Exploring the South American Ayahuasca Drug

by Mickey

For an estimated 2000 years, the ayahuasca drug has been consumed for religious and healing purposes among indigenous Amazonian peoples.[1] The religious uses for the drug serve to provide the individual with some sort of divine knowledge or personal enlightenment through communicating with spirits and the divine. It is also used as a medicine to cure those with mental illness. All of this is achieved through the alternative state of consciousness that is caused by ayahuasca.[2] Shamans lead these rituals, as they have all the knowledge of ayahuasca, including the specific guidelines for consuming it.

A symbolic and interpretive anthropologist would see this spiritual practice as a learned and shared symbol that holds significant cultural meaning for the people of the Amazon. Symbolic and interpretive anthropology’s main focus is to understand symbols from an emic perspective[3], meaning that the rituals surrounding ayahuasca must be understood from the context of Amazonian culture. From this cultural context, it can be concluded that to the Amazonian people, personal enlightenment and communication with the divine is important for not only religious figures of authority like shamans, but also for the tribespeople. That everyone should experience the alternative state of consciousness regardless of social position or level of authority. In order to fully understand this ritual symbol, a Symbolic anthropologist would first collect information on the observable characteristics included in the practice, what the shamans believe about it and lastly make deductions himself – as anthropologist—from specific contexts, like his own previous knowledge.[4] From these three forms of data, consuming ayahuasca and the spiritual effects it brings to individuals are a way for the people of the Amazon to communicate how they think people should view the world.

A functionalist anthropologist would most likely say that this custom came to be so that a certain basic human need could be fulfilled.[5] In the case of spiritual awakening, this perspective of anthropology would see this practice as a way to satisfy the basic need for human growth. Specifically growth and development of personal enlightenment. This provides insight into the social aspects of this culture as well, according to a functionalist anthropologist. Personal spiritual enlightenment is a very individualistic practice, demonstrating how individuals operate in their own way, so that the society as a whole can successfully function.[6] Since this practice is over 1000 years old to Amazonian cultures, functionalism is a great perspective to interpret it from, being a synchronic theory. While the history of a practice is important to note when interpreting it, ayahuasca use has not changed among this culture since its introduction.

[1] Rios, Marlene Dobkin De, and Charles S. Grob. “Editors’ Introduction: Ayahuasca Use in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37.2 (2005): 119-21. Print.

[2] Sayin, H. Umit. “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants in Ancient Global and Anatolian Cultures During Religious Rituals: The Roots of the Eruption of Mythological Figures and Common Symbols in Religions and Myths.” NeuroQuantology 12.2 (2014): 276-96. Print.


[4] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532647/Symbolic%20and%20Interpretive%20Anthropology

[5] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29531810/Functionalism

[6] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29531810/Functionalism

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23 Responses to Exploring the South American Ayahuasca Drug

  1. Greta Schock (Recitation #11) says:

    I found this essay compelling because I once had the opportunity to travel to the Amazon and interact with the local tribes. Although, I did not know about the ayahuasca drug. I definitely found the perspective of symbolic anthropology to be the argued for the better perspective to approach the drug, because mind-altering drugs often play more of a symbolic value in society than it does a functional value when taken for spiritual purposes (think Alice in Wonderland.) Now that we have moved on in the semester, I think that an even better theory to approach the ayahuasca drug for Amazon tribes would be cultural ecology, due to the unique environment that the tribes live in. As cultural ecology is the relationship between environment and culture, it makes sense that in this community we find drugs that are specific to the Amazon environment.

    • Camille Gaty says:

      I disagree, I think that the environment explains why they use ayahuasca as opposed to another psychoactive drug, but not necessarily why the cultural practices of using it for religious communication and mental health arose.

    • Samantha Pollak says:

      I think it is a great idea to use cultural ecology for a few reasons. One, it is savvy to use the latest theories we have learned in class and incorporate them into a cultural phenomenon that you are studying. The second reason is that I think functionalism is somewhat of a cop out. The symbolic lens was interesting as I never thought of drugs as a symbol! But now it is clear to me that they can be. Especially applied to a university culture where saying you do drugs can be seen as a symbol for being a chill person to party with. I say that in full slang to exercise my point. Anyway, this essay was short, informative, and to the point. Play further with it!

  2. BethanyA says:

    It would be interesting to look at how the use of the drug has created a hierarchy in the society. Who is allowed to participate in taking the drug? Who is trusted to pick and process it? In what ways is the power of the drug redistributed through divinations and access. Is it used by healers or leaders, during times of hardship where help is needed, as a way to prepare for war, or celebration? very interesting article, it’s made me curious!

    • Rebecca says:

      Very interesting questions you’ve brought up! It would also be interesting to examine ayahuasca tourism, as more and more individuals from other countries (including from the US) travel to South America to experience the “divine” and to help conquer PTSD and other illnesses.

  3. Taylor McGrath says:

    Although I have never heard of the ayahuasca drug, you did a good job of explaining it through the symbolic and functionalist perspectives. I liked how you touched on the fact that the drug is used for all within the culture, not just the highest ranking. This shows that the drug is in fact an important aspect to the entire Amazonian culture. I agree with the comment above that the cultural ecology approach would have been beneficial in examining the drug. There must be some tie between the type of environment the Amazonian’s live in and why this particular drug is grown and used. Overall, you picked a very interesting topic that I have yet to ever think of.

  4. Emily Bacher says:

    Learning about this cultures use of ayahuasca really gave insight into the different functions a drug can have. We are taught in school the negative affects of drugs however, this paper helped to explain that not all drugs are harmful, some are beneficial to a culture. It was interesting to learn that this drug was not only taken for recreational use but also for mental illness. It would be intriguing to learn more about how ayahuasca helps those with mental illness.

  5. Abhi Shrestha says:

    This ayahuasca drug has been in use with the Amazonian people for 2000 years? Obviously this drug is doing something right as it claims to cure people with mental illnesses and provide knowledge and personal enlightenment by communicating with spirits. Because why else would they believe and trust this drug for 2000 years. So just for this reason, this topic is worth writing about, especially through the different lens of an anthropologist. You made sure this essay is worth reading about by using this information as your grabber on your first sentence. Although I have never heard of this drug, it would be interesting to know what it really does with a scientific study. Interesting because there might be some advantages in other areas if we know more about this specific drug. How long do you think this drug will be in use with the Amazonian people? And if it were to stop being used, what reasoning could explain, why?

  6. Allie Wolff says:

    I think your article was very interesting, because it showed how the ayahuasca drug is directly connected with important features to the Amazonian people. For Amazonian people, spiritual awakening is a human need, and therefore I completely agree that it serves a vital function for the people of this culture. It has been a part of their culture for such a long time that it has become something of great importance and a habitual part of life for them. I wasn’t aware that it is used a medicine for mental illnesses, which is extremely interesting as well.

  7. Jona Block says:

    I think a cultural ecologist would have a very interesting approach to ayahuasca. It is only available in specific parts of South America, making it a very special plant to the local people. I wonder if “spiritual awakening” is a concept of our own that is being used to describe their use of the plant. I guess this is what’s currently being addressed in the Reflexive Turn.

  8. Nicholas Paulin says:

    This was a very interesting read. I really enjoyed how you picked a topic that not many people would know about, it made for a refreshing read. It would be really interesting to see how other kinds of anthropologists would view this drug. Saying that, I believe your choices for theory were great. I especially liked reading about the functionalist part, and how you tied it into spiritual awakenings. Great topic and theories.

  9. Orion Felice says:

    The title really grabs you. I had never heard of Ayahuasca until reading this, and your paper explained its function for religious rituals very well. Was Ayahuasca a form of currency (means of trade), or was it a gift from one to the other to promote spiritual awakening? Communication between tribes would have allowed for Ayahuasca to diffuse throughout the Amazon, but what was the original functional value that caused this diffusion religious? If the main use of this drug is for religious reasons, does that mean that all tribes within the Amazon share the same religion? Hundreds of separate tribes live within the Amazon and the common ground that they share is in fact the Amazon, but what I’m a little fuzzy on is how it can be used for human growth among every individual within the Amazon (with the existence of separate tribes and societies this may cause cultural norms to vary). The real question – is this specific substance used by all people of Amazonian tribes?

  10. Amber Williams says:

    I’ve never heard of the drug Ayahuasca until this essay and I thought all of the information you provided was very interesting. The anthropological theories that you chose to use were appropriate and offered great insight onto the Amazonian people. Your exploration of its symbolic importance was great. You examined it at length and I think it provided me a deeper understanding of the drug’s true importance to this particular culture. It is important for all individuals in their culture to experience such personal enlightenment and divine communication. And because of this individual need and importance, functionalism was also a fantastic theory to use. Through this drug, each individual becomes more developed according to the Amazonian people, in a way that is “better” for the overall community.

  11. Casey Wilson says:

    Great paper! Near the middle of your paper you stated how an anthropologist would study ayahuasca and it made me wonder if anthropologists ever gain such an emic perspective that they have to participate in traditions. Often times, anthropologists participate in holidays, festivities, deaths, births, etc. which are all very deeply cultural practices. However, when do we get to the point where anthropologists are participating in rituals such as these? The reason I propose this is because I have looked into documentaries about ayahuasca as well and most of them revolve around a man/woman traveling to a shaman to take ayahuasca and along the way they discuss its origin and medicinal use. However, I’ve never seen an anthropologist do such a thing. What are your thoughts on the idea that perhaps a sub-sect of anthropology could, one day, involve studying a culture for a very long time, then once you understand a lot about the culture (obviously you can never know EVERYTHING), you participate in the tradition. Perhaps this would help us gain a better understanding to the ‘good’ side of ‘drugs’. For years, America has had negative connotations on ‘drugs’ but with cannabis all of this is changing. Now we see the medicinal use rather than drug use. However, other countries have been using various medicines for years (ayahuasca being the perfect example). I think it could be interesting to see how other countries use these so-called ‘drugs’ for medicinal purposes, which I think could be achieved through studying the culture and, only after many years, participating fully in rituals. Because if someone took ayahuasca in America without a shaman, they would most likely die or end up in a hospital. If they somehow didn’t, I still have a feeling they would have a very bad experience, though perhaps not. Yet, people take these ALL THE TIME in the Amazon (for the past 1000 years) and we don’t hear about them dying all of the time (even though it could be happening and we just aren’t hearing about it). Perhaps we could learn how to use other resources from the earth for good uses (medicine) rather than bad reasons (drugs).

    • Elizabeth Williamson says:

      I think you brought up a very good point about the possibility and the reality of the anthropologist trying to gain an emic perspective. We discussed this in lecture mainly in regard to gender differences how by being of one gender you may not realize you are missing a part of the experience because you may not even know that those questions have to be asked. This same concept can be translated here and I liked your proposal for a long term investigation, however it would have to be an extreme case of a longitudinal study.

  12. Sarah says:

    I have been interested in ayahuasca for a bit now and I find this article very provocative in this context! I think an even further analysis of ayahuasca could be made by looking at specialized churches in the United States who claim that this psychotropic drug (also peyote) is essential to their religion and therefore legal if you are a member of that church. It also makes me wonder if an anthropologist would participate in a shaman led ceremony with ayahuasca in order to better understand its effects and why these amazonian cultures trust so heavily in this drug to guide their decisions and life courses. Like I said before, very thought provoking essay.

  13. Jenna says:

    This is a very interesting and thought provoking essay. I’m reminded of the Cannabis article in that it provides a history of the substance beyond the cultural limitation that are applied to the drug now. Ayahuasca is a very respected substance and aids spiritual connectedness with the world of the gods. I know of an organization that provides the opportunity to use mind altering drugs like these in order to have a therapeutic altered states experience in a safe and secure environment. It’s interesting to see a culture shift its views on a substance even in the slightest of ways.

  14. Morgan says:

    Not only did the title grab my attention first but it kept my interest throughout the article. I find subjects on hallucinogens as a means for spiritual use and enlightenment to be very interesting. I have realized over the recent years in Colorado (specifically) that many others gained great interest in drugs of “enlightenment”, and cannabis as well. There are some people in the comment section that mentioned they never heard of Ayahuasca until now, but the mere fact that we are reading this article with the rest of the class shows that it is being spread and more knowledge of it is being realized everyday. I always found the history of this drug and its significant connection with the Amazonian people very important to understanding more about their beliefs and its interconnectedness with a unique culture like theirs. I have heard of many people from the US that travel to the Amazon to have a life changing experience with the Shamans and Ayahuasca, it has become a form of spiritual awareness that many take seriously. Thanks for sharing this interesting subject!

  15. katemccort says:

    This was an interesting read. I think it would be cool to look at if there is any structural violence linked to the use of the drug or the banning of the drug by the non-indigenous power in the Amazon, as I’m sure there is someone trying to outlaw it. I enjoyed reading the part about the drug use from a functionalist perspective, like how they sometimes categorize using the drug as a basic human need. This sounds similar to Bolivia and coca, as they feel like they need to chew on it everyday similar to Americans and coffee habits. Coca also has tons of structural violence linked to it, the same way I would assume this drug does outside of the indigenous community.

  16. Emily Lane says:

    I think the topic of the essay was very unique and offered an interesting perspective on ayahausca use. I’ve always been interested in the interaction between psychoactive plants and humans and how it shapes a culture. It can be argued that humans have had a relationship with mind-altering substances for thousands of years. The two theories that you used to analyze its usage fit well and I could see how it is symbolic and meaningful in their culture and how it could also serve another aspect as fulfilling a spiritual need.

  17. Colin Mulligan says:

    As others have mentioned, this was a very interesting topic. I particular like how you analyzed the usage of the drug with functionalism, explaining how this usage could be fulfilling a human need of spiritual enlightenment. Though others have brought up other theories that could have been used in analysis, I find this association with functionalism most compelling. The search for spiritual grounding and its linkage with ayahuasca use is truly fascinating.

  18. Kaitlin May says:

    I am completely fascinated by these types of cultural and religious practices. It seems that around the world the concept of an altered state of consciousness can be reacted to on a spectrum from acceptance and even adoration to distrust and revulsion. Even though it may sound strange to many people I think you are totally right in seeing this “drug” as a very powerful symbol. But that difference in opinion can be inherently related to the nature of a symbol as seem through symbolic anthropology. It makes sense in one cultural context but not necessarily within another. By pairing symbolic anthropology with functionalism I think that you provided a good range of interpretation of a practice that might seem strange to people in the United States. Viewing the altered state of consciousness as a method of personal growth is a very insightful observation that uses a great deal of cultural relativity. I think that you did a very good job with this essay of acting objectively in your interpretation of ayahuasca. Alongside cultural relativity, objectivity is another key tool of the effective anthropological thinker. I also think that your writing style was very engaging and entertaining for the reader.

  19. Natalie Bowes says:

    I liked this essay because I had no idea before that this drug existed or that it was so central to religious and healing practices in the amazon. I think that symbolic anthropology was a perfect theory to use in this article and helped to understand this drug relative to amazonian culture. It’s interesting to compare the use of drugs in this culture in comparison to our own in which mind altering drugs are looked down upon and those who claim to be enlightened after using are seen as crazy, whereas in the Amazon this is understood.

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