This week we are looking at Peruvian-Amazonian vegetative (plant) medicines. But I should note that these boundaries (e.g., Peruvian) are artificial, as people in these regions most likely would not identify their longer histories with current borders and divisions. I should also point out that indigenous practices vary much across the areas, so what is said here should not be taken as representative of all cultures there. We have to start somewhere.
A bit on the worldview
In 1988, a finnish researcher by the name of Matti Kamppinen published an article on his studies amongst people in the Peru-amazon region. Here I will highlight some points. Kamppinen describes the worldview as consisting of “espiritus incorporados.” We can translate this as "embodied spirits." And the idea is that the people see plants and animals as both bodily and spiritual. As such, he documented three kinds of harms one may encounter from spirits.
Mal de Agua. This gets translated as “bad water” or “evil from water.” symptoms include headache, fever, diarrhea, vomiting. Sources include the pink river dolphin and boa snake, both which are spirits. For example, Yacumama is considered the mother and guardian of the river. Its physical form is the boa snake. Yacumama protects from overfishing. On one report, a local no longer canoes alone as he believes that the river dolphin chases him.
Next is mal de monte. This is translated as mountain sickness or “evil coming from the mountain.” Symptoms include snake bites, insect bites, skin infections and so forth. The source is Shapshico/chullachaqui. On some accounts, Shapshico takes the form of a smaller person and protects his area of the forest. (read more)
Mal de Gente. This translates as “evil from people” and it is considered the worst kind of harm. Symptoms include sudden pain, accidents, relational problems, economic setbacks. The source of this is witchcraft also known as brujeria. (We should be careful using witchcraft. Sometimes witchcraft refers to something evil or wrong done to people, but many practice witchcraft and think that what they do is neutral or good. So maybe the translation to witchcraft is not so good). One correspondent gave the example of not sharing one's food with someone. The person may get offended and perform witchcraft. As a result, a snake bites you. The snake bite, instead of healing, gets worse and worse. This example makes very clear the notion of “espiritus incorporados,” embodied spirits. Most of us see snake bites and insect bites as just that. Locals don’t deny that it was a snake that bit you; they just add that it was also the action of a spirit.
Another interesting concept is ikaro or icaro. These are chants or power songs that are learned by healers. There are many of them and there is no fixed set number. Different illness will have different icaros, and the healer has to know these just as the healer has to be familiar with the plants. We will return to this.
Another concept is the idea of espacio vegetal or plant space. This is in essence a realm of plant spirits from which people get information to be used for good or bad. The information can be used for healing or for mal de gente.
The anthropologist Joseph Henrich has popularized the concept WEIRD to refer to western, educated, industrialized, rich, and developed people. The idea is that WEIRD people are different and non-representative from the rest of the non-WEIRD world. As a WEIRD person, it is hard to talk and think in terms of spirits. But I want to be able to see a bit more of what the world is like from the Peruvian-Amazonian perspective. So here is an attempt. We usually don’t see plants as full of life. Even when it comes to topics such as dietary ethics, we rarely find people who think we should not eat a plant out of respect for its life. But maybe we should compare the complexity of the Amazon forest to the complexity of a human. A single human is in reality a complex set of processes that are all intermeshed. You are the product of complex neural circuits, a skeleton-muscle system, a cardiovascular system, digestive system, and immune system, just to name a few. Besides that you contain millions of bacteria, and all of these systems interact to form you. In a manner of speaking, the rainforest is like us, an enormously complex interacting system. A tree’s roos make connections with bacteria and fungus. It provides shelter for many animals and species that have symbiotic relationships with it. Its birth and death is connected with the birth and death of other plants. Anyone living in the amazon may come to appreciate the way it moves and breathes like one complex beast. It is kinda scary to think about how majestic and encompassing it is (not to mention all the things in it that can kill you).
The role of Diet in Peruvian-Amazonian Medicine
Next I will turn to an article by Berlowitz et al (2021). The purpose of this article is to describe the role of dieting in Peruvian-Amazonian medicine. As we will see, it is extremely relevant to issues concerning psychedelic medicine.
What is a diet? The idea of a diet can be narrow, as in abstaining from a specific food or activity. But it can also be general as an entire process. It begins with consultation where a healer determines what sort of diet and intervention is needed or whether they are even in a position to help. Next the healer will prescribe a strict schedule of diet, such as abstaining from certain foods or certain social contact. The process can be anywhere from days, weeks, to months (this will become important). The context is a retreat or isolation setting. Finally, there is a closing process where one gradually returns to normal life, either in what one consumes or does socially. The diet can refer to this entire process. Here are some quotes that show the importance of dieting.
The plants can heal you, but you have to follow the diet—everything is in the diet. (5)
... the dietary conditions are explained to be a technique for accessing the energy or spirit-aspect of plants, enabling the “energy of the plant to come and accommodate itself in the body and structure of the person...” (5)
“...it permeates you, incorporates itself in the body, and there it will stay. And it can be called forth later using the icaros...” (5)
We will return to the fundamental importance of “energy” in Peruvian-Amazonian medicine. What is most clear is that plants are not like Tylenol that operates on its own. The intervention is a complex set of activities, beliefs, interventions–between multiple agents as we will soon see.
What are the purposes of plant-diet based medicine? One thing mentioned is the healing of physical conditions such as arthritis or post-partum care. The plant and diet is also seen as a sort of natural enhancer by which people are healthier and stronger, even when the process requires one to undergo significant weight loss. Psychological conditions can also be alleviated: mind cleansing, manifesting internal world, personality changes such as anxiety, mood improvements, releasing of bad feelings. One thing that surprised me was seeing the continuity. Peruvian reports on psychological benefits read as if they were described by westerners. (Though I wonder if this is a result of translation, as the reports are originally in Spanish).
The practice also helps with mal de gente, and importantly with energy. The concept of energy in a person’s body is foreign to western medicine, but it is important to note that it cannot be reduced in these contexts. Sometimes we may speak of a person’s energy and really mean their enthusiasm, which is a psychological trait. Peruvian-Amazonian medical views separate the psychological from energy, and we will see this becomes important in the context of contemporary issues.
I found a retreat center on google and on their webpage, they have many different types of plants. I include a picture here to underscore the complexity of the tradition and the depth of cultural know-how. Imagine you were tasked with finding these plants and testing what they were good for. How would you begin to do that?
According one report from Berlowitz et al,, the whole dietary-plant-process works via isolation, and isolation stimulates sensitivity. In this view, we see very clearly the importance of an entire process–not just a single plant (ayahuasca). But then we can also see that this isn’t just a psychedelic experience; it's seeming more like an isolation activity assisted by psychedelics. Consider a story a friend just told me. He went out camping in arizona and his phone died. He took this as an opportunity to live in the moment. Undistracted by his phone, he became more attuned to the sounds, smells, and sights around him. He made random conversations with some people playing a banjo . At night, a rainstorm hit, so he laid in his tent alone thinking about how God may be using the events to speak to him. He began recalling more memories and ideas from his past. The next day during therapy, he discussed his experiences rather than his usual more “banal” problems, by his account. The point is that this sounds a lot like a psychedelic experience without psychedelics. This story fits in well with, form example, Aidon Lyons who thinks psychedelic experiences can be achieved through other means such as meditation.
Who is involved? This has an obvious and not so obvious answer. Plants are seen as agents with superior knowledge. They are spiritual agents. They provide guidance and they teach or impart wisdom. Often plants, through dreams or visions, are said to teach about new plants to consume or new icaros to use. Other times they reveal personal problems that one never realized. Just like in a therapy session one may uncover a problem one never knew was there, the plants can play this role. Below, I provide a long quote that really accentuates these points.
Healers also are seen as providing a critical role. This obviously occurs when they prescribe a dietary regimen and a specific type of plant to ingest. But they also provide guidance during the therapy. If something isn’t going right, say you are dizzy and vomiting, they will either suggest that you stick through the process or take some corrective measure. Via their experience, they will determine whether a painful experience is part of the process or abnormal. Moreover, the healer is often going through a dietary regiment at the same time. Knowledge of healing may arrive to the patient indirectly, i.e., via the healer. I want to turn to an interesting quote from the article. Here is a correspondent pointing out the importance of the character of the healer.
“Formerly I would see that happen, they would make someone diet for a year, two years, and then the same person would take it from him—the teacher himself! And the trainee would be left with nothing. And the teacher, no matter how old he already was, would get very strong. I’ve seen this in many instances.” (10).
Here, the person is reporting an event he or she observed often. The healer has a patient or “trainee” diet for a very long time, and then the healer takes the energy of the person. It is hard to understand what is going on. But this much is clear: the role of the healer is vital to the process.
I will now provide a long quote that illustrates various themes we have covered.
The healers also described more explicit modes of learning to heal via diets, for instance by acquiring concrete working tools: “Primarily, I was given icaros. [...] In the diets I have also received plant recipes. Or I have seen how to work with a rather complicated patient; there was a lot of information” [PD]. Such teachings are often conveyed in visions or dreams and instruct the healer about the realms of spirit: “When you are dieting, the spirits present themselves” [PF], said one informant. The plant’s spirit may manifest in a dream and “may present as a man or a woman, depending on which tree it is; it differentiates itself via its clothes. And they may indicate something to you.” [PL]. Another healer summarized: “The plant gives you everything, it gives you the chants, it gives you knowledge [...]. And in dreams, it makes me see other plants that I have never taken, that I don’t know, but I am shown that these plants are good. It teaches you; it gives you knowledge. As I live in the forest, close to the plants, it makes me see them directly, ‘such and such plant is good for this’.” [PE]. One healer narrated such an instructional dream: “I was taken to a mountain and was shown plants. I wanted to express my opinion, to say that I also knew plants—‘No, you are the guest here, just listen to what we are going to tell you.’ So they started teaching me (10).
It is important to not skip over issues caused by foreign visitors. One problem is that foreigners may not follow the diet or some procedures perfectly. Many of the steps are counter intuitive and their importance is not obvious. In reality, one is putting various different chemical into one’s body. Certain diets may be fine tuned to deal with that, and discrepancies can lead to trouble. In one case, a foreign visitor was found wandering naked by a lake and had to be rescued. Here, foreign individuals may identify the problem as psychological in origin, but healers may identify it with a problem in energy and have different ways of dealing with it.
Next foreign visitors may try to rush the process, leading to multiple sessions. As mentioned above, a diet may last months, and many visitors do not have the time and patience. They may thus travel to many different healers in a short period of time. This may be seen as a disrespect to the tradition, and the visitor is taking substances at a dosage or frequency that no single healer would recommend.
Lastly, foreign visitors open a market for healers, and this dilutes the tradition. Opportunists who are untrained in healing practices may crowd the market. Market forces may leave out the need for a lifetime of earned knowledge.
Other issues concern the perspectives of indigenous people. Many indigenous people have been the victims of horrific injustices by governments. The fact that western science wants information may seem objectionable. Moreover, the western mode of thought, such as its non-holistic approach and its capitalistic tendencies, may seem incongruent with Peruvian-Amazonian medicine. All these considerations suggest that Westerners (as individuals or scientists) have deep questions to address.
Berlowitz I. O'Shaughnessy D. M. Heinrich M. Wolf U. Maake C. & Martin-Soelch C. (2022). Teacher plants - indigenous peruvian-amazonian dietary practices as a method for using psychoactives. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 114910–114910. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2021.114910
Kamppinen, Matti. (1988). Espiritus Incorporados: The Roles of Plants and Animals in the Amazonian Mestizo Folklore. J Ethnobiology. 141-148.