5 July 2012
Towards an exploration of the mind of a conquered continent
Shamanism, Sacred plants and Amerindian epistemology
By Luis Eduardo Luna, Ph.D., Dr. H.C., F.L.S.
Wasiwaska. Research Center for the Study of Psychointegrator Plants, Visionary Art and Consciousness. Florianópolis. Brazil
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The conquest of the Americas by the empires of Europe resulted in the nearly total loss of the cultural, technical and intellectual achievements of one third of the population of the world of that time. The Amerindian crops adopted by the European conquerors spread around the world: corn, potatoes, manioc, tomatoes, pepper, calabash, certain beans, as well as stimulants such as cacao, coca and tobacco. Yet the advanced technical capabilities of many Amerindian societies in the fields of astronomy, engineering, medicinal plants, ceramics, weaving, basketry, and – as is becoming increasingly evident -- the sophisticated and efficient use of the land, did not have any significant impact on the home countries of the conquerors.
Apart from the academic work of relatively small circles of historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and the obscure accounts of travelers, there was no European acknowledgment of a single philosophical idea from the people of the Americas prior to the recently awakened interest in Amerindian shamanism. There was no technical or philosophical/theological exchange between the peoples of the two continents. Europeans viewed the Amerindian population only as objects of conversion, assimilation, subjugation or annihilation.
The sacred books of the Maya were burned in 1562. The quipus of the Andes - a work of the Devil according to sixteenth century friars – were destroyed by a decree in 1583. The sacred groves, temples and places of worship of the Amerindians were desecrated. Revered works of art were melted down for the price of their gold. The repository of Amerindian traditions, the bearers of wisdom who „remembered” and knew „how to speak”, were hunted and killed. Their knowledge was treated as the work of Satan, still today a powerful archetypical figure in both the Christian and Islamic worlds.
It was the obliteration of the wonderings about the nature of reality of a whole continent with the transplantation into the Americas of an Indo-European syndrome that, according to Gimbutas (1989), had already destroyed the spiritual manifestations of European Neolithic cultures, the „Old Europe”, largely associated with the natural environment. At the time of the arrival of the European conquerors, the „Old World” for a long time had been engulfed in ideological religious wars in which deviation from pronounced dogmas could be punished with death.
All of this went hand in hand with deforestation, a development that in the West goes back to Greco-Roman times, if not even further back in time to the fear of forests: it can be traced to the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh, the first hero in world literature, who embarked on a quest to kill Humbaba, the demon of the forest, who lived in the mountainside cedar groves harvested to the last by the ancient Sumerians (Harrison 1992).
The deforestation of Europe was carried out in the interests of agriculture, the conversion to grasslands for the grazing horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to satisfy an insatiable appetite for meat and milk, the construction of houses, palaces, fortresses, boats and weapons, and for strategic or religious reasons.
The Americas are still being subjected to the kind of devastating deforestation that already by the time of the conquest of America had decimated the forests of much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Domesticated plants and animals from Eurasia accompanied the conquest of the Americas, destroying much of the original biota, a phenomenon referred to by Crosby (1986) as „ecological imperialism”. At the same time the indigenous population was condemned to humiliation, subjugation and poverty, barely surviving history’s greatest ethnocide. Almost by a miracle after five hundred years of persecution, one aspect of Amerindian cosmology did survive, although in an attenuated form: shamanism.
Shamanism in the Americas
The term „shamanism” is used here to refer to an innate human capacity, culturally manifested in various ways, which include several universal elements: altered states of consciousness (ASC), community rituals, spirit world interaction and healing (Winkelman 1992, 2010). The ASC produce a cognitive and personal transformation by means of various techniques used to enter into an „integrative mode of consciousness” (Winkelman 1996, 2010), which include sensory overload or sensory deprivation, drumming, chanting, fasting, isolation, meditation, and hyperventilation. Both in the past as well as in the present numerous examples can be found of the use of psychotropic plants, often in combination with one or more of the other techniques.
The cognitive changes thus achieved may involve journeying to complex, stratified and interconnected worlds perceived as ontologically real, and contacting entities often related to the natural environment, such as animal spirits, or the spirits of the dead. These changes may involve a symbolic death, or experiencing a transformation into an animal such as a bird or a powerful predator to visit specific realms or to better perform a certain task.
Understood in this sense, shamanism entails a socially recognized status that includes the possibility of certain individuals being able to heal, cause harms, prophesize, mediate in situations of social conflict or obtain leadership capacities by means of the knowledge and power acquired by such techniques and supernatural contacts.
Shamanism was of central importance in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and still plays a central role among contemporary indigenous groups as well as among certain segments of the mestizo population. Its ethnography has been extensively and widely documented.
When examined from the perspectives of the shamanic paradigm, much of the art left behind by pre-Columbian societies, as well as specific paraphernalia, point in this direction. The archeological record suggests that shamanism may have often been intimately associated with the use of certain plants, usually considered as sacred, and as proposed by Winkelman, now known as psychointegrator plants.
Michael Winkelman (1996, 2010) uses the concept of psychointegrator plants and the related concept of integrative modes of consciousness to postulate that they reflect not only what happens at the level of the self, but also at the biological level, manifested in theta wave synchronization, i.e., at 3-6 cycles per second. The Winkelman model posits an accessing of information from the lower levels of the brain, the brain stem or reptilian brain that regulates vegetative processes such as breathing, heartbeat, and the fight or flight mechanism as well as accessing the paleomammalian brain or limbic system that supports functions such as emotion, behavior, long-term memory and olfaction. Winkelman suggests that in this way the information that is normally habituated or relegated to the subconscious is made available through a reverse inhibitory process.
In addition Winkelman posits that at the physiological level psychointegrator plants and substances enhance the way the serotonin system functions, modulating and integrating information within the brain. They also inhibit very specific mechanisms, releasing certain dopamine-related capacities of the brain normally repressed by serotonin, and consequently enhancing the functioning of the dopaminergic system, which is fundamental to motivational and learning processes of the brain.
Winkelman uses the concept of psychointegrator plants to refer to experiential, phenomenological or psychological aspects of their physiological effects. He suggests that the resulting mentation (how you think) and emotion (how you feel) may produce a holistic state of psychological integration and emotional growth.
Some of the alkaloids found in psychointegrator plants are surprisingly similar to human brain neurotransmitters, reflecting adaptions made by human ancestors in the course of evolutionary processes. Psychointegrator plants are traditionally used across cultures in a religious, spiritual and often therapeutic context, and may enhance some of the innate capacities of consciousness, integrating various forms of information. They seem to enhance the innate capacities of human beings for spiritual experiences, as well as the presentiment of spirits embodied in nature.
Figure 1: Tolita ceramic, Ecuador.
The standard Eurocentric worldview has no place for the powerful cognitive transformation facilitated by psychointegrators. For this reason the typical inhabitant of a Eurocentric worldview is unable to make any sense of examples of Amerindian art such as the extraordinary Tolita ceramic from Ecuador shown in Fig 1 (Klein & Cruz 2007). In Europe, prior to the advent of modern art, there were few representations of the cognitive changes such as of body perception, of the disintegration of the self, or of the perception of non-natural entities that may be produced by psychointegrators. But once shamanism and integrative states of consciousness are taken into account, a great deal of Amerindian art begins to make sense.
Figure 2-3: Pre-Columbian gold work
A case in point is the pioneering work of the „Father of Colombian Anthropology” Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and his study of the pre-Columbian gold work in the Gold Museum in Bogotá (1988). He argues that by recognizing the relationship between ritual objects and the subjacent shamanic ideology a deeper significance is revealed. In fact the greater part of the figurative representations constitute a consistent and articulated complex of shamanic art, with transformation as the unifying theme (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988). He contends that much of the artwork preserved can be explained in terms of the shamanic paradigm. Certain iconographic elements may serve to identify particular figures as shamans, such as special headdresses, specific postures, rattles, and more significant representations of animal transformation or journeys by means of animal auxiliaries.
The ritual objects include several golden snuff trays from the territory of the Muisca people in the central highlands of present-day Colombia. The snuff trays, decorated with felines and birds commonly associated with shamanism, were once used for the storage of small amounts of the highly psychoactive powder obtained from the crushed roasted seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina. The ritual objects also include golden poporos once used for the storage of small amounts of lime as well as poporo sticks once used in the consumption of coca – the poporo sticks are topped with tiny and complex heads with apparent shamanic motifs.
Representations of birds or winged objects are also predominant in the goldwork. Reichel-Dolmatoff suggests that the winged motif is connected with the shamanic sphere and is a conscious or unconscious allusion to shamanic flight. In many instances he recognizes, in different styles and variations, the figures as that of a shaman transformed into a bird, a „bird-man” (fig. 2-3, examples from Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988). There are also highly abstract examples of goldwork, which are variations of the birdman motif, once the basic elements are recognized.
Effigies of various animals, sometimes of a fantastic, non-naturalistic nature, some times accompany the central figure, which the author interprets as animal auxiliaries perhaps representing qualities such as sharpness of sight or hearing, aggressiveness, the ability to undergo metamorphosis, etc. The incorporation of animal qualities –in its more radical form complete transformation into an animal- or the transference of those qualities to their patients being one of the characteristics of shamans in many cultures (Luna 1992).
Reichel-Dolmatoff also presents examples of golden figurines with a toad spread on the head of the central figure, perhaps a reference to Bufo marinus, whose parotoid glands produce bufotenine, a psychoactive alkaloid, as well as figurines in which semi-spherical bodies appear on the head, possibly a reference to psychoactive mushrooms according to Schultes and Bright (1979). In some of these figures both elements appear.
The goldwork preserved at the Museo del Oro is thus for Reichel-Dolmatoff „a treasure of shamanic art, a treasure of forms and ideas which for thousands of years have constituted one of the cornerstones of the Indian cultures of this country”, and the Bird-Man, the ecstatic shaman, one of its key symbols.
Rebecca R. Stone in The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art (2011) examines what she calls „shamanic embodiment”, which may be artistically expressed along a continuum that may go from predominantly human to creative mixtures embedding animal selves to images almost wholly given over to the ineffable. She argues that in order to represent a shaman, a liminal being who is both Here and Not-Here, there is a deliberate engagement with ambiguity, perhaps the essential feature of shamanism, which „productively fires the artistic imagination, catalyzing inventive ways to express the ineffable cosmic flux”, and using such strategies as „juxtaposition, conflation, substitution of parts, pars pro toto (the part stands for the whole), inversion, double reading through contour rivalry, figure-ground reversal, and three-dimensional versus two-dimensional aspects), mirror-imaging, abstraction, and interiority.” (Stone 2011:67).
Among the myriad possible artistic approaches to the paradoxes intrinsic to embodying of the shamanic Self, she proposes four general traits: creative ambiguity, authority, cephalocentrism and the trance gaze. By way of evidence, she cites examples of Ancient Costa Rican and Central Andean Art, at the same time pointing to the possibility of subjecting thousands of works of art from all over Central and South America to a similar analysis making use of the concepts she has presented.
Rebecca Stone’s compelling and encompassing well-crafted argumentation is impossible to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. Here are some ideas I found particularly attractive. How can the artist through colors, shapes, and lines in a static image capture the flux of liminality, of existing somewhere suspended between states of being, of true multiplicity in the Self? Amerindian art gives a plethora of solutions. The artists, without the constraints of an artistic mandate to reproduce terrestrial appearances, have as their goal the recorporealization of the shaman, something that entails a decorporalization, just as does the visionary experience, and then the rebuilding of a different idea of a spirit-body as a holder for the being in trance. The visionary experience, on the other hand, requires a participation in a convincingly nonhuman-centered gestalt of all nature infused with life and obviates the need to make hard-edged visual distinctions between a person and a bat or a peanut and a divine being. The artist is able to throw aside discrete categories and mimetic attachments to this world and its static constituents by exploring possibilities beyond how things look under normal conditions, creating combinations that defy description. The Western worldview limits our understanding of such art objects because seemingly neutral terms such as „image,” „depiction,” and „representation” inevitably communicate the opposite of the shamanic approach to the object. Amerindian artists on the other hand „embrace creative ambiguity”. Rebecca R. Stone proposes that the object we call an effigy of a shaman served as both a visual rendition of the shaman’s many selves and as one of the shaman’s subjective selves.
We may infer that seen as a whole, totally unrecognized by most people, Pre-Columbian art is full of allusions to unseen realms, shamanic transformation, subjective states and alternative modes of cognition. One of the most common themes is the jaguar transformation. The human/feline motif is found in South America from the earliest cultures, such as in Caral (ca. 4,600 B.P.) in Coastal Peru. The idea that shamans are able to transform into jaguars is widespread even today in the Amazon, as shown by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975) in his monograph on this subject. Transformation into other animals, such as serpent, harpy eagle or whatever animal it would be necessary to acquire certain qualities or cognitive abilities is also believed to be possible. Therianthropes, a composite of human and animal, sometimes of several of them, as well as many other motifs expressing various inner states are thus common in Amerindian iconography. Therianthropes may be either a representation of entities acquiring anthropomorphic features in order to communicate with human counterparts, or an expression of a subjective perceptional mode in which the human acquires animal qualities. These images would instantly evoke in Amerindian people particular cognitive states related to multidimensional, multilayered cosmologies, spaces in the mind (perhaps the perception of alternate realities) nowadays mostly forgotten but once visited by the ancestors of all of us, as may be deduced from numerous examples of Paleolithic rock art (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998; Lewis-Williams 2002; Hancock 2005).
Throughout the Americas in the past and in some places still today shamanism has gone hand in hand with the use of psychointegrator plants. The best known are peyote (Lophophora williamsi) and Psylocibin mushrooms in Mesoamerica; several species of Brugmansia, Anadenanthera colubrina and Anadenanthera peregrina in South America (also introduced in pre-Columbian times in the Caribbean); the various San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi and other Trichocereus species) in Andean and Coastal areas of Peru; ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi + Psychotria viridis) and yajé (Banisteriopsis caapi + Diplopterys cabrerana) in the Upper Amazon; and of course tobacco, sacred in the whole of the Americas, and coca still used ritually among Andean people. In more restrictive areas, many other psychotropic plants were or are still used.
Figure 4: Paraphernalia from San Pedro de Atacama. Courtesy C.M.Torres.
Psychointegrator plants have been used in the Americas since antiquity (cf. Torres 1996). According to Alicia Fernández Distel (1980) Anadenanthera colubrina was already being used in Inca Cueva, Puna de Jujuy, Argentina around 2100 BC. It played a central role in the extraordinary Tiwanaku culture, roughly from 300 to 1000 AD, as evidenced in representations of snuff paraphernalia in monoliths, and the ubiquity of snuff kits, including tablets, inhalators, spoons and pouches with powder from seeds of this plant, conserved in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, an area heavily influenced by the Tiwanaku culture (Torres & Rebke 2006; see figures 4-5, courtesy of C. M. Torres).
Figure 5. The Ponce monolith in the Kalasasaya yard of Tiwanaku
The oldest evidence of the use of Thricocereus pachanoi dates from around 2000-1500 BC in Las Aldas on the north-central coast of Peru (Fung 1972; Polia Meconi 1996: 289). The San Pedro cactus played a central role in Chavín culture in the northern Andean highlands of Peru, as evidenced in figures from the religious and political center of Chavín de Huántar (900-200 BC, see fig. 6) as well as from Nazca (100 BC to 700 AD).
The oldest known dates for tobacco are from the North Coast of Peru, with dates ranging between 2500 and 1800 ?? (Pearsall, 1992: 178). Coca chewing in northern Peru began at least 6000 B.C. (Dillehay et al. 2010).
As for the plants involved in the preparation of ayahuasca and yajé there is no clear evidence of their earlier use beyond the statements by eighteenth century missionaries, who considered the preparations to be agents of the Devil. However, given the antiquity of the use of other psychotropic plants, it seems unlikely that yajé or ayahuasca are a relatively recent innovation.
Figure 6. Therianthrop with feline characteristics holding a stalk of San Pedro cactus. Circular Plaza of the Old Temple, Chavin de Huántar. Photo M.C. Torres
In any case, it is not possible, when dealing with ancient America, to ignore the central role of psychointegrator plants, nor the weight of history when discussing the current, and in some case growing use of some of these plants in our contemporary world.
The techniques for achieving altered cognitive states are culture-specific. Like the mastery of any other technique, they require a special form of training. However, the various techniques have a biological dimension that is common to all human beings. The first steps in the scientific study of this biological dimension have already been taken in what amounts to an immense field of future research. Hopefully the development of some of the new theories of human consciousness will take into account tools that traditional societies have used for thousands of years.
An example of one such new theory of human consciousness is Ede Frecska’s theory of the dual complementary methods of knowledge acquisition (Frecska 2008). The author proposes that the duality and complementarity in the physical universe where there are particles and waves, mass and energy, local effects and non-local connections is also found in a duality and a complementarity in knowledge acquisition. Frecska posits the existence two sources of knowledge: perceptual-cognitive and direct-intuitive, with the former having fewer problems than the latter with replicability. Perceptual-cognitive knowledge is electrochemical (based on local effects), operates via neuroaxonal networks, is linguistic albeit not necessarily verbal, and relies on a modeling with a subject-object division. It peaks in Western scientific thinking. Direct-intuitive knowledge is quantum-physical (based on nonlocal connections), operates via sub-neural networks, it is ineffable and relies on direct experience with no subject-object division. It is the source of contemplative traditions.
Winkelman, on the other hand, suggests evolutionary mechanisms by which early primates would be able to metabolize substances toxic for other organisms found in the natural environment, and which may have contributed to human evolution.
Clearly, psychointegrator agents do not simply disrupt normal perception. It seems that through them, by mysterious ways of mind exploration not yet understood, it is indeed possible to access valid information not readily available by ordinary means. Psychointegrator agents offer complex, often beautiful, coherent and useful experiences not normally accessible, to which some traditional societies assign great value. To dismiss such experiences as aberrations of the mind under the effect of drugs, which is the ordinary accepted discourse, is quite biased. Unbiased attention needs to be given to such phenomena. As William James pointed out, no account of the universe in its totality can be final, which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded (James 1929:379).
Science explores today the vast riches of outer space, as well as the minute yet immense realms of subatomic particles. We explore the depth of the oceans and the forests, high mountains and deserts. Yet the exploration of consciousness is still a forbidden realm, vastly explored by shamanic societies yet neglected in contemporary science due to a great extent to religious preconceptions carried throughout centuries.
Amerindian art, largely inspired by altered states of consciousness, has perhaps a message for us. It expresses forms of cognition neglected by most, but still accessible to all of us as humans. The ontological reality of the worlds perceived through psychointegrator agents in the final analysis depends on the perceiver’s worldview. Many traditional societies would not doubt the existence of parallel and multidimensional worlds. With the exception of contemporary theories in physics and cosmology, modern thinking does not admit the existence of parallel and multidimensional universes. Short of direct experimental verification, orthodox scientific thinking treats talk of parallel and multidimensional universes as fiction if not as the projections of a deranged mind. This is not usually corroborated by those who have immersed themselves deeply in the study or experimentation of integrative states of consciousness.
The fact is that, whether we want it or not, these other dimensions - whatever their ontological reality - constantly emerge in our daily life, either through the stories we tell our children - we all lived once in those forested and magical worlds-, in the arts everywhere, in some of the religions we create, and certainly in our dreams. These other worlds and beings greatly enrich our existence. Without them, as without our remaining forests and their animals, the world would be a duller place.
Luis Eduardo Luna
 A remarkable exception would be the influence of Iroquois Confederacy ideas on the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States (see http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/hconres331.pdf).
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