Ayahuasca History: Exploring The Truth Of Mystic Drink

Last Updated: December 18, 2019

Ayahuasca history dates back centuries although there is not enough documentation to provide an exact timeline. Interestingly researchers into the history of the tea and it’s rituals have created a resurgence among themselves which has spread a ‘craze’ for trying the tea among the public.

What Ayahuasca Is

A  local hallucinogenic beverage which is popular with the indigenous people of Peru and other South American countries to use in ceremonies. They prepare it by boiling a plant Banisteriopsis caapi, which is another name, used for Ayahuasca which educes changes to the brain.
Synonym: caapi and yagé.

How Ayahuasca Effects One Mind

It contains many active compounds such as harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine which can change a person’s thoughts, mood, and level of consciousness.. The active ingredients do this by blocking the activity of an enzyme: monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the brain. MAO functions by breaking down many different brain chemicals, so scientists call them monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
Another compound called dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  also contributes to the mind-altering effects. This is found in the plant Psychotria Viridis which is added to the leaves to Ayahuasca to achieve a more intense effect. The effects of Ayahuasca is frequently compared with Ibogaine which has very similar affects on the human mind.

Ayahuasca History: When It Started?

The origins and history of Ayahuasca is still somewhat of a mystery. In fact, it was only after the 1950s that interest peaked in this “magic” beverage and it was during this time it became known in the western world.
Although only a little information is available about its origin.and lacking any conclusive documentation, many researchers believe the drugs use began in prehistoric times. This might give reason to why Ayahuasca history is divided into two parts: the prehistoric era and then the modern era.

Key People And Works That Have Shed Light On Ayahuasca History

Richard Spruce (1817-1893) was an English botanist and was a pioneer in documenting Ayahuasca history. Thus, many consider him as the first person who introduced it to the western world. He named the plant Banisteriopsis caapi and subsequently many chemists isolated the active compound from the plant and went on to called it telepathine although today is now called harmine.
Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) who many consider as the father of modern ethnobotany was an American biologist. His work focused on the study of hallucinogenic plants including Ayahuasca. indeed he was first person to study its details along with the DMT-containing plant Psychotria Viridis.
Plutarco Naranjo Vargas (1921-2012) was an Ecuadorian scientific researcher. In 1983, he published a book Ayahuasca: Etnomedicina y mitología.
Fred Alan Wolf (Born 1934) was an American physicist whose work focussed on science and the relation between physics and consciousness. He is the author of the publication The Eagle’s Quest: A Physicist Finds the Scientific Truth at the Heart of the Shamanic World. It has been reported Wolf participated in the Ayahuasca ceremony although the accuracy of this information is debatable..

What Anecdotal Writings Say About Ayahuasca History?

Other available documents suggest the practice of combining it with DMT-containing plants did not begin earlier than the eighteenth century.

Current Scientific Take On Ayahuasca

In recent years. Ayahuasca has gained significant attention in the scientific community. due to its ability to alter levels of consciousness. Interestingly, tests have begun on the active component Harmine to establish any potential to treat different mental illnesses.
Here are some recent study results on its potential effects on mental health.

  • Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, New World Tryptamine Hallucinogens and the Neuroscience of Ayahuasca, 2017. This study suggests it may change the higher functions of the brain (altered level of consciousness) which influence our perceptions of life, possibly providing a new outlooks towards life.
  • Peer J, Harmine stimulates proliferation of human neural progenitors, 2016. According to this study, harmine triggers the reproduction of brain cells which could help patients with depression.
  • Psychopharmacology, Ayahuasca enhances creative and divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking, 2016. The study suggests it may increase creative and decrease judgmental tendencies.

Ayahuasca use in the US is rising especially young males. And although it is safe in most cases, warning are given to users about any serious side effects.

Page Sources

  1. Barbosa PCR, Giglio JS, Dalgalarrondo P. Altered states of consciousness and short-term psychological after-effects induced by the first time ritual use of ayahuasca in an urban context in Brazil. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2005;37:193–201. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16149333
  2. Da Silveira DX, Grob CS, de Rios MD, Lopez E, Alonso LK, Tacla C, Doering-Silveira E. Ayahuasca in adolescence: a preliminary psychiatric assessment. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2005;37:129–133. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16149324
  3. Frecska E, Bokor P, Winkelman M. The therapeutic potentials of ayahuasca: possible effects against various diseases of civilization. Front Pharmacol. 2016;7:35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773875/

Published on: May 5th, 2017

Updated on: December 18th, 2019

About Author

Peter J. Grinspoon, MD

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is an experienced physician with long-term clinical practice experience. As a former analgesic addict, Dr. Grinspoon knows precisely how important it is to provide patients with effective treatment and support. Medical writing for him is the way to communicate with people and inform them about their health.


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