Publisher: Editora Mercado de Letras, Campinas/SP – Brazil
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Format: 16 X 23 cm, illustrated
Support from the Fapesp (Research Support Foundation of the State of São Paulo)
Second edition, revised and updated: 2004 (1st. Ed.: 2002)
Price: R$ 105,00 ( U$ 60 + shipping fee)
BY PETER GOW
University of St. Andrews
In eastern Peru, local people say that the hallucinogen ayahuasca “makes you see everything.” What “everything” might be varies from person to person, as the volume under review beautifully illustrates. It is a collection of articles, some already published in languages other than Portuguese, which provides a very comprehensive and fascinating overview of the ritual use of ayahuasca in a remarkably diverse series of settings in South America and beyond.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Ayahuasca among the Peoples of the Forest,” comprises a series of articles primarily focused on the use of this hallucinogen among indigenous peoples of western Amazonia, among mestizo peoples in Peru, and among rubber gatherers of Acre state in Brazil. The second section, “The Brazilian Ayahuasquero Religions,” is comprised of a series of articles that provide a very important and timely overview of the religious movements that emerged in Acre in the 1930s, which have historically spread throughout Brazil and then the world. “Pharmacological, Medical and Psychological Studies of Ayahuasca” addresses the nature of ayahuasca and analogous hallucinogens in terms of the psychoactive properties and the implications of these properties for the study of the phenomenology of ayahuasca experience and for the study of the mind.
The quality of the articles, as with the preface by Mauro Almeida and the editors’ introduction, is in general very high. The editors are to be praised for having brought all of this data together in one place. There is no overall theoretical coherence to the volume, but that is not intended as a criticism. The diverse range of settings for the ritual use of ayahuasca has presented analysts (anthropologist as well as scholars from other disciplines) with a topic that is not easy to address. While it is clear that people taking this hallucinogen in a remote part of eastern Peru and in an apartment in Amsterdam are doing roughly the same thing, and that the two acts have a demonstrable historical connection, it is far from obvious how these two actions are to be connected analytically. This may explain the strange atavistic way the book is divided into the three sections, which can be seen as a triad of tradition, religion, and mind. This triad reminded me of Sir James Frazer’s evolutionary typology of magic, religion, and science: a curiosity in relation to a topic that might seem more amenable to postmodern approaches. Indeed, the division of the book into sections strikes me as implicitly evolutionist in a way that actually obscures important features of the phenomenon it addresses. It may seem obvious that ayahuasca use among indigenous peoples is traditional, in contrast to its manifest novelty in the new ayahuasca religions of Brazil and in neoshamanism. However, the time-depth of the ritual use of ayahuasca by any given indigenous people is assumed rather than demonstrated. There is good evidence that various indigenous peoples in western Amazonia have adopted the use of ayahuasca, or at least the particular style in which it is used, quite recently. This is hardly surprising, given the inherently transformational nature of the ayahuasca experience itself.
The division of the chapters reflects, I think, the editors’ intuition that the subject is only beginning to be properly explored. Therefore, the different sections reflect less a natural classification of the problem and more an invitation to read across. One point of departure for such “readings across” that I recommend, especially for those attracted to the use of ayahuasca for voyaging in the mind, is Barbara Keiffenheim’s fascinating account of the Cashinahua experiences with the hallucinogen.
Two features make this volume especially interesting. First, it is a testament to the remarkable fertility of Brazilian anthropology. Second, the volume crosses frontiers in ways that run counter to habitual modes of thinking. In particular, the historical expansion of ayahuasca use among rubber tappers in Acre, beautifully documented in this volume, shows that the frontier between Brazil and Peru had a very different meaning to local people than to the agents of the nation states that created it. As an old rubber tapper told me on the Purús River in 1987, referring to the war that fixed this frontier, “In truth, this land is neither Brazil nor Peru, it is the land of the Indians.” In a charming response to such basic rubber tapper wisdom, the editors conclude their acknowledgements with one to ayahuasca itself, in the Spanish of Peruvian Amazonia.
American Anthropologist, vol. 106, number 3, sep. 2004, p. 624.