A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States. By Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrrill. Westport, CT: Praeger (2008). Hardback. Pp.162. ISBN: 9780313345425
According to Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill the psychedelic Amazonian jungle decoction, ayahuasca, has a history of continuous use spanning at least 8,000 years. After all that time non-indigenes are now developing an increasing interest in ayahuasca’s intriguing cultural, magico-religious, legal, medical and psychopharmacological dimensions. This book covers all of these aspects in varying degrees (less so the pharmacology), but is likely of most interest for its analysis of the brew’s use in shamanic and healing contexts. It is here too that the book has most to offer, with half its contents given over to anthropological insights into the native use of ayahuasca, including interviews over the course of some thirty years between the authors and several ayahuasqueros.
From the ethnography we learn that prophecy is one of the main motivations among the native people of Peru for drinking ayahuasca, and that the brew is also important in healing, as well as in more sinister activities such as bewitchment and sorcery. The authors maintain, however, that any healing effects that do occur are due to an increased hypnotic suggestibility induced by the drug and to the shaman’s skills, if they have any, as a psychotherapist. A similar academic view is taken regarding the shaman’s belief in contact with animal and plant familiars who assist him in diagnosing illness. Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill suggest this belief is merely self-deception, an illusion that provides a sense of security and a means of coping that immunizes people against depression. Nevertheless, the hypnotic suggestibility and self-deception hypotheses put forward remain largely unexamined and untested, reflecting a deep-seated ethnocentrism and possibly what Grof (2001) calls pragmacentrism – theoretical speculation “…based exclusively on experiences and observations made in ordinary states of consciousness” (p.15).
Unsurprisingly, having one’s magical beliefs labelled as delusional by anthropologists does little to reduce them and the Peruvians here under the cultural microscope still seek shamanic help for saladera (a bewitchment of bad luck) and daño, which is any physical ailment believed to be due to witchcraft and interpersonal conflict, usually envy. The former is generally a direct attack, whereas the latter usually involves the employment of a third party, a witch, to create the curse. Back in 1977, one shaman reported that a quarter of his clients came to him for love charms. These motives seemingly contrast with those of the modern “Western drug tourist’s” desires for a spiritual experience or to alleviate depression and resolve trauma, all of which, indigenous or foreign, are somewhat denigrated by the authors, who write, “the farce currently resulting from the borrowing of shamanic elements in a hodgepodge of cobbled mysticism verges on the ludicrous” (p.82).
This consideration of the modern ‘Western’ urbanite’s desire to use ayahuasca consumes the other half of the book. It is here that the central thesis reveals itself as much less a cauldron in which viewpoints about ayahuasca use are openly mixed but rather as an alembic in which to distil toxic opinions. The object of scorn being the growth in ayahuasca tourism and the subsequent demise of ‘real’ healers/sorcerers: the increased demand from wealthy foreigners resulting in virtually all “neo-shamans” these days being charlatans as the authors see it. This rather dim view of both ayahuasca seekers and dispensers is largely unsupported, however, and comes across as the authors’ opinion based largely on reports from a very few informants, usually older, more established Peruvian shamans – other regions in South America being ignored.
Certainly there are some negative consequences to Westerners seeking to sample Amazonian shamanism, either as a means of spirituality or in order to become well, although other researchers (e.g., Winkleman, 2005), following interviews, have tended to characterise these as spiritual seekers rather than drug tourists, and view their activities as more benign. However, short shrift is given to such research by Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, who are of the opinion that “pseudo-intellectual” Westerners taking ayahuasca are doing so due to a lack of authenticity in their own life, leading to a lack of morality and a subsequent desire to mock the drug laws in the northern hemisphere. Such a position is once again unsupported, and counters the foreign ayahuasca users’ actual reasoning as reported by the authors, albeit obtained second-hand from a “reputable ayahasuca healer” (p.80). Furthermore, the authors indicate that ayahuasca drug tourists are gullible and place themselves in danger at the hands of charlatans. This speculation is undoubtedly true in some cases, but the overarching tenor of the book in this regard is verging on vitriolic, not academic.
For instance, in the very first few pages the reader is informed that, despite the general scientific view that it is safe, ayahuasca is a dangerous drug and that “new data are emerging that provoke some real concerns about ayahausca’s use” (p.7). In particular, the text continues, the untrained use of it can be fatal, reporting three cases in which people have died in connection with ayahasca use. In the first case it is stated that “for example, [Dobkin] de Rios reported that an epileptic informant in Iquitos was given ayahuasca, and during a seizure that followed, she fell into the river and drowned” (p.7). This gives the impression that the seizure occurred under the effects of the jungle decoction and quite possibly as a direct result of it, though certainly the implication is that the ayahuasca is something to do with the death. When the reader turns to the original source of that report (Dobkin de Rios, 1972) it is discovered that, “After she had taken ayahuasca twice, Norma [a girl of eighteen who suffered from epilepsy]… had to travel with her mother to Brazil to see about some family property. During a convulsion, the young woman fell into the river and drowned” (p.103). Certainly the reading of the accident in the this original text indicates that the ayahuasca ingestion was completely incidental to the woman’s drowning, which was only mentioned because the ayahuasca failed to cure her of epilepsy! This is hardly grounds for labelling its ingestion as fatal, and nor is this “new data” having been first reported in 1972.
In the second supposed case of death from ayahuasca the authors mention “a fatal intoxication” of a US man that was “reported in a scientific journal” (p.8). However, a number of leading scientists engaged in ayahuasca research seriously questioned the original reporting of the incident by Sklerov et al. (2005), and published a rebuttal in the same journal indicating that the report “…is misleading as to the nature and toxicity of ayahuasca” (Callaway et al., 2006, p. 406). They went on to state that, “…there is no evidence that… his death… can in any way be attributed to ayahuasca per se, as a superficial or uninformed reading of the article insinuates.” Furthermore, they indicated that several points in the original article required clarification, “as readers may otherwise make unwarranted inferences about the toxicity and harmfulness of ayahuasca” (p.407) as indeed appears to have occurred in the book under review.
The final case of death by ayahuasca merely alludes to an event “whispered about among Iquitos residents” (p.8) concerning a woman who died following an aneurysm while under the influence of the psychedelic brew, but no references are given and the incident remains hearsay at best. It’s scholarship such as this, combined with an apparent lack of balanced viewpoint that undermines the potentially important message of the book. Yes, there may well be concerns regarding the modern non-indigenous use of ayahuasca, but to overstate these and blanketly criticise all parties involved without addressing “benefit maximization” as well as harm reduction (Tupper, 2008) is to catastrophize the situation. Not wishing to be an apologist for ayahuasca seekers or dispensers, it is my opinion that the kind of agenda-led anthropology and journalism presented in this book is likely to do more harm than good.
As a final example of the bias imbued within this text, in this case ethnocentrism, the authors make some mention of cultural appropriation of indigenous wisdom with the rise of white shamans, but then indicate that ayahuasca’s only salvation from becoming a malevolent agent is to incorporate it into the medical model within a strict set of protocols. While this is certainly one way forward, ironically, it is a direction that reeks of the cultural appropriation of a healing practice that spans millennia. In sum, this book is surely of interest to the discerning researcher of indigenous healing practices and shamanism, and, unlike ayahuasca it seems, it should require no warning label. For all other readers the same caution applies as for those initially seeking shamanic inebriants in the Amazon, caveat emptor.
A version of this article first appeared as: Luke, D. (2011). The light from the forest: The ritual use of ayahuasca in Brazil: Special issue of Fieldwork in Religion 2(3), by B.C. Labate & E. MacRae [book review]. Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness & Culture 4 (3), 361-364.
Callaway, J.C., Grob, C.S., McKenna, D.J., Nichols, D.E., Shulgin, A., and Tupper, K.W., 2006. “A Demand for Clarity Regarding a Case Report on the Ingestion of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) in an Ayahuasca Preparation.” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 30(6): 406-7.
Dobkin de Rios, M., 1972. Visionary Vine: Psychedelic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.
Grof, S., 2001. LSD psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Sarasota, FL: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Sklerov, J., Levine, B., Moore, K.A., King, T., and Fowler, D., 2005. “A Fatal Intoxication Following the Ingestion of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in an Ayahuasca Preparation.” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 29(8): 838-41.
Tupper, K. W., 2008. “The Globalization of Ayahuasca: Harm Reduction or Benefit Maximization?” International Journal of Drug Policy 19: 297-303.
Winkelman, M., 2005. “Drug Tourism or Spiritual Healing? Ayahuasca Seekers in Amazonia.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37 (2): 209-18.