from information relayed from other parts of the brain. Adding a methyl group, leading to melatonin follows the acetylation of serotonin. Throughout daylight hours, light reaching the pineal gland prevents the production of melatonin. Even very low intensity light as from an indoor fluorescent light may prevent melatonin release (Laakso, 1993). Light signals reaching the pineal inhibit the activity of the enzyme that converts serotonin to melatonin. Darkness allows melatonin production. Starting in the evening, and throughout the night, the pineal gland releases melatonin, reaching peak levels between 2 and 4 am. In the morning, exposure to light shuts off melatonin production. The chemical name of melatonin is 5-methoxy-N-acetyl-tryptamine. When melatonin is metabolized in the pineal gland, it is converted to 5-methoxy-tryptamine (Hardeland, 1993). 5-methoxy-tryptamine is further metabolized to N, N-dimethyl-5-methoxy-tryptamine (5-MEO-DMT) and other tryptamines. Our brain manufactures its own hallucinogens, which lead us to dream. These neurotransmitters should be viewed as little biochemical fuses that regulate the flow of information across synapses. All of the information is out there all of the time. The body has found ways to capture and regulate the flow so we do not experience sensory overload. We''ve always thought that hallucinogens were substances foreign to the brain. It is interesting to note that we synthesize natural hallucinogens during sleep; they are a normal part of our brain chemistry. Moreover, our brain does not seem to develop a tolerance to these tryptamine hallucinogens since we dream every night, whether we remember the dreams or not. J.C. Callaway, Ph.D., from the University of Kuopio, Finland. published an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1988. Dr. Callaway believes tryptamines and related compounds are the chemicals responsible for dreams. He has found Bufotenine, DMT, Harmine, and harmaline to be major players in this process. (Callaway 1996) These chemicals are excreted in the urine and samples have be taken and measured to confirm this. Researchers speculate that the amount of various tryptamines reaching the DNA of each cell informs that cell as to which proteins to make. Some researchers (Kloeden, 1993) think the pineal gland functions as a centralized clock to coordinate genes switching on and off. This coincides with the findings of DJ McKenna and J.C. Callaway in their study of Ayahuasca known as the "Huasca Project". They have found nearly identical chemical complexes in Ayahuasca brews of South America as that found in Anadenanthera. Some of the related effects are what''s known as the "resetting of the clock" where by people report being released from pathological behavior responsible for addictions and general imbalances such as cravings for poor nutrition. (Callaway 1996, DJ McKenna 1996) We now know that the pineal gland has extremely important functions. It influenc es the workings of our immune system and the secretion of hormones. The pineal gland translates environmental information, such as light or temperature, into signals that are transmitted to other parts of our brain and body. This is mainly achieved through the cyclic secretion of these tryptamine neurotransmitters. We also know that each stage of the circadian rhythm cycle has a corresponding predominant neurotransmitter and associated brain wave frequency measured in cycles per second or Hz. The frequency known as theta (~7 - 9Hz) is associated with stage 5 REM sleep, which is the stage known to be predominated by the methylated tryptamines; 5-MEO-DMT, DMT, 5-HO-DMT, Harmine, & Harmaline. In the 1950''s a man named Henry Schumman measured the earth''s average magnetic resonance. He found it to average ~7.83Hz. At this point I must in all honesty announce a departure from science, because t he methodology or mythology of science has not as of yet to my knowledge confirmed (or denied) what I am about to say. This is also the point where indigenous knowledge about hallucinogens and science can come to an agreement. Is it possible to believe that the similarity between the associated frequencies is not just a coincidence? Dr. Lovelock''s now famous Gaia hypothesis says the earth is alive and intelligent. Could these plants and the biochemistry they contain be considered communication pheromones allowing various species to align themselves with the Gaian mind? Are the entheogenic tryptamines essential nutrients similar to essential amino acids? Are we communicating at the cellular level with the planet on a daily basis? Have indigenous cultures through the use of plants like Anadenanthera; found a way to align their intent with the higher intent of the planet. If so, does this catalyze a relationship characteristic of symbiotic mutualism rather than symbiotic parasitism? This also brings up the possibility that mind is truly a non-local phenomenon. In other words could the brain be considered a receiver rather than a generator of mind, similar to a radio? Jonathon Ott has catalogued nearly 4,000 combinations of plants, which would yield chemical complexes similar to those discussed above. It is beginning to appear that tryptamines are everywhere and earth is trying to tell us something. Will we listen? In summary, the use of plants for healing takes on many forms depending on who is using them. The worldview of the people using the plants should be considered an important aspect of the healing process and the mythology surrounding the plants should be viewed with an open mind. Entheogenic plants, like those represented in the genus Anadenanthera, may be considered ambassadors and teachers. They may some day be seen as aids to communication and learning not to hallucination but in fact catalysts to perceive more of the information already present. An understanding of this knowledge will be important for maintaining balance and harmony between people and the earth.

Works Cited

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Callaway, J C. A proposed mechanism for the visions of dream sleep. Medical Hypotheses 26:119-124, 1988.

Callaway, J C. Pharmacognosy, Neuropharmacology and Pharmacokinetics of Ayahuasca. Entheobotany: Shamanic Plant Science A Multi- Disciplinary Conference on Plants, Shamanism & Ecstatic States. 18-20 October, 1996 Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, CA.

Constantini, 1975 Excerpted from: Pharmacotheon by Jonathon Ott, 1993.

Hardeland R, Reiter, R, Poeggeler, B, Tan, D. The significance of the metabolism of the neurohormone melatonin: antioxidative protection and formation of bioactive substances. Neuroscience and behavioral Reviews 17:347-357, 1993.

Kloeden P, Rossler R, Rossler O. Timekeeping in genetically programmed aging. Experimental Gerontology 28:109-118,1993.

Laakso M, Hatonen T, Stenberg D, Alila A, Smith S. One-hour exposure to moderate illuminance (500 lux) shifts the human melatonin rhythm. J Pineal Res 15:21-6, 1993.

Ott ,Jonathon, Pharmacotheon pub. by: Natural Products co. copyright 1993 by Jonathon Ott, isbn - 0-9614234-3-9

McKenna, DJ. Plant Allelochemicals & Plant/Human Co-Evolution. Botanical Preservation Corps Field Seminars, 1996.

McKenna, DJ. The Ayahuasca (Huasca) Project. Botanical Preservation Corps Field Seminars, Adio recorded lecture, 1996.

Sahelian, M.D., Ray Melatonin, Nature''s Sleeping Pill.:1-85 Be Happier Press, copy right, 1995.

Schultes, Richard Evans & Hoffman, Albert, Plants of the Gods copyright 1992 EMB-Service for Publishers, Lucerne, Switzerland pub. by: Healing Arts Press, isbn - 0-89281-406-3

Torres, C Manuel. Cohoba/DMT Snuffs. Botanical Preservation Corps Field Seminars, Adio recorded lecture, 1992.

Torres, C Manuel. Evidence for Antiquity of Entheogens in the Central Andes. Entheobotany: Shamanic Plant Science A Multi-Disciplinary Conference on Plants, Shamanism & Ecstatic States. 18-20 October, 1996 Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco, CA.