Peruvian Shamanism: A Different Kind of Medicine

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Don Antonio Montero holds a sprig of sacha ajo, an important plant in his pharmacopoeia.
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Sunrise on the Amazon River.
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Sunrise on the Amazon River.
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Don Antonio Montero and Dr. James Duke.
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Don Antonio slashes the bark of the “Shaman’s Tree,” Croton lechleri, releasing its crimson sap.
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The ethereal blossoms of angel’s trumpet belie the plant’s toxic nature.
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Ayahuasca, the “soul vine.”
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Sunrise on the Amazon River.
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Smoke is an important element of the ayahuasca ceremony.
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The Amazonian rain forest contains more than a 200,000 plant species, hundreds of which can be seen from any vantage point.
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Sunrise on the Amazon River.

The Ceiba Tree–“abuelo,” grand­father of the forest, kapok, lupuna– is a giant in a forest of giants. Rising to 150 feet or more, it towers over the high forest canopy of the Amazon basin. Its trunk can grow to 18 feet in diameter, its great stabilizing buttresses might reach 30 or 40 feet out into the encroaching jungle. It possesses more spirits, has more power than any other tree, the locals say. It was into the sheltering arms of a mighty ceiba that Antonio Montero Pisco’s grandfather entrusted him when he was but nine years old.

The time was about 1950; the place, a small village along the Napo River in northern Peru. Antonio had been with his maternal grandparents since he was four, given to them by his parents to raise. Perhaps his family had grown too large, perhaps the grandparents needed care, or perhaps there was a special future for this child. His grandfather was a powerful medicine man, a brujo, a shaman.

The child grew up much as any young boy in the jungle. He shared a thatched, stilted hut in the village of Kokama with his grandparents. He learned to paddle a dugout canoe, to make nets and to fish, to gather fruit and dig cassava, to tend chickens, to wield a machete, to know the forest plants and trees. And when he was nine, his grandfather took him to the ceiba tree and left him alone there for a month between its sheltering buttresses.

His instructions: Make a hole in the bark of the tree, put a calabash in the hole, plug the hole and wait eight days. At the end of that time, unplug the hole and eat the gelatinous sap that had collected there. Beyond that, keep a strict fast–no fruit, no sugar, no salt, only a bit of dried fish–and talk to no one.

“During the thirty days I was in the jungle alone, I saw things I’d never seen and was frightened,” he recalls with vivid gestures. “My grandfather said they were the spirits of the forest. I was so scared I cried, I tried to run away.” He was beaten for this, and made to promise that he wouldn’t run away any more. “It’s tough being a shaman,” he says, a glint of humor in his dark eyes.

“The knowledge I have was sowed like seeds by my grandfathers,” Don Antonio explains. “Later,” he says, “I continued to learn from my elders [his other grandfather was also a shaman], but learned more from the plants themselves.” He quietly learned the ways of the plants through his teens, at the same time taking the kind of jobs that gave young men of his generation a larger world. He worked as a bushwhacker for a rubber company, he went upriver to the city of Iquitos and worked as a baker. But always he came back to the jungle. In his early twenties, he became a practicing shaman.

Potent Plants, Subtle Brews

It allows healer and patient to communicate telepathically­–to ‘talk ­without talking.’

While the Napo region of Peru is perhaps the most biologically rich and diverse area of the world, and native shamans have hundreds if not thousands of medicinal plants to learn and use, ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) is probably the best known in the United States and Europe. This potent hallucinogen captured the fancy of the drug culture in the Sixties and Seventies; its reputed power to transform the user into a jaguar brought brash young tourists to Iquitos in search of adventure. The result was predictable.

“Too many false witch doctors in Peru,” Don Antonio explains, gravely. “They give hallucinogens to tourists to show power, but it is false power.” Some, he has reported, simply drug their clients and take their money. To be a true ayahuasquero requires discipline and commitment. “The brujo must abstain from sex for a week before gathering the ayahuasca. He should not eat on the day of preparation.” Ayahuasca was used in the old days–and perhaps still–for ritual purposes, while now it’s used primarily for healing and divination. In addition to its benefits as a purgative, Don Antonio believes that it allows the healer and the patient to communicate telepathically–to “talk without talking”–giving the healer deep insight into the nature of the patient’s illness.

A true ayahuasquero creates a subtle brew, using a number of potent plants in careful balance (see box on page 59). He administers the potion mindfully: He takes the patient’s age, size, and condition into account, prays thoughtfully for good results, chants or whistles a haunting traditional song, blows tobacco smoke over the potion and the patient to calm the effects of the strong mixture.

As the ayahuasca takes hold, the patient is first gripped with the overpowering need to void both stomach and bowels. “Like a train in your stomach,” Don Antonio describes it. After an hour or so, if the “trip” is a good one, the patient will start to have visions. This can take the form of encounters with people not present (living or dead, friends or strangers), with animals, even with plants. It can have the character of a movie passing in front of your eyes, or it can be deeply, personally engaging. Or it might simply begin and end with the physical misery of purging violently and losing motor control for several hours.

Growing a Legacy

Don Antonio has performed this ritual regularly for more than thirty years, but it hasn’t lost its magic and mystery for him. He feels he has a spiritual mission to carry on his peoples’ culture for the children. But practicing traditional medicine is only one of the ways in which he’s making this contribution. With the support of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) and a grant from Dr. James Duke, he is collecting a garden of medicinal plants–a garden he dreamed of long before the means to make it happen had appeared. Now in its third year, the garden has more than 160 neatly labeled, thriving specimens.

A stroll through the garden with Don Antonio hints at the healing abundance of the rain forest. An orange mushroom growing on a log bordering the path is good for rashes, skin fungus, facial blemishes; mushrooms are the last energy a tree produces, and therefore can be very powerful. The sap of a relative of the mulberry will make a bad tooth disintegrate painlessly. The latex of a kind of euphorbia will remove skin cancers. Achiote, or annatto, repels mosquitoes, colors food, cures pinkeye. Cacao seed is useful against asthma, and shimi pamana (arrowroot) will defeat a foe and quiet a complaining husband. Huito, the fruit of Genipa americana, will help bronchitis, treat uterine cancer, dye clothes, paint and decorate the face for special occasions. Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri) is an antiseptic for external wounds, helps stomach ulcers, is used for vaginal cancer.

Most of these plants, like the hundreds of others in Don Antonio’s pharmacopoeia, have not been subjected to scientific study, but their generations of use suggest tantalizing possibilities. Next year, with the help of his sons, Alan and Gilmer, the garden will have grown to more than 200 species. This effort to preserve and share knowledge not only fulfills Don Antonio’s spiritual commitment to his own people, but creates a priceless legacy for all. “This garden is very powerful,” he says. “It is the power of the plants.”

Linda Ligon is editorial director of Herbs for Health. She is indebted to Dr. James Duke and to Ginger Webb of the American Botanical Council for their assistance in translating conversations with Antonio Montero Pisco. Joe Coca is a photographer whose home and studio are in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Additional reading

Duke, James A. and Rodolfo Vasquez. Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Ann Arbor, Michigan: CRC Press, 1994.

Plotkin, Mark. Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. New York: Viking, 1993.

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