Subscribe to newsletter
By subscribing you agree to with our Privacy Policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Ayahuasca: An Introduction to the Sacred Brew

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew with a long history of ceremonial use among indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. In its most basic form, ayahuasca preparations are a mixture of at least two different plants: on one hand, the Harmine and Harmaline- containing Banisteriopsis caapi vine and, on the other, the DMT containing leaves of either the Psychotria viridis shrub, popularly known as “Chacruna” or the Diplopterys Cabrerana plant, known as “Chaliponga” or “Chagropanga”. The history of ayahuasca is deeply intertwined with the cultural, spiritual, and medicinal practices of various indigenous groups in the northwestern Amazonian basin, particularly in countries like Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador.

In fact, it is difficult to talk about “ayahuasca” as a monolithic preparation or single entity, as different nations in different regions have their own particular approach to it, both in its preparation and components, and in the way that it is used by the community. Ayahuasca has many names throughout its range— the word “ayahuasca” is the best known, globally and locally and it originates in the Quechua languages.

The Quechua vocable “ayahuasca” is variously translated as “Vine of the Death” or “Vine of the Soul”, perhaps alluding to the sort of experiences that this brew can provide. A vine, or chord, that allows us to descend into the netherworlds, inhabited perhaps by spirits and archetypes, and let go of our sense of Self, but always with the sense of safety that the lifeline provides, allowing us to climb back to the world of the living, to consensus reality or ordinary consciousness once the effects of the beverage have passed. In the popular folk imaginary, ayahuasca is the vine that allows the spirit to wander detached from the body, entering the spiritual world, otherwise forbidden for those still alive.

Cultural and Spiritual Roots of Ayahuasca

Indigenous cultures, both in the Andean highlands and the Amazonian lowlands, use ayahuasca for a wide variety of reasons. It is part of many local medical systems and used for healing, divination, and spiritual communication. The brew enables healers to enter altered states of consciousness to diagnose and treat illnesses, communicate with spirits, and receive guidance from ancestors, practices that emerge from the local amazonian worldviews.

Other cultures have different names for the concoction: The Shipibo, a pano-speaking people whose ancestral lands are by the banks of the mighty Ucayali river in Peru, call the brew “oni”. Oni is often translated as “knowledge”, or “wisdom”, and the person who knows how to work with Oni is called the onanya, “the one who knows”. Another well known ayahuasca tradition is the Santo Daime, a syncretic church founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre by Raimundo Irineu Serra, known as Mestre Irineu. The Santo Daime Church now has followers all over the world, from Brazil to the US, Spain or Israel. In this tradition, they call the ayahuasca Daime, roughly translated from Portuguese as “give me”, so the Santo Daime could be something like “that which is sacred and is given to me.”

In the northern reaches of the Ayahuasca range, in southeastern Ecuador and southern Colombia, ayahuasca is known as Yagé. It is used by people like the Cofán, in ceremonies that can often last the whole night, and well into the morning. Yagé is one example of local people using plants available to them for similar purposes: while chacruna is the most common admixture for the ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian or Brazilian traditions, Yagé is prepared with chaliponga, a different plant.

From a western pharmacological perspective, both plants fulfill the same function: the both provide enough DMT to the brew to enhance its psychoactive effects. From a native perspective, however, each plant is its own spirit, and hence different plants will provide different qualities, making comparisons and equivalences difficult from a cultural perspective. To make things even more complicated, different families have different recipes for the brew, adding more plants to the mix depending on the desired effects and the plants that they want to communicate with.

So, we’ve established that ayahuasca is not a singular thing, but a practice that is widespread throughout the Amazon and Orinoco basins, used in a variety of different ways and prepared with a wide range of different ingredients, in addition to the common baseline, the ayahuasca vine.

But where did this idea come from?

Where did the use of ayahuasca first originate and how did it spread around the world? While it has become a common trope amongst plant medicine people to say that ayahuasca is an ancestral practice going back for thousands of years, the truth is that we do not have much evidence for that claim. The oral histories of indigenous people recount many myths that intertwine ayahuasca with their own cosmologies and cosmogonies, but beyond the oral traditions, it's impossible to make definitive assertions about when or where did ayahuasca first originate.

While recent archeological findings suggest that DMT-containing snuffs and different preparations have been part of Andean civilizations for millennia, hard evidence for the specific combination of brewed, orally taken ayahuasca vine and DMT containing plants is notoriously hard to come by. The jungle is not very forgiving when it comes to preservation of ancient artifacts, as the climate and the humidity are bound to digest any remnants past human lives, their artifacts, and most importantly, any organic matter they might have produced or consumed.

What we do know for certain, at least from a scientific evidence-based perspective, comes firstly from ethnographic evidence and historical accounts. The first recorded encounters with ayahuasca uses come from the first European explorers to the region. The exploration and colonization of the amazon river basins was slow and took place much later than most other South American regions, primarily due to the difficult topography and the fierceness of its inhabitants, who didn’t take kindly to intruders.

The earliest recorded reports come to us from the seventeenth century, and are the legacy of two separate Spanish missionaries, named Vincente de Valverde and Jose Chantre y Herrera. The latter of these missionaries, Chantre y Herrera, provided the first detailed description of an "infernal potion" thoroughly cooked from bitter herbs and lianas, “which is particularly effective at altering one's senses.” This attitude was common and expected amongst European colonizers, who saw the local spiritual and divinatory practices as a hindrance to their civilizing mission, while Christian missionaries often viewed indigenous rituals involving ayahuasca as pagan or devilish. Throughout the colonial period, the use of ayahuasca and other traditional practices faced heavy systematic suppression, leading to a decline in their open practice, and in some cases, to the emergence of new, syncretic forms that concealed the essence mixed-in with christian iconography and symbolism

It is throughout the colonial period, and increasingly so throughout the rubber boom periods in the nineteenth century that ayahuasca practices are believed to have been spread far and wide across the basin. Again, lacking hard evidence, most of these hypotheses are speculative, supported by sparse linguistic, historical and ethnographic data. Ayahuasca researchers often subscribe to the view, advanced by authors like Peter Gow or Brabec de Mori, which posits that ayahuasca as we know it today probably originated around the Napo river basin, in the region that comprises modern day Ecuador and, perhaps, southern Colombia.

The Globalization of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca then started migrating, together with people and cultures, southwards and eastwards, in a process spanning many centuries and historical events. The European missions seem to have played a crucial part, as missions often gathered many indigenous people from different tribes and speaking different languages. Quechua became the lingua franca in the missions, providing a common language and facilitating the exchange of ideas, knowledge and spiritual and medical tools and technologies.

Furthermore, the trauma of conquest and the violence of colonization provided a dire and ongoing need for collective healing. It is believed that the emergence of ayahuasca practices centered around ayahuasca as a medicine emerged around this time, developed by the native populations as way to cope spiritually, physically and socially with colonial violence. This process of expansion, cross-pollination and refinement continued well into the amazonian rubber cycle at the end of the nineteenth century.

Europe and North America were rapidly industrializing; a process contingent with the discovery and exploitation of a white liquid —latex— extracted from the stem of the rubber tree, a tree native to the amazon basin. From the processed sap of this tree —Hevea brasiliensis— a critical component for the rise of industry on mass scale was manufactured: vulcanized rubber.

The demand for rubber created lucrative opportunities for unscrupulous and unregulated entrepreneurs, who saw in the indigenous people of the region free and skilled labour, who were enslaved and bound into forced labour in one of the most brutal periods in the region’s history.

As the rubber barons’ greed grew, they ventured deeper and deeper south and east, including the reaches of the Ucayali, the ancestral homeland of the Shipibo. Many Shipibo men were sent north to labour, were they mixed and match with men from other ethnic groups who were also forced to tap rubber. Both Gow and Brabec de Mori theorize that it during this time that the Shipibo learnt to work with ayahuasca, subsequently bringing that knowledge back south to their Ucayali homeland, and further spreading the knowledge eastward, to other pano-speaking people like the Yawanawa or the Katukina.

Regardless of these historical interpretations, it is important to remember than indigenous nations have their own oral histories and myths, and in the majority of this history it is stated that ayahuasca is a gift that was transmitted to them directly by the plants themselves. In some myths, ayahuasca is taught to them by the mighty Inca, a mythical figure that provides them with the knowledge to heal and resist during times of violence. While we may not know exactly how ayahuasca first originated and how it spread, we do know that it has been used by several dozen different tribes and in different ways throughout, at least, the last few centuries. Finally, in the last few decades, this medicine has made the leap out of the jungle and into the global market.

The Archaic Revival

The interest in ayahuasca began to spread beyond indigenous communities in the mid-20th century, reaching urban mestizo populations in South America and eventually gaining attention globally. In the 1950s and 1960s, writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg documented their experiences with ayahuasca, contributing to its mystique and sparking curiosity in the West. Ethnobotanists like Richard Evan Schultes, Mark Plotkin or Wade Davis have helped ignite the curiosity and imagination of different generations, each with its own historical momentum. The McKenna brothers, Terrance and Dennis, published their early experiences in the Amazon in a seminal book titled True Hallucinations, an early classic in the emerging psychedelic scene of the end of the century.

During the 1990’s and the early noughties, intrepid psychonauts and tourists trickled into the jungle, looking for the mysterious concoction. The first retreat centers started to open around major urban centers in the Peruvian Amazon, like Iquitos and Pucallpa. In the last couple of decades, ayahuasca has become more than an exotic curiosity for western academics and psychonauts. Realizing the vast therapeutic applications, ayahuasca and its uses has become the subject of scientific research, focusing on its potential therapeutic benefits for mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, and addiction. This research is part of a broader resurgence in studying psychedelic substances for their therapeutic potential.

Parallel to scientific interest, there has been a surge in ayahuasca tourism, with people from all over the world traveling to South American countries to participate in traditional ceremonies led by indigenous, mestizo or native-trained westerners. If fifteen years ago there were only a handful of retreat centers in the amazon, and almost none outside of the native range, today we have hundreds of different options to choose from all over the world. Ease of travel, increased mobility and the relative development of infrastructure has made it possible for tens of thousands of people to attend ayahuasca retreats every year.

Now, with the "Psychedelic Renaissance" in full swing, and psychedelic research at the forefront of the worlds top universities, indigenous knowledge and evidence-based science are coming together to explore this amazing substance, the many ways if working with it and the inherent wisdom of the people who have been using it for a long time.


Overall, the history of ayahuasca is a complex mosaic that reflects the interplay between indigenous traditions, colonial history, globalization, and the search for spiritual and therapeutic healing. Its growing popularity underscores a broadening interest in alternative forms of medicine and spirituality. Furthermore, ayahuasca shamanism has always been an evolving and adapting practice, changing through cultural encounters, social needs and historical processes. The human imagination knows no bounds, and ayahuasca will no doubt continue to adapt and change to the needs of the modern world.


Take the next step

Ready for your life-changing journey?