“Ajawaska” is the Quechua name for the sacred tea that has been drunk by the natives in the Amazon Basin for centuries, where “aja” means spirit, soul or the dead and “waska” means vine. The term “ayahuasca” is the Spanish translation for it, which became the world wide accepted, and refers wether to the vine that is one of the components and for the brew itself. It also has other names, depending on the tribe or region where it is taken: yagé, caapi, hoasca, vegetal, Daime and so on.
Origins of Ajawaska
It is still unknown the origin and everything points out that it will keep uncertain the “invention” of ayahuasca; nowadays, scientists wonder how could such a complex synergistic potion be discovered amongst over 80,000 catalogued plant species of the Amazon forest since it is commonly said that being a synergistic potion, there is no effect when only one of the plants are consumed? The beverage depends on this unique combination for its activity. There seems small likelihood of ‘‘accidentally’’ combining the 2 plants to obtain an active preparation when neither is particularly active alone, yet we know that at some point in prehistory, this fortuitous combination was discovered. At that point, ayahuasca was ‘’invented.’’
There is considerable evidence for the much earlier use of DMT-containing plants by snuffing, and some small evidence for the use of the ayahuasca vine by itself, probably without companion plants, either for its emetic and purgative properties or for its own independent visionary effects, along with other sacred plants such as tobacco, the San Pedro cactus, and perhaps any of several Brugmansia species. Emetics and purgatives are widely used among the people of the Upper Amazon, who periodically induce vomiting in their children to rid them of the parasitic illnesses that are endemic in the region. The beta-carbolines in the ayahuasca vine make it a potent purgative and emetic as well. If the companion plants have any emetic properties of their own, or resembled other plants with known emetic and purgative properties, it is plausible to hypothesize that the ayahuasca vine and its companion plants were first combined in order to synergize or modulate their emetic and purgative effects, with the happy result of creating an effective delivery form for DMT.
It has to be pointed out that there are many variations of Ayahuasca origin myths, varying from tribe to tribe. Most indigenous populations say they discovered the combination of ayahuasca because they received such instructions directly from the ‘plant spirits’. To accept it is to assume that plants not only have consciousness, but that plants have a non-material essence (spirit) and can communicate with humans. Humans may have also learnt the psychoactive properties of the caapi vine by observing jaguars consuming it and showing signs of being in an altered state of consciousness, such as more playful behaviour. Tribes people also believe jaguars consume the caapi vine in order to heighten its senses for hunting – such tribes could have copied the eating of caapi from jaguars in order to improve their own hunting skills. Many plants also have a history of being combined with caapi for medicinal purposes. Probably, an ancient tribe might have boiled caapi in water, with the new addition of a DMT-containing plant, in the hope of discovering a new plant medicine to treat some illness or medical condition. It´s curious to imagine their surprise when they unintentionally had an intense mystical experience.
Prehistorical origin of ayahuasca
It is uncertain where the practice may have originated, and about all that is certain is that it was already widespread among numerous indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon Basin by the time ayahuasca came to the attention of Western ethnographers in the mid-19th century.
There is abundant archeological evidence, in the form of pottery vessels, snuffing trays and tubes, anthropomorphic figurines, etc. that the use of hallucinogenic plants was well established in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 1500 – 2000 BC. Unfortunately, most of the specific evidence, in the form of vegetable powders, snuff trays, and pipes, is related to the use of psychoactive plants other than ayahuasca, such as coca, tobacco, and the hallucinogenic snuff derived from Anadenanthera species and known as vilka and various other names. There are no iconographic materials nor preserved botanical remains that would establish without any doubt the prehistorical use of ayahuasca. It is probable that these preColombian cultures, sophisticated as they were in the use of a variety of psychotropic plants, were also familiar with ayahuasca and its preparation. Recent archaeological evidence indicates the existence of a complex, technologically sophisticated riverine/agrarian civilisation in the upper Xingu region of Brazil dating at least to 1200 AD. Even though these discoveries do not directly address the question of the antiquity of knowledge of ayahuasca, they do support the supposition that a complex civilisation capable of impacting and actively managing its forest environment for agricultural purposes, would also be likely to be similarly knowledgeable regarding the uses of medicinal species occurring in their ecosystem.
The archeological prehistory of ayahuasca is likely to remain inextricably bound up with its mythical origins for the rest of time, unless some artefact should be uncovered that would unequivocally establish the antiquity of its usage. By contrast, what might be called the modern or the scientific history of ayahuasca is traceable to 1851, when the great English botanist Richard Spruce encountered the use of an intoxicating beverage among the Tukano of the Rio Uapes in Brazil.
Seven years later, Spruce again encountered the same liana in use among the Guahibo on the upper Orinoco of Colombia and Venezuela, and, later the same year, found the Záparo of Andean Peru taking a narcotic beverage, prepared from the same plant, which they called ayahuasca
Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up half a century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Ginsberg; those letters were collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn’t much more than that. Though this little information was powerful enough to encourage ethnobotanists and ethnopharmacologists to travel South America to investigate and, the most important, to experiment themselves the sacred medicine. As Dennis McKenna says: “by some as yet obscure mechanism, the visionary experiences afforded by plants such as ayahuasca give us an insight—an intuitive understanding—of the molecular bedrock of biological being, and that this intuitive knowledge, only now being revealed to the scientific worldview by the crude methods of molecular biology, has always been available as direct experience to shamans and seers with the courage to forge symbiotic bonds with our mute but infinitely older and wiser plant allies. Such notions are surely speculative and are certainly not science; but to an observer of the contemporary world, who has been involved both scientifically and personally with ayahuasca for many years now, I find it very interesting that such “wild” speculations keep reasserting themselves, no matter how much we try to desacralize the tea and render it down to a matter of chemistry and botany, receptor sites and pharmacology. All of those things are important, certainly; but none of them will ever explain the undeniable and profound mystery that is ayahuasca.”