A very short history of ayahuasca expansion and its relevance to social science

“Drugs are like chameleons. They take on the characteristics of the culture they are in”
Des Tramacchi.


The mercurial psychoactive effects of ayahuasca seemingly allow the substance to accommodate a diverse range of cultural worlds or ways of life. Over the last 150 years ayahuasca use spread across parts of indigenous Amazonia through the notorious rubber tapping industries of the area, shapeshifting to different political and cultural climates. The expansion involved the emergence of indigenous millenarian “cults” of resistance to colonialism, and types of communal purgative healing circles among workers, both of which absorbed influences of Christianity and colonial folk music in shamanic ritual song and practice. During the early and mid 20th century several Brazilian syncretic and institutionalised ayahuasca religions germinated from the Amazonian rubber tapping industry. In recent decades these religions, Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, were adopted by middle classes of metropolitan Brazil from which they globalised to include parts of Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere. The ayahuasca religions have recently encountered legal resistance and legal sanctions in various countries due to the criminalisation of the plants or “drug”. Over the last two decades a bourgeoning ayahuasca shamanic tourism industry emerged on the edges of the Amazon jungle. The tourism milieu attracts a variety of kinds of ayahuasca seekers, including spiritual, secular, medical and/or aesthetic in orientation and motivation. Over the last fifteen years, novel and eclectic types of ayahuasca use have developed on the fringes of Western societies in ‘underground’ spirituality networks.

When shamanism, indigenous healing and related forms of knowledge jump the cultural barbed wired fence and become appropriated, fabricated, exchanged or co-produced for the purposes of people in affluent countries, whether by Western spiritualists or indigenous practitioners, anthropologists are quick to ridicule and ignore the phenomena, explaining it away as false consciousness and false culture. Whether or not these unsettled feelings are due to anthropology’s own familiarity with romantic tropes (Atkinson 1992) or its complicated history with colonialism, the “shamanophobia” (Dowson 1996) in contemporary research culture reminds us of the need for greater reflexive attention and an excavation of moral grounds. Implicitly questioning the subterranean sentiments of shamanophobia and in ways that hold traction with contemporary studies of ayahuasca use outside indigenous Amazonia, Wouter Hanegraaff comments on psychedelic spirituality and its continuing relevance to popular culture and thus to the stomping ground of social science.

Whether we like it or not, we are dealing here with a vital and vibrant dimension of popular Western spirituality that has been with us for more than half a century now, and shows no signs of disappearing. (Hanegraaff 2012)

The complex history of ayahuasca, as it travels through time and different cultural worlds, offers insight into larger questions about colonialism, cultural exchange, social change, globalisation, modernisation, drug policy, cultural legitimacy, health and healing, and the range of concepts associated with the religious, including soteriology, cosmology, and the politics of secularism and disenchantment. Anthropologists dismissive of the relevance of ayahuasca to social research appear guilty of visions more absurd than Don Quixote and as equally corrupt as ritual charlatans.


Atkinson, J. 1992 Shamanism Today, Annual Review of Anthropology. 21: 307–330
Dowson, T. A. (1996) ‘Review of Garlake, P. (1995) The Hunder’s Vision: The Prehistoric Rock Art of Zimbabwe’. Antiquity. Vol. 70 pp.468-469
Hanegraaff, W. 2013 ‘Entheogenic Esotericism’ in Asprem & Granholm Contemporary Esotericism. Acumen Publishing

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