Ayahuasca, the liana of the Soul

Ayahuasca, also known as Yagé or Caapi, is a hallucinogenic drink originating from the Amazon basin, made from the decoction of two plants with complementary active principles: the Banisteriopsis Caapi liana, and the leaves of a shrub of the coffee family, Psychotria Veridis.

Its exact composition as well as its psychoactive principles have remained an enigma for researchers for decades, alternately called telepathine, then banisterine, the alkaloid responsible for the visions that Ayahuasca provides, is today identified under the barbaric name of Dimethyl tryptamine (DMT), a molecule which is similar to serotonin, one of the main neurotransmitters of the human central nervous system, and which, by substituting for it, produces brilliant “hallucinations. However, DMT is inactive when ingested, as it is destroyed during intestinal transfer by the action of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO).

The Indians have overcome this problem by combining, in their recipes, the leaf of psychotria veridis, rich in DMT, with the Banisteriopsis Caapi liana which contains Harmines and Harmaline, powerful MAO inhibiting principles. The discovery of these enzymes and their inhibitors (MAOIs) in the 1950s allowed Western medicine to develop new classes of antidepressants. The hallucinogenic drink and the liana share the same name: Ayahuasca, liana of the Soul or liana of the dead in the Quechua language, because it is this liana which, according to tradition, lavishes its teachings on the drinker, making visible to his or her eyes a hidden world that is indissociable from the material world, a “parallel space” in which the Ayahuasquero shaman can have a tangible effect on reality, whether it’s a question of healing, finding lost livestock, waging war or other pragmatic goals.

The growing interest of pharmaceutical laboratories and other industrialists in the resources of the Amazon rainforest is leading to a patent war on plants and their uses, from which the people who live there are often excluded. A legal battle was recently waged in the commercial court of Washington, USA, between Amerindian tribes for whom Ayahuasca is a sacred plant, and Mr. Loren Miller, director of a private laboratory, who had registered a patent on the plant and the rights for its exploitation. The representatives of the Amerindians who came to Washington to ask for the withdrawal of the patent, won their case.

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*Ayahuasca means in Quechua: Liane of the dead, or Liane of the soul.

Text & images © Hervé Merliac/Kaleidos-images – All rights reserved