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Drugs

Psychedelics Weren't As Common in Ancient Cultures As We Think

The dominant narrative about psychedelics is that they are closely linked to shamanism and have been used in many Amazonian cultures for thousands of years. But there is little reliable evidence to actually back that claim.
December 10, 2020, 2:54pm

Beginning in 2001, Austrian anthropologist Bernd Brabec de Mori spent six years living in the western Amazon. He first arrived as a backpacker, returned to do a master’s thesis on ayahuasca songs, and eventually did a PhD on the music of eight Indigenous peoples in the region. Along the way, he married a woman of the local Shipibo tribe and settled down.

“I did not have a lot of money,” he said, “so I had to make my living there.” He became a teacher. He built a house. He and his wife had children. That rare experience of joining the community, he said, forced him to realize that many of the assumptions he had picked up as an anthropologist were wrong.

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Like most outsiders, Brabec de Mori arrived in Peru thinking that ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew commonly made from the Banisteriopsis vine and the DMT-containing chacruna plant, had been used by Amazonian peoples for thousands of years. This is the prevailing narrative; look up resources on ayahuasca, and you’re bound to run into it. Take the website of the Ayahuasca Foundation, an organization founded by a U.S. citizen that offers ayahuasca retreats in the Peruvian Amazon: “Ayahuasca has been used in the Peruvian Amazon for millennia,” it reads, “long before the Spanish came to Peru, before the Incan Empire was formed, before history.”

Yet the more Brabec de Mori learned, the flimsier this narrative seemed. He discovered “a double discourse, which happens in all societies where there is tourism,” he said. “People start to tell the tourists—and I found that most Shipibo people did not distinguish tourists from researchers—the stories they think are interesting for them and not what they really live with.”

Brabec de Mori’s historical research, published in 2011, indicated as much. He found that, in their traditional stories about ayahuasca’s origins, many Shipibo-Konibo people said the brew came from the Kukama—one of the first peoples to be missionized and resettled during the Spanish conquest. Other Indigenous peoples from the region remembered adopting it in the last 50 or even 25 years. When he examined old reports of travelers, he found that he could even connect the historic diffusion of ayahuasca to the movements of missionaries and the spread of the rubber industry through the western Amazon.

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Then there was the linguistic evidence. Amazonian peoples speak a dazzling diversity of languages, but their words for ayahuasca and related activities are almost identical. The same goes for their music: Lullabies, love songs, and festive songs are astonishingly varied, yet ayahuasca songs are very similar and often sung in non-Amazonian languages, like Quechua or Spanish. These patterns indicate that ayahuasca hasn’t been around in the Amazon for millennia. Rather, it seems to have arrived and spread much more recently.

“It’s a romantic image that Indigenous people have been using everything they do for thousands of years.”

On the basis of this and other evidence, Brabec de Mori argues that ayahuasca actually diffused through the Amazon in the last 300 years. He isn’t the first to make the argument—the anthropologist Peter Gow proposed something similar in 1994—but he, more than anyone else, has found the anthropological data to support it.

Brabec de Mori’s findings represent just one of many cracks in our stories about psychedelics. As psychedelic use has become increasingly mainstream in the U.S. and beyond, so has the long-held narrative about its ancient application as a shamanic therapy around the world. But this story is much more sweeping that reliable evidence permits. In fact, much of what underlies it is a seductive mixture of flimsy archaeological evidence, outdated anthropological approaches, and economically convenient ideology.

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“It’s a romantic image that Indigenous people have been using everything they do for thousands of years,” Brabec de Mori said. “If we change the picture, it’s kind of unromantic, and it seems that people like romanticism.”

In 1957, Life magazine published an article by J.P. Morgan vice president Gordon Wasson headlined “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New Yorker banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths and produce visions.” The article described Wasson’s experience consuming mushrooms with a healer he called Eva Mendez (later revealed to be Mazatec medicine woman María Sabina). Read by millions, it popularized the term “magic mushrooms” and introduced Westerners to the fungi’s mind-warping effects. It also helped establish a story.

Wasson and his wife Valentina were mushroom enthusiasts. And in their studies, he wrote, they found that peoples everywhere, from “the Arabs of the desert” to “the Maoris of New Zealand,” regarded mushrooms as supernaturally powerful. This discovery led them to “hazard a bold surmise: Was it not probable that, long ago, long before the beginnings of written history, our ancestors had worshiped a divine mushroom?” 

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Versions of this story—that psychedelic use is ancient and widespread—have thrived since Wasson’s article. They’ve inspired theories that religion, Christianity, and even human cognitive evolution began with psychedelics or other hallucinogens. With the rise of two industries, psychedelic tourism and clinical medicinal use, they’ve become commonplace mantras, often with a therapeutic flair.

Just look at the media coverage. In September, a journalist for the Washington Post wrote that consciousness-altering substances “have been used by Indigenous cultures for physical and psychological healing for thousands of years.” A piece published by Vox last year likewise reported that “cultures around the world…have been taking psychedelics for thousands of years, and each one developed rituals for them.” Michael Pollan endorsed a similar narrative throughout his 2018 New York Times bestseller How to Change Your Mind, like when he wrote that shamanism has “a role to play in psychedelic therapy—as indeed it has probably done for several thousand years.”

It makes sense that this story is so appealing. As psychedelics prove effective in treating disorders like addiction and anxiety, scientists and enthusiasts push for their broader societal acceptance. Connecting psychedelics—and particularly, psychedelic therapy—to ancient, worldwide traditions makes them, in historian Erika Dyck’s words, “more natural, more wholesome, perhaps more spiritual.”

“I think there’s some feelings of calm that come with linking it to these deeper traditions,” she said. Stories about universal, Indigenous use help “soften some of the edges of what we might think is a riskier or maybe profit-driven motive.”

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But is there any truth to these stories?

A couple years ago, a French PhD student named Martin Fortier set out to answer that question. He started, as he wrote, “the first academic source exhaustively documenting hallucinogenic use through history and across cultures.” He fittingly called the project HUTHAC, or “Hallucinogenic Use Throughout History and Across Cultures.” 

The project was ambitious, meant to include more than 1,000 cultures. And as both a cognitive scientist and anthropologist working in the Amazon, Fortier was uniquely qualified to produce it. He scoured hundreds of sources, including academic books, historical chronicles, and the diaries of explorers. For every mention of hallucinogens, he noted who used them, how they were used, whether they were used in hallucinogenic doses, and how reliable the evidence was. 

HUTHAC promised to be the largest, most systematic survey of drug use across human societies. Unfortunately, it was never finished.

In late 2018, when he was just 28, Fortier was diagnosed with cancer. He continued working on the database, although at a slower place. In April 2020, at the age of 30, he died.

Before his death, Fortier published his preliminary findings in a series of posts on his Facebook page, sparking a small firestorm within his field. (Researcher Vincent Verroust later compiled them into a public Google Doc.) Fortier found that reliable evidence for early psychedelic usage was limited to Mesoamerica and South America. And even in those regions, usage was incredibly rare. In pre-Columbian times, he estimated, 5 percent of Indigenous American groups used psychedelics—and this, he wrote, “is probably a very liberal estimate.” By these counts, 1 percent or less of the world’s cultures consumed psychedelics at this time.

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This tally is limited to classic psychedelics: drugs like DMT, mescaline, psilocybin, and anything else that activates serotonin 2A receptors. But even if we expand to a broader usage—including drugs like ibogaine, deliriants, and dissociatives—psychedelic use remains marginal by Fortier's count.

Other researchers have echoed Fortier’s findings. In his 2006 book The Shroom, the ecologist Andy Letcher investigated every presumed case of Indigenous psychedelic mushroom consumption in history. He confirmed only two: the use of psilocybin mushrooms in pre-Columbian Mexico and the use of muscarinic mushrooms (not even strictly psychedelic, by some definitions) by scattered Siberian groups.

According to Fortier’s and Letcher’s research, psychedelics have been the exception in the history of humanity—not the rule. Yes, some Indigenous peoples have used psychedelics, but they aren’t nearly as common as we’ve come to believe, and many examples are relatively recent.

Still, some scholars disagree. Of the holdouts, most point to art and literature. They cite shroomy figures in cave paintings and descriptions of lost rituals involving mind-altering substances. But, as Letcher showed, evidence rooted in art and literature is often much more unreliable than advocates admit.

Take one of the best-known examples: the image of the mushroom shaman, first popularized in Terence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods. The image is of Algerian rock art dated to between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. It shows a bee-faced figure in a sumo squat, feathers poking out of its head and a checkerboard of dots covering its body and spilling out from its legs. Most notably, it holds batches of mushrooms, another fifty or so sprouting from its limbs and torso.

The mushroom shaman is an icon of the psychedelic community. On Etsy, you can find it on shirts, mugs, paintings, and face masks. But, as Letcher discovered, the popular image “is not a photo of the original, but a copy” made by McKenna’s then wife, Kat Harrison. In fact, Harrison never saw the original painting, but instead interpreted a photograph in a book. And rather than copying the photo, she filled in features she thought were damaged or incomplete. Harrison’s drawing clearly shows a supernatural figure blossoming with mushrooms, but “whether that was the intention of the original artist(s) is far from settled,” wrote Letcher. (An earlier archaeologist, for instance, thought it was a sheep-man.)

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Another common source of confusion: conflating familiarity with hallucinogenic use. Letcher found that many cultures encountered psychedelic substances but treated them as toxic. The Japanese ate fly-agaric mushrooms, but made sure to first remove the psychoactive properties. The Chinese have known about magic mushrooms since at least the 400s AD, yet considered them poisonous. Even if ancient Algerians and other rock artists knew about psychedelic mushrooms, we can’t assume they used them in the ways we imagine.

People don’t just claim that psychedelics are old and widespread; they also believe that the modern therapeutic use echoes Indigenous shamanic traditions. As UCLA psychiatry professor Charles Grob explained in a Q&A published on Goop, “the shaman would administer these compounds only for very clear, circumscribed reasons, such as an initiation rite or a healing ceremony to address individuals with severe medical or psychological problems.”

That seems reasonable, right? A patient comes to the shaman with a psychological problem, like depression or existential angst. The shaman administers the psychedelic and the patient is healed. It’s like visiting a psychiatrist, except with more ritual.

But this is a misleading characterization of how shamans have traditionally used psychedelics. The best way to appreciate this is to actually watch shamans consume the drugs.

One of the few, widely available depictions of shamans using psychedelics is anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s 1973 short documentary Magical Death, which portrays shamanism among the Yanomamö of Venezuela.The film’s beginning shows the shaman Dedeheiwa healing illness. He snorts a DMT-containing snuff powder and calls spirits, which he experiences as entering his feet and climbing through his body. He draws on their power to remove illness and battle evil spirits. No patients consume psychedelics, and there’s no mention of treating mental disorders.

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If the beginning represents a slight divergence from the popular story, the next part of the film is a total overhaul. Intent on killing babies in an enemy village, a squad of shamans snorts the DMT powder. Some shamans act like helpless babies. Others bend over the ashes and imitate murderous spirits devouring the babies’ souls. As proof of their success, Dedeheiwa and another shaman act like dying babies, writhing “in agony in the ashes.”

Psychedelic shamanism here is nothing like Goop imagines it. Anthropological research conducted since the mid-20th century shows that, among the Yanomamö and many other groups, shamans use psychedelics to tap into the supernatural and provide services like divination, physical healing, weather change, and evil magic. This contrasts with the Western clinical application, where psychedelics are administered like medicine and used to break down harmful patterns of thought. 

“Of course, there’s no single narrative, and yet it has been convenient as a way of selling psychoactivity.”

This misconception seems to stem partly from biased interpretations of anthropological data. When I asked Grob for sources describing the psychotherapeutic use of psychedelics, he pointed me to Marlene Dobkin de Rios, who conducted research on ayahuasca use among Peruvian mestizos in the 1960s and 70s—groups that have been subjected to Christian missionaries for the last four centuries. There are obvious limitations with making inferences about “typical” psychedelic shamanism using religious and medicinal practices so profoundly shaped by European colonialism. As Dobkin de Rios herself has written, throughout the Peruvian Amazon, “influences of Roman Catholic proselytization, mixed with medieval metaphysical beliefs, and influenced by evangelical Protestantism, are widespread.”

Putting those issues aside, Dobkin de Rios’s work is still much less a confirmation of the Goop view than a demonstration of its Euro-American flair.

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Consider her 2008 book A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy, co-authored with the Peruvian journalist Roger Rumrrill. She and Rumrrill compared Amazonian shamans who treat Western tourists with those who work with locals. The tourist-healers charge sums usually impossible for locals to pay. And they embody the Goop view: They treat psychological distress by administering ayahuasca to patients.

“These tourists come to try to resolve personal problems,” said healer Guillermo Arrévalo in an interview published in the book. According to the authors, Arrévalo had a university degree in pharmacology and was the owner of Espíritu de Anaconda, a healing center that charged foreigners $40-$50 per day at the time of the interview. “They suffer a type of psychosis and psychological upheaval. They suffer from fear, paranoia, and other problems. These patients are ones that I treat with ayahuasca.”

The authors contrasted these tourist-shamans with those who treated locals. “Ayahuasca played an important role in this world view where evil men and women would be able to bewitch their enemies and cause them illness, bad luck, and even death,” they wrote. Shamans used ayahuasca to contact supernatural realms and identify and battle witches causing misfortune. Insofar as ayahuasca was used to treat distress, this meant combating evil. “What a difference,” they wrote, “from the psychodynamic world view of Freud and contemporary Western psychology.”

“Of course, there’s no single narrative,” said Erika Dyck, “and yet it has been convenient as a way of selling psychoactivity.”

For Dyck, our stories about the traditional use of psychedelics are rooted in monetary and ideological goals. “A lot of the enthusiasm for investing in psychedelic drugs,” she said, stems from an expectation that they will bring “a paradigm shift in the way we think about mental disorders.” Our stories reflect that goal. We portray shamans around the world as psychotherapists and psychopharmacologists. We imagine how we want to use psychedelics and then project those imaginings onto cultures we know little about. 

Endorsing stories about ancient psychedelic therapy might be convenient, but it can carry dangerous consequences.  It denies Indigenous people history. It places them, as Brabec de Mori explained, “into the role of reproducing ancient knowledge but not being allowed to develop new things.” In their campaigns to make psychedelics palatable, enthusiasts end up presenting marginalized peoples as primeval and unidimensionally exotic.

Pushing these stories is even counterproductive for clinicians. According to Sandeep Nayak, a psychiatrist and psychedelics researcher at Johns Hopkins, myths about ancient use inspire a certain conservatism. As long as enthusiasts justify clinical applications in millennia-old shamanic practices, he said, some people view modern psychedelic therapy as “inferior to imagined traditional, ancient, indigenous psychedelic use.”

“Maybe it is inferior,” he said. “But maybe it’s better in some ways.” 

Regardless, realizing the potential of psychedelics requires going beyond superficial myths. Psychedelics as drugs are utterly unique. They can be powerful tools of healing and behavioral change. They could offer new insights about how the mind works and breaks. Once we accept that modern applications are more than a recapitulation of made-up ancient ways, Nayak said, “we can use these drugs in different ways, or better ways, or ways that are specifically intended to be therapeutic.”

This story has been updated to clarify the evidence for ancient psychedelic use.

Follow Manvir Singh on Twitter.