Beyond Castaneda: A Brief History of Psychedelics in Anthropology – Part 1 1859-1950

2013 Vol.1 illustrated by Lucy BrowmThis article was written by Jack Hunter – author of Why People Believe in Spirits, Ghosts and Magic – and appeared in the PsypressUK 2013: Anthology of Pharmacography. PsypressUK 2014 is out now and available here.

By now the image of the adventurous anthropologist boldly experimenting with the psychoactive substances of their native informants is something of a cliché. Images from Carlos Castaneda’s influential series of books, in which a young anthropologist is initiated into the world of Yaqui sorcery through extraordinary psychedelic experiences, immediately springs to mind when the subject comes up. But there is a history of serious anthropological inquiry beyond Castaneda’s popularization (and possible fictionalization) of anthropology’s involvement with psychoactive substances. This two-part article will aim to give a brief chronological summary of developments within this field of research, from the Nineteenth Century to the present day, through presenting snapshots of key figures and their research. These will include, in order of appearance, J.G. Frazer, Weston La Barre, Richard Evans Schultes, Napoleon Chagnon, Carlos Castaneda, Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Michael Harner, Zeljko Jokic and others. This article will cover the period 1859-1950. The next installment, appears in PsypressUK 2013 Vol. 2, and explores developments from 1950 to the present day.

Evolutionism and Armchair Anthropology

Anthropology, like most of the sciences, came into its own as a distinct discipline in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Spurred by the success of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in biology, which first emerged in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, many thinkers interested in the study of human society began to construct elaborate evolutionist schemes of social and cultural development: beginning with so-called ‘primitive’ tribal societies and typically culminating with European society as the most highly developed. For the most part early anthropologists were library based researchers, fully reliant on the firsthand reports of explorers, adventurers, travel writers and religious missionaries (including all of their associated cultural assumptions), for their research data.

Sir James George Frazer was a typical armchair anthropologist. In his epic series of books The Golden Bough, a vast collection of traditional rites, rituals, folklore and mythology from around the globe, Frazer refers on several occasions to the use of certain plants for the purpose of producing ‘temporary inspiration.’ He describes the prophetess of Apollo’s consumption of, and fumigation with, laurel leaves before she prophesied, and explained how the traditional Ugandan priest would smoke a pipe of tobacco ‘fiercely till he works himself into a frenzy,’ his loud voice then being recognized as ‘the voice of the god speaking through him.’ The widespread use of consciousness altering substances was, therefore, clearly noted by early anthropologists, though their researches rarely went much further than describing (or re-describing), practices observed by missionaries and explorers, barely managing to scratch the surface of particularly complex socio-psycho-cultural phenomena. Indeed, the evolutionist paradigm within which scholars like Frazer were operating essentially blocked any kind of deeper understanding of the role of such substances in different cultures. For Frazer, for example, spirit possession practices involving tobacco, or the use of laurel smoke for inducing prophetic states, were little more than ‘primitive’ evolutionarily redundant superstitions, already replaced by the ostensibly superior scientific worldview. In other words, beliefs about the efficacy of such substances to put the imbiber in contact with spiritual realities were simply confused interpretations of essentially meaningless experiences of intoxication. From the very outset, therefore, such substances were not permitted to have any deeper meaning or value, and were certainly not considered as important in any way.

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, however, anthropology was starting to change.

Cultural Relativism and Fieldwork

As anthropological thought developed in the early Twentieth Century, participant observation, following the lead of the British-Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, became anthropology’s key tool in the quest to understand culture and society. Malinowski had suggested that the only way to understand a culture was to live in it as completely as possible; to participate in everyday life and, while doing so, to make detailed observations of it. It was only through this kind of immersive research, so Malinowski argued, that a culture could truly be understood. Writing along similar lines the American ethnographer Franz Boas emphasized the importance of attempting to interpret different cultural systems through their own categories, without the imposition of the ethnographer’s own cultural assumptions. This was to be a particularly influential idea in Twentieth Century anthropology that would become known as cultural relativism. Naturally, this new emphasis on understanding cultural systems from an insider (or at least near-insider) perspective would have a significant effect on the anthropological understanding of the role of psychoactive plants in different cultures. Unlike the evolutionist paradigm of the Nineteenth Century, with its view of non-Western cultures as primitive and outmoded, the relativist paradigm of the early Twentieth Century would begin to reveal the complexities and inner logics of other cultures, which were now understood not as somehow beneath the Euro-American scientific worldview, but as parallel to it.

by Lorna Johnson

by Lorna Johnson

It was not until the 1930s that a concerted effort to investigate the cultural use of psychoactive plants was finally undertaken, with the aim of developing a more complete, and nuanced, understanding than had previously been achieved during the Nineteenth Century. One of the earliest such studies was published in 1938 by the American ethnographer Weston La Barre in his book The Peyote Cult, based on his own doctoral research amongst the various tribes of the American plains. In the book, La Barre describes the many uses of the peyote cactus (hikuri) as a tool for prophecy and divination, as an apotropaic charm of protection to ward off witchcraft and attacks from rival tribes, as well describing its ‘technological’ use as a medicine for the healing of wounds, curing of snake bites, bruises and many other common afflictions. He even describes the use of the cactus as a cure for blindness. In addition to these technological uses, La Barre also explored the ritual use of peyote amongst the Huichol and Tarahumari peoples. He describes the traditional pilgrimage of the Huichol to gather peyote as a sacred journey to Wirikuta, the primordial origin of the world, ‘since formerly the gods went out to seek peyote and now are met with in the shape of mountains, stones and springs.’ When the Huichol pilgrims arrive at the mesa where the peyote grow, a ritual is performed in which the peyote cactuses are hunted like deer. The Huichol men fire their arrows over the top of the cactuses, symbolically missing their targets, so that the cactuses may be brought home alive. Rituals, feasts and festivities follow the return of the peyote pilgrims. La Barre emphasized the fundamental role of the peyote cactus as a central pillar of Huichol culture, in terms of structuring the ritual year, providing access to spiritual realms and as a medicinal technology.

In 1940 the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, a colleague of La Barre, published an account of his research into teonanacatl, an hallucinogenic plant used by the Aztecs and described by Spanish chroniclers in the Eighteenth Century. In the Nineteenth Century debates had raged amongst scholars concerned with identifying teonanacatl, with many assuming that the plant must have been the peyote cactus. But Schultes’ reading of the historical documents suggested otherwise, indeed they suggested that teonanacatl was in fact a mushroom. However, in order to prove his theory Schultes still needed to identify which particular mushroom teonanacatl referred to. With this aim in mind, therefore, he embarked on an excursion to conduct fieldwork amongst the Mazatec Indians of the Oaxaca region of Mexico. In 1938 Schultes tracked down the mushroom Paneolus campanulatus var. Sphinctrinus in Huautla de Jimenez, referred to by the Mazatec as t-hana-sa (meaning ‘unknown’), she-to (‘pasture mushroom’) and to-shka (‘intoxicating mushroom’). The mushroom grows during the rainy season in boggy spots. Mazatec diviners used the mushroom in order to locate stolen property, discover secrets and to give advice to those in need, the mushroom was also used in witchcraft. Schultes describes how consumption of the mushroom induces a ‘semi-conscious state accompanied by mild delirium’ that lasts approximately three hours, over the course of which the subject passes through a period of feeling generally good, a stage of hilarity and incoherence and finally experiences ‘fantastic visions and brilliant colours,’ similar in many ways to the peyote experience. Schultes had found the fabled teonanacatl mushroom. Through conducting ethnographic fieldwork amongst contemporary Mazatec Indians, rather than relying solely on the reports of missionaries and explorers, Schultes was able to solve an anthropological puzzle and open the doors for further research on the contemporary use of the mushroom amongst the Mazatec.


The anthropological understanding of the use of psychoactive plants gradually changed with the development of the discipline’s underlying paradigm. Nineteenth Century approaches were limited by the assumptions of the evolutionist paradigm, according to which non-Western cultures were somehow ‘primitive,’ ‘superstitious’ and already superseded by the Euro-American scientific worldview. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century this assumption was being questioned, with non-Western cultures beginning to be seen as parallel with, rather than subordinate to, Western culture. Fieldworkers like Weston La Barre and Richard Evans Schultes demonstrated the complex role played by psychoactive substances in Native American cultural systems as socially, culturally, spiritually and technologically significant, and by no means primitive. The cultural relativist paradigm would lay the foundations for further developments in anthropological approaches to the study of psychoactive plants, which will be explored in the next instalment.


Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. London: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993.

La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Schultes, Richard Evans. “Teonanacatl: The Narcotic Mushroom of the Aztecs.” American Anthropologist 42.3 (1940): 429-443.

Bio: Jack Hunter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol. His research takes the form of an ethnographic study of contemporary trance and physical mediumship in Bristol, focusing on themes of personhood, performance, altered states of consciousness and anomalous experience. In 2010 he established “Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal” as a means to promote an interdisciplinary dialogue on issues of the paranormal. In 2010 he was awarded the Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship by the Parapsychology Foundation, and in 2011 he received the Gertrude Schmeidler Award from the Parapsychological Association.


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