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History of ayahuasca

Little is known about the history of ayahuasca, but it is generally believed that the drink has been used for about 5,000 years by indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Ayahuasca originates in the northwestern region of the Amazon basin, which covers countries like Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and Brasil. All tribes in this specific region are known to use ayahuasca in rituals and for other traditional uses, but there are also several tribes outside this area that are known to drink ayahuasca; like the Tsachila and Chachi tribes in Ecuador, and the Embera and Choco tribes in Columbia. It is thought that these tribes, which are not in the center of the ayahuasca area, have taken over this ritual from the tribes native to the northwestern region of the Amazon basin.

There are probably more than 150 tribes where ayahuasca is consumed in daily rituals and traditional customs. Especially in Peru the use of ayahuasca is generally known. There are many indigenous tribes there engaged in traditional ayahuasca rituals. The most important tribes being:
- Ikito (Iquito, Iquita, Amacacore, Hamacore, Quiturran, Puca-Uma)
- Amuesha (Yanesha, Amuese, Amueixa, Amoishe, Amagues, Amage, Amaje, Amajo)
- Chayavita (Chayahuita, Chayawita, Shayabit, Chawi, Tsaawi, Tshaahui, Tschhuito)
- Machiguenga (Matsikenka, Matsigenga, Matsiganga, Mañaries)
- Cocama-Cocamilla (Kokama, Huallaga, Pampadeque, Pandequebo, Ucayali, Xibitaoan)
- Achuar (Achual, Achuara)
- Amahuaca (Amenguaca, Sayacu)
- Candoshi-Shapra (Kandoshi)

Ayahuasca has many native names (these names usually refer to the vine or the drink); tikuna, cipo, caapi, tupi, guanano, yaja, yaje, cofa, oofa, cabi, xono, shillinto, jagubi, pitujiracu, cauupiri mariri, tiwaco, mariri, pinde, pilde, napa, nepe, and nepi. The term ayahuasca (also known as the medicine of the soul) comes from the Quechua words 'aya', which means soul or spirit, and 'huasca', which means rope or vine. The shamans of the tribes put themselves in a deep trance by drinking ayahuasca. In this trance, shamans communicate with the spirits and forest gods and ask them to answer all sorts of problems and questions. The drink is used to cure all kinds of illnesses, and to ask for advise about personal issues, family feuds, tribal conflicts, the nature around them, the gods, deceased family members, and generally to communicate about the mysteries of the spirit world. Issues that are more familiar for people in the western world are also presented to the gods. For example, adultery (for lack of a private detective), theft (for lack of police) and of course to ask for more sexual vitality (in the absence of viagra).

Ayahuasca sessions

An ayahuasca session usually begins in the morning and can take many hours, depending on the nature of the session. After consuming the brew it takes about 30 minutes before the first effects are felt. It is recommended to drink ayahuasca on an empty stomach to prevent nausea, allthough less experienced users will have to accept that vomiting is one of the usual side effects.

It is customary to sit, keep the eyes closed, and especially not to speak to give the gods and visions full access to the subconscious. Many people with ayahuasca experiences tell that old, negative thoughts and behaviors are washed away like waves in the sea, and that they are replaced with positive new energy. This can come as quite a surprise to Western people, who often have ingrained thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs which after a session come to stand in a very different light. It is not uncommon for people to change their life completely after the use of ayahuasca, often in a way that is at odds with the Western life of career, money and ego.

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)

Most of the effects of ayahuasca are due to a compound called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short, which is present in various plants used in the brew. No one really knows how it actually causes its hallucinogenic effects, but we do know that DMT is somewhat similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Previous studies have mainly focused on the link between DMT and serotonin receptors, but recent studies in America may well change the direction of this research. It has now become known that DMT is naturally present in the human blood, urine and brain tissue.

There are sigma-1 receptors present in every cell of the body, but their function remains unclear. However, it has been shown that synthetic compounds such as cocaine, heroin, dextromethorphan, fluvoxamine, haloperidol, methamphetamine, and PCP like to bind to these sigma-1 receptors. The mysterious endogenous ligand of the sigma-1 receptor is DMT. We still don't know why DMT causes hallucionations, but the key lies in the sigma-1 receptors. We just don't know how the sigma-1 receptors are associated with hallucinogenic activity yet.

Banisteriopsis caapi

The main ingredient of ayahuasca is Banisteriopsis caapi, or caapi vine (sometimes called the teacher plant). This jungle vine grows throughout the Amazon rainforest from Brazil to Peru, and from Ecuador to Columbia. Caapi is very important and sacred to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, and is treated with great respect. It is seen by them as the most powerful medicinal plant in the world, with supernatural powers that bring the wisdom of nature. Some indigenous tribes distinguish dozens of different caapi species. The Western world usually identifies only two, namely ourinhos and trueno.

Banisteriopsis caapi is commonly used for its MAO-inhibiting properties as the basis of ayahuasca, and is boiled together with DMT-containing plants like Psychotria viridis (chacruna), Mimosa hostilis (jurema) and Diplopterys cabrerana (chaliponga). These MAO-inhibiting properties are very important to ayahuasca, because it allows the psychoactive compound DMT (dimethyltryptamine) to be orally active. Once our body detects the presence of DMT, it starts producing an enzyme (a MAO, or monoamine oxidase) that breaks down the DMT. Caapi ensures that this enzyme is temporarily switched off, indirectly causing the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca.

The tribes say that the DMT-containing plants provide the visions, and the caapi vine ensures the learning experience behind those visions.

Peganum harmala

Peganum harmala, or Syrian rue, is a true desert plant originating in the eastern region of Iran. The Syrian rue thrives in dry, poor soil, provided it is well drained. Hundreds of years ago, the seeds and fruits were used against stomach problems, bladder problems, sensitive urinary and menstrual pains. It was also widely used to rid the body of tapeworms. If properly dosed that is, because high doses cause vomiting and hallucinations.

The seeds are sometimes used to make a red dye, better known as Iranian red. In Asia for example, it is used to dye rugs. For this purpose, farmers in America started cultivating the plant in 1928. Originally just for the dye, but they quickly discovered the psychoactive properties of the plant when they noticed animals on the farm became very calm after eating it. In the Western world, Peganum harmala is sometimes used as the main ingredient in ayahuasca, instead of caapi vine.

Peganum harmala seeds have very strong MAO-inhibiting properties and give a totally different effect to the ayahuasca. Ayahuasca made with harmala seeds is not the same as the traditional brew with caapi vine. Harmala contains several alkaloids such as tetaphydroharmine, harmine and harmaline that, according to some Western ayahuasca drinkers, have a much stronger effect.

Psychotria viridis

Psychotria viridis plant, better known as chacruna, has a long history of traditional use in countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. It is related to the coffee plant, and is also called rainha or leaves. The native Indians in these countries have traditionally used the leaves against various ailments such as headaches and intestinal complaints. Chacruna is no longer used for medical purposes because research has shown that its supposed medicinal effects do not adequately help, and there are now much better alternatives available.

The chacruna and chaliponga plants owe their popularity mainly to the psychoactive substances they contain, especially tryptamine alkaloids like dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The tribes in the Amazon especially use chacruna and chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) leaves with caapi vine to brew ayahuasca.