The use of Psychedelics goes back many millennia and is encapsulated in the tradition of shamanism. Possibly as far back as 40,000-100,000 years. The Neuropsychological model of Cave Art pioneered by Dr. David Lewis-Williams interprets much upper-paeleolithic cave art as transcendent or shamanistic. Many close parallels have been found between this art and the art created by more modern psychedelic cultures and even contemporary psychedelic artists. However, this theory has come into some quite high-level criticism and remains a contentious, though widely-adopted, theory.
The oldest readily-accepted Shamanic burial site was located at Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic and dates back to around 30,000 years ago. Since then shamanic cultures have been ubiquitous from the magico-religious mushroom cults of central Asia to the cosmology and botany of Amazonian ayahuasqueros.
Below is a brief overview of certain forms of psychedelic shamanism which have been well-studied by modern anthropology. We’ve included those which have utilized substances currently being explored medicinally.
Upper Paleolithic Cave Art
Potential Origins of Shamanic Trance
According to the theories of David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson much of paleolithic cave art across South Africa and, further back, in Europe is the result of what are termed ‘altered states of consciousness’; sometimes termed ‘trance’ is the shamanic context. In the modern world ASCs are most often mediated by the use of chemical interference – Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, THC, opiates, sedatives and, of course, psychedelics. In pre-history this may not have been the case. Exhaustive dancing or drumming, meditation, prolonged fasting or physical stress are all capable of inducing an ASC. It is just as likely that our ancestors came across some of the widely available plant drugs as that they engaged in any one of the mentioned vehicles to alter ones consciousness.
The image above is from Trois Freres cave in France and is thought to be around 15,000 years old. It’s been termed ‘the sorcerer’ due to the likelihood it represents a ‘witch doctor’ or shaman during a trance state. As the cave is also home to what is essentially a shrine it is thought that this may be an earlier presentation of religion taking shape. The image to the right is from art by the San people of the Drakensberg Mountains which borders multiple parts of South Africa and Lesotho. It is most commonly interpreted to be a shaman in the process of falling to trance.
It is thought that these experiences informed our ancestors ideas of the supernatural and may represent proto-religious behaviours.
Ayahuasca, Yopo and Oo-koo-he
Various psychedelic preparations have been used in a ritual context throughout the Amazon for more than 1000 years. The use of Ayahuasca alone has been found in over 70 separate tribes. Ayahuasca is a brew made from primarily the leaves of the Chacruna (P. Viridis) shrub, which are high in DMT, and the beaten wood of the Ayahuasca (B. Caapi) vine which contains various beta-carbolines. The combination of DMT and beta-carbolines such as harmine creates a slow-release, orally active DMT experience unique to these Amazonian preparations. Many admixtures are also used across different tribes such as Datura, toe (Brugmansia) and the tobacco known as mapacho(Nicotiana Rustica).
There are also known many DMT-containing snuffs such as Yopo made from the seeds of Anadenanthera Peregrina or Colubrina and DMT-containing resin products Epena or Oo-koo-he which contain both DMT and beta-carbolines. These are shorter-acting and more like smoked or injected synthetic DMT.
Traditionally the preparation is taken by a Shaman or Curandero for the purpose of divining knowledge to heal the sick, resolve conflict or predict weather, game and inter-tribal issues. Recently, ayahuasqueros have become well-respected for the artistic depictions of their visions.
San Pedro cactus (Mescaline)
People of the Andes Mountains including the Cupisnique, Chavin and Moche cultures have used Mescaline-containing cacti known in Quechua and Aymara as Huachuma for close to 3300 years. Possibly longer. Various species were used including Echinopsis Pachanoi, E. Peruvianis and E. Lageniformis. Generally speaking the cactus is boiled down over a period to a concentrated ‘potion’ form. It was used in a ritual setting similar to that of Ayahuasca but the specific motivations remain fairly obscure.
Mescaline tends to be longer-acting than other psychedelics and can last up to 15-20 hours with a strong dose and so it is safe to assume it was used as a ‘journey’ aid much like most shamanic sacrements. San Pedro has been included in updates of traditional religion as it syncretized with the violent import of Christianity.
As the majority of psychedelic cactus is not illegal or controlled in most countries this has become a popular mainstay of modern ‘neo shamanism’. This is also a result of it being easy to grow in most climates requiring little tending.
Amanita Muscaria (Muscimol)
It is generally considered that Siberian Shamanism among tribes such as the Goldi, Yakut and Samoyed is the earliest codified ritual use of an Entheogen which has been recorded. However, many earlier uses are theorized. While there were many variations, a standard was use of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. This mushroom, when correctly prepared is a powerful deliriant. The shaman would undertake an architypical hero’s journey while under the influence, returning with pertinent information. This was often punctuated by large, tribe-wide feasts at significant dates throughout the year.
The word “shaman” comes from the Tungus-Mongol word ‘sa’man’ which means “one who knows”. The chants, songs and ritual re-enactments from tribal cosmology were carried forward and replicated in almost all forms of shamanism going forward.
Central American Shamansim
Mazatec, Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan, Huichol
While not a lot is known about the history of Shamanism in Mexico, curanderos there have used some of the most popular plants – Psilocybin mushrooms, Peyote cactus and Salvia Divinorum (colloquially know simply as ‘salvia’) evidenced in historical art and sculpture from the region. Artistic ‘mushroom stones’ have been found in contexts up to 3000 years old in Mesoamerica. Among Aztec and Mayan cultures the psychedelic sacraments were known as Teonanacatl or teotlaqualli – food of the Gods or ‘divine’ food, respectively.
Some of the best information regarding Mazatec use of Psilocybe mushrooms comes from the work of Maria Sabina. Maria was contacted in the 50’s by banker R. Gordon Wasson and brought to Western attention in an article which was featured in Life Magazine. While the mushrooms never gained popularity the way LSD or MDMA did, they have recently enjoyed a resurgence in interest due to ubiquitous availability and promising medical research using psilocybin.
Moving North, there is evidence of Peyote use as far back as 1000 A.D from Coahuila, Mexico. Interestingly, this area borders Texas where samples as old as 3700 B.C have been found in context of Native American cave burial. The modern Huichol culture is well known it’s ‘peyote hunt’ and ensuing ceremonies. These have been explored in-depth by Benedict Allan. The Huichol culture is also known for its decorative, and psychedelic art.
In the Sierra Mazateca of Southern Mexico the Mazatec culture has used Salvia Divinorum in multiple aspects of life from religio-mystical vision-seeking to treatment of various physical ailments and to aid in pregnancy and childbirth. It is still used in Southern Mexico today. There has also been an interest in the West as salvia had not, until recently, been subject to any controls at law. In this context is it used as an extract which drastically changes the quality and content of the experience. Please see here for detailed information regarding both traditional and modern uses.
Native American/First Nation Shamanism
Peyote Cactus (Mescaline)
Native Americans have utilized the psychoactive effects of Peyote cactus to inform their spiritual practice for a very long time. While the earliest written records are back to 1569 use must have developed over a long period prior to this. There is archaeological evidence of Peyote use up to 5700 years ago, strongly indicating that native peoples understood the psychoactive properties this far back.
Native American tribes such as the Apache, Comanche and Tarahumara have used Peyote in their religious rituals for some thousands of years. While this tradition was disrupted by the arrival of Europeans, it came to prominence again as a cultural artifact during the colonisation of the USA at which time many tribes adopted the Ghost Dance to attempt to restore their prior world. Peyote was an alternative way of actualisation and solidifying the Native American identity in the face of vicious assimilation attempts.
The schism between Ghost Dance followers of Wovoka and the Peyote advocacy of Quanah Parker resulted in the creation of the Native American Church. Eventually, the personality cult around Wovoka died out and the Peyote cults became the formal Native American Church. Currently, the Native American Church has legal exemption from the Misuse of Drugs Act to use Peyote in their rituals. This now also includes non-members using Peyote in this ceremonial context.
Lophophoria Williamsii or Peyote cactus is one of the only controlled cacti under any drug policies worldwide.
Bwiti Shamanism (North West Africa)
Tabernantha Iboga (Ibogaine)
Members of the Bwiti culture of West Central Africa have used the root bark of the Tabernanthe Iboga plant as a shamanic sacrament for centuries. It is used to ingress new members of the Bwiti religion. The initiation ritual can be incredibly intense and last more than two days. The ritual is a very sombre occasion for the village and an initiate is expected to observe many ceremonial elements such as confession as well as spend more than a day ‘unconscious’ being monitored by officiants.
The earliest references to Iboga use go back to the mid-1800s but it seems obvious the tradition extends back far beyond this time. It is likely that this tradition is of a similar age to those found in the New World. African cultures were more completely colonised and traditions were more fiercely guarded and so it is not surprising that little information was gathered about it’s history during colonisation.
In the West, the principle active chemical, Ibogaine, has been used with some success to treat serious addiction syndromes such as with opiates and cocaine. Some of these experiences can last up to four days. Ibogaine is currently a legal prescription medicine in New Zealand with some research already carried out here.