I like how Narby takes a deconstructionist approach to anthropology. I like how he fearlessly points out the cultural biases and confirmation bias of the scientific method. I like how he tries to find evidentiary support for all of his claims. I like that he wrote for a regular, non-academic audience.
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He is author of "The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge" The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly snake.
But he was not smiling. I was 25 years old and starting a two-year period of field-work to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University. My training had led me to expect that people would tell tall stories. I thought my job as an anthropologist was to discover what they really thought, like some kind of private detective.
During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros, or shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when they said this. My fieldwork concerned Ashaninca resource use - with particular emphasis on their rational and pragmatic techniques. To emphasize the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge would have been counterproductive to the main argument underlying my research.
Nevertheless, the enigma remained: These extremely practical and frank people, living almost autonomously in the Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations. How could this be true? The enigma was all the more intriguing because the botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists. The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point.
Amazonian shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millennia. The brew is a necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together for hours. The first contains a hallucinogenic substance, dimethyltryptamine , which also seems to be secreted by the human brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it.
The second plant, however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain. So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among some 80, Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect.
And they do this to modify their consciousness. It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they know these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic plants. I had not come to Quirishari to study this issue, which for me relates to indigenous mythology. I even considered the study of mythology to be a useless and "reactionary" pastime.
My focus as an anthropologist was Ashaninca resource development. I was trying to demonstrate that true development consisted first in recognizing the territorial rights of indigenous people. My point of view was materialist and political, rather than mystical - yet I found myself quite impressed with the pragmatism of the Quirishari. This is a people who teach by example, rather than by explanation.
Parents encourage their children to accompany them in their work. People are suspicious of abstract concepts. Their empirical knowledge was undeniable, but their explanations concerning the origin of their knowledge were unbelievable to me. My attitude was ambivalent. On leaving Quirishari, I knew I had not solved the enigma of the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge. I left with the strange feeling that the problem had more to do with my incapacity to understand what people had said, rather than the inadequacy of their explanations.
They had always used such simple words. In June , I went to Rio to attend the world conference on development and environment.
At the "Earth Summit," as it was known, everybody was talking about the ecological knowledge of indigenous people, but certainly no one was talking about the hallucinatory origin of some of it, as claimed by the indigenous people themselves.
Colleagues might ask, "You mean Indians claim they get molecularly verifiable information from their hallucinations? There is nothing one can say without contradicting two fundamental principles of Western knowledge.
First, hallucinations cannot be the source of real information, because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis. Western knowledge considers hallucinations to be at best illusions, at worst morbid phenomena. Second, plants do not communicate like human beings. Scientific theories of communication consider that only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures and that plants do not relay information in the form of mental images.
For science, the human brain is the source of hallucinations, which psychoactive plants merely trigger by way of the hallucinogenic molecules they contain. It was in Rio that I realized the extent of the dilemma posed by the hallucinatory knowledge of indigenous people. On the one hand, its results are empirically confirmed and used by the pharmaceutical industry; on the other hand, its origin cannot be discussed scientifically because it contradicts the axioms of Western knowledge.
When I understood that the enigma of plant communication was a blind spot for science, I felt the call to conduct an in-depth investigation of the subject. Furthermore, I had been carrying the mystery of plant communication around since my stay with the Ashaninca, and I knew that explorations of contradictions in science often yield fruitful results.
It seemed to me that the establishment of a serious dialogue with indigenous people on ecology and botany required that this question be addressed. I had myself ingested ayahuasca in Quirishari, an experience that brought me face to face with an irrational and subjective territory that was terrifying, yet filled with information.
In the months afterwards, I thought quite a lot about what my main Ashaninca consultant, Carlos Perez Shuma, had said. What if it were true that nature speaks in signs and that the secret to understanding its language consists in noticing similarities in shape or in form?
What if I took him literally? I liked this idea and decided to read the anthropological texts on shamanism, paying attention not only to their content but to their style. It had become clear to me that ayahuasqueros were somehow gaining access in their visions to verifiable information about plant properties. Therefore, I reasoned, the enigma of hallucinatory knowledge could be reduced to one question: Was this information coming from inside the human brain, as the scientific point of view would have it, or from the outside world of plants, as shamans claimed?
Both of these perspectives seemed to present advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, the similarity between the molecular profiles of the natural hallucinogens and of serotonin seemed well and truly to indicate that these substances work like keys fitting into the same lock inside the brain. However, I could not agree with the scientific position according to which hallucinations are merely discharges of images stocked in compartments of the subconscious memory.
I was convinced that the enormous fluorescent snakes that I had seen thanks to ayahuasca did not correspond in any way to anything that I could have dreamed of even in my most extreme nightmares.
Furthermore, the speed and coherence of some of the hallucinatory images exceeded by many degrees the best rock videos, and I knew that I could not possibly have filmed them. On the other hand, I was finding it increasingly easy to suspend disbelief and consider the indigenous point of view as potentially correct. After all, there were all kinds of gaps and contradictions in the scientific knowledge of hallucinogens, which had at first seemed so reliable: Scientists do not know how these substances affect our consciousness, nor have they studied true hallucinogens in any detail.
It no longer seemed unreasonable to me to consider that the information about the molecular content of plants could truly come from the plants themselves, just as ayahuasqueros claimed. However, I failed to see how this could work concretely. Maybe I would find the answer by looking at both perspectives simultaneously, one eye on science and the other on shamanism.
The solution would therefore consist in posing the question differently: It was not a matter of asking whether the source of hallucinations is internal or external, but of considering that it might be both at the same time. I could not see how this idea would work in practice, but I liked it because it reconciled two points of view that were apparently divergent.
My research revealed that in the early s, anthropologist Michael Harner had gone to the Peruvian Amazon to study the culture of the Conibo Indians. After a year or so he had made little headway in understanding their religious system when the Conibo told him that if he really wanted to learn, he had to drink ayahuasca. Harner accepted, not without fear, because the people had warned him that the experience was terrifying. The following evening, under the strict supervision of his indigenous friends, he drank the equivalent of a third of a bottle.
After several minutes he found himself falling into a world of true hallucinations. He saw that his visions emanated from "giant reptilian creatures" resting at the lowest depths of his brain. These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes.
I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape.
They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space. They had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy. The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe.
I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man. There was indeed DNA inside the human brain, as well as in the outside world of plants, given that the molecule of life containing genetic information is the same for all species. DNA could thus be considered a source of information that is both external and internal - in other words, precisely what I had been trying to imagine. However, a few pages on, Harner notes that "dragon" and "serpent" are synonymous.
This made me think that the double helix of DNA resembled, in its form, two entwined serpents. The reptilian creatures that Harner had seen in his brain reminded me of something, but I could not say what. Paging through it, I was stopped by a Desana drawing of a human brain with a snake lodged between the two hemispheres.
Several pages further into the article, I came upon a second drawing, this time with two snakes. According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, within the fissure, "two intertwined snakes are lying In Desana shamanism these two serpents symbolize a female and male principle, a mother and a father image, water and land In brief, they represent a concept of binary opposition which has to be overcome in order to achieve individual awareness and integration. The snakes are imagined as spiraling rhythmically in a swaying motion from one side to another.
In both cases there were reptiles in the brain and serpent-shaped boats of cosmic origin that were vessels of life at the beginning of time. Pure coincidence? In this study by Jean-Pierre Chaumeil to my mind, one of the most rigorous on the subject , I found a "celestial serpent" in a drawing of the universe by a Yagua shaman.
Then, a few pages away, another shaman is quoted as saying: "At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth Or rather, I could see an easy way of interpreting them, but it contradicted my understanding of reality: A Western anthropologist like Harner drinks a strong dose of ayahuasca with one people and gains access, in the middle of the twentieth century, to a world that informs the "mythological" concepts of other peoples and allows them to communicate with life-creating spirits of cosmic origin possibly linked to DNA.
This seemed highly improbable to me, if not impossible.
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The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge