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Ayahuasca, Yagé, Caapi, Natema

Yagé; bejuco bravo; bejuco de oro; caapi (Tupi, Brazil); mado, mado bidada and rami-wetsem (Culina); nucnu huasca and shimbaya huasca (Quechua); kamalampi (Piro); punga huasca; rambi and shuri (Sharanahua); ayahuasca amarillo;ayawasca; nishi and oni (Shipibo); ayahuasca; ayahuasca negro; ayahuasca blanco; ayahuasca trueno, cielo ayahuasca; népe; xono; datém; kamarampi; Pindé (Cayapa); natema (Jivaro); iona; mii; nixi; pae; ka-hee’ (Makuna); mi-hi (Kubeo); kuma-basere; wai-bu-ku-kihoa-ma; wenan-duri-guda-hubea-ma; yaiya-suava-kahi-ma; wai-buhua-guda-hebea-ma; myoki-buku-guda-hubea-ma (Barasana); ka-hee-riama; mene’-kají-ma; yaiya-suána-kahi-ma; kahí-vaibucuru-rijoma; kaju’uri-kahi-ma; mene’-kají-ma; kahí-somoma’ (Tukano); tsiputsueni, tsipu-wetseni; tsipu-makuni; rami-wetsem (Kulina); amarrón huasca, inde huasca (Ingano); oó-fa; yajé (Kofan); bi’-ã-yahé; sia-sewi-yahe; sese-yahé; weki-yajé; yai-yajé; nea-yajé; horo-yajé; sise-yajé (Shushufindi Siona); shimbaya huasca (Ketchwa); shillinto (Peru); nepi (Colorado); wai-yajé; yajé-oco; beji-yajé; so’-om-wa-wai-yajé; kwi-ku-yajé; aso-yajé; wati-yajé; kido-yajé; weko-yajé; weki-yajé; usebo-yajé; yai-yajé; ga-tokama-yai-yajé; zi-simi-yajé; hamo-weko-yajé (Siona of the Putomayo); shuri-fisopa;shuri-oshinipa; shuri-oshpa (Sharananahua), and Anua (Muruy Huitoto).*
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At least 42 indigenous names for this preparation are known. It is remarkable and significant that at least 72 different indigenous tribes of Amazonia, however widely separated by distance, language, and cultural differences, all manifested a detailed common knowledge of ayahuasca and its use.*

Both the plantand the medicine prepared from it are called ‘ayahuasca’ in most of the Peruvian Amazon. In this cyber treatise we distinguish the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) from the medicinal brew (ayahuasca combined with a companion plant such as chacruna) by capitalizing the name of the prepared medicine, i.e. Ayahuasca.

*from Schultes and Raffauf, The Healing Forest.


Principal active biochemicals: the ß-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, tetrahydroharmine, harmol, harmic acid, methylester harmic amide, acetyl norharmine, harmine N-oxide, harmalinic acid and ketotetra-hydronorharmine are present in the bark, stems, and trunk of B. caapi, B. inebrians, and other species of Banisteriopsis.

Tetrahydroharmine occurs in greater concentration in B. caapi than in other plants bearing harmala alkaloids such as Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) and certain species of Passiflora sp. (passionflower). This may account for the more profound and enduring therapeutic effects produced by genuine ayahuasca compared to “analogue” preparations.

What is Ayahuasca?

The word “Ayahuasca” refers to a medicinal and magical drink incorporating two or more distinctive plant species capable of producing profound mental, physical and spiritual effects when brewed together and consumed in a ceremonial setting. Oneof these plants is always the giant woody liana vine called ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi or other species). The other plant or plants combined with ayahuasca generally contain tryptamine alkaloids, most often dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The plants most often used are the leaves of chacruna (Psychotria viridis and other species) and oco yagé; also known as chalipanga, chagraponga, and huambisa (Diplopterys cabrerana).

This drink is widely employed throughout Amazonian Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, western Brazil, and in portions of the Río Orinoco basin. It has probably been used in the western Amazon for millennia and is rapidly expanding in South America and elsewhere through the growth of organized syncretic religious movements such as Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (UDV), and Barquinia, among others.

In traditional rainforest practice, other medicinal or visionary plants are often added to the brew for various purposes, from purely positive healing (blancura) and divination to malevolent black magic (brujeria, magia negra or rojo).

The oldestknow object related to the use of ayahuasca is a ceremonial cup, hewn out of stone, with engraved ornamentation, which was found in the Pastaza culture of the Ecuadorean Amazon from 500 B.C. to 50 A.D. It is deposited in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of the Central University (Quito, Ecuador). This indicates that ayahuasca potions were known and used at least 2,500 years ago. Its antiquity in the lower Amazon is likely much greater.
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The Ayahuasca medicine usually contains both beta-carboline and tryptamine alkaloids. However, some indigenous Amazonian cultures, i.e. Yahua and others, prepare a ceremonial drink from the ayahuasca vine alone.The effects differ in visionary qualities from the more typical composite preparation but with the same profound cleansing and spiritual effects.
The beta-carbolines (harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine) are obtained from the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Harmine and harmaline are visionary at near toxic levels, but at modest dosage typically produce mainly tranquility and purgation.

Tetrahydroharmine is present in significant levels in ayahuasca. It may be responsible for some of its more profound effects compared to analogue plants such as Syrian rue (Peganum harmala).

The ratio of the harmala alkaloids in ayahuasca appears to vary greatly from one geographical area to another in the Amazon basin. The proportions in which they are present likely account for the varied effects reported by shamans from different ‘kinds’ of ayahuasca even though all are botanically classified as Banisteriopsis caapi.

See ‘Botanical Species and Shamanic Varieties of Banisteriopsis.’

Harmala alkaloids are short term monoamine xidase inhibitors which render tryptamines orally active by temporarily reducing levels of monoamine oxidase in the body which otherwise rapidly destroys them. The combination of specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as Prozac), and most other antidepressants, with Ayahuasca or other MAO inhibitors can cause life support emergencies or death.

The principalayahuasca compounds have a common indole structure which, through several mechanisms, influences certain functions of the central nervous system (CNS). The relevant factor is the biochemical similarity of these compounds to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). The harmala alkaloids in ayahuasca, primarily harmine and tetrahydroharmine, reversibly inhibit the neuronal enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO).

This allows DMT to be active when ingested orally. It also facilitates accumulation of biogenic amines, such as 5-HT, which are normally metabolized by monoamine oxidase enzymes. DMT is a naturally-occurring biochemical substance secreted by the human body in the pineal gland. It occurs in hundreds of plant species worldwide. It can produce very powerful visionary effects when smoked in its pure form or taken orally in Ayahuasca.

It is incorrect, however, to characterize the Ayahuasca experience as merely an oral DMT experience activated by a beta carboline MAO inhibitor. The holistic processes at work are far more complex and it is unquestionably the ayahuasca vine which fuels the transformative power and profound teaching of the Ayahuasca experience.

Tryptamines (specifically N,N-dimethyltryptamine = DMT) are derived most commonly from the leaves of chacruna (Psychotria viridis and P. carthaginensis).

Research is needed to better understand the biochemical, psychotropic, and medicinal properties of various species of Psychotria.

In some geographic areas and shamanic lineages, oco yagé (Diplopterys cabrerana = Banisteriopsis rusbyana), also known as chaliponga, chagraponga, and huambisa, is used in addition to or instead of chacruna.

Both N,N-dimethyltryptamine and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine are present in the leaves of Diplopterys.

5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine is not present in Psychotria.


Chacruna “legitima”

Psychotria viridis in full fruit

Oco yagé is favored by shamans in Ecuador and Colombia, but chacruna is far more commonly used in Perú where many species and varieties of Psychotria are used by curanderos for varied purposes (see chacruna).

Diplopterys leaves are 5+10 times more alkaloid-rich than an equivalent amount of Psychotria so fewer leaves are used. The leaves of neither plant are psychoactive if eaten or smoked due to the relatively low alkaloid content and rapid breakdown of alkaloids by monoamine oxidase, a natural human enzyme.
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Chacruna and oco yagé are similar in their contribution to the Ayahuasca brew, but there are differences in their experiential and spiritual qualities. These differences are evident only to those who know the scope of effects of which each plant is capable. Both bring light and vision to the experience. Chacruna harmonizes with the power of ayahuasca while oco yagé adds power with light (the 5-meo-dmt effect). The ‘mareación’ (Ayahuasca state of consciousness) produced with chacruna normally lasts four to five hours, while that with oco yagé often lasts over six hours with an extended “afterglow effect” which may last 12-24 hours.

The relatively low concentration of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in oco yagé contributes a strong effect. Though it does not particularly enrich the visionary experience per se, it is a powerful propellant for shamanic soul flight. This probably accounts for the longer-lasting effect of Ayahuasca containing oco yagé.

In northeastern Brazil, a sacramental drink called Jurema is prepared from the root bark of Mimosa hostilis, a common flowering leguminous tree. The bark from the roots of M. hostilis contains the highest concentration of dimethyltryptamine known from any natural source.
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The ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, is related to about 1200 other plants within the family Malpighiaceae. The family offer a diverse array of fruits, but they all grow very similar flowers. About 85% of ayahuasca’s botanical relatives in the Malpighiaceae family evolved and lived naturally in North or South America.
It has been difficult to track down exact information on when ayahuasca emerged on an evolutionary timescale. Part of the reason for this is that scientists are not in full agreement on the deep timeline of much plant life. But what we can say is that according to the mindbogglingly awesome website, Malpighiaceae are a relatively recent family that likely emerged around 90 million years ago during the late Cretaceous epoch (not long, relatively speaking, after the Jurassic epochs).
Botanists have suggested that the Banisteriopsis and Diplopterys geni—which host the high majority of the ayahuasca vine species that are brewed today— probably emerged during the late Pleistoscene (commonly known as the Ice Age). Bronwen Gates describes their distribution and phylogeny:
“Both Banisteriopsis and Diplopterys are entirely New World in their distribution. There are a few species of Banisteriopsis which extend their range into the subtropics in Mexico, Paraguay and Argentina, but most species are restricted to the tropics, with nearly two-thirds of the species entirely Brazilian in their distribution. Almost half of the species of Banisteriopsis are savanna species, with more than two-thirds of these species in the Planalto region of Brazil, in the characteristic savanna vegetation of this area known as cerrado. Possibly the diversification of the genus occurred during the Pleistocene, during the postulated periods of greatly increased savanna vegetation”.
Plant diversification in the Amazon rainforest area appears to have increased dramatically during the dry and humid cycles of the Pleistoscene, and this is when Gates suggests the geni of ayahuasca species emerged. If this theory is correct, then the ayahuasca vine is approximately 1.25 million years old.
The emergence of the vine is also weaved into colorful ayahuasca myths handed down orally by indigenous groups. The natural environment has a special affinity with the human populations of the Amazon. Amazonian groups had such a wide impact on managing plant and animal environments that archeologists suggests there was no “pristine” area of the Amazon remaining by the year 1541 when European colonists arrived.
In 1957, scientists isolated the active compounds in the ayahuasca vine and discovered that its contents are almost identical to the extracts of the Eurasian and North African plant commonly known as Syrian Rue. By comparison, the chemical composition of Syrian Rue was discovered in the 1840s, where “harmala” alkaloids were isolated and given their name.
It took scientists a while to realize that key alkaloids in the ayahuasca vine were the same as those in Syrian Rue. Before this happened, one scientist in 1905 decided to call the active ingredients in the ayahuasca vine “telepathine“, noting its apparently telepathic properties.
Anderson, W. 1990. The Origin of the Malpighiaceae-The Evidence from Morphology. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden. 64: 210-224
Gates, B. 1982. Banisteriopsis, Diplopterys (Malpighiaceae). Flora Neotropics. Vol. 30. P1-237. (See image below)
Vuilleumier, B.S. 1971. Pleistocene changes in the fauna and flora of South America. Science. 3999:771-80