Mother Ayahuasca

Mother ayahuasca has been growing in popularity around the globe — explore the history and healing power of the medicinal brew with indigenous roots.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, indigenous Amazonian communities in South America have been consuming ayahuasca — a sacred botanical brew — for divination, community connection, and spiritual healing purposes. 

Ayahuasca, also known by various other names including caapi, natema, mihi, and yagé, is regarded as the Mother of all Amazonian plants, believed by indigenous people to have the power to communicate with and potentiate the energy and healing qualities of other plants. 

Ayahuasca continues to be widely prepared and consumed ceremonially in Amazonian areas today, often under the guidance of a traditional shamanic healer called a ‘curandero,’ or ‘curandera,’ Taita, or other culturally specific names unique to the community’s culture and specific healing tradition. 

Although the exact history of ayahuasca use is unclear due to a lack of written record and archeo-chemical evidence, traditional ritualistic practices that have supported the use of “the vine of the dead” remain foundational to its healing properties.

Increasingly, Western tourists, eager to peer into the numinous, catch a glimpse of the divine, and find healing by reconnecting to themselves and the universe, are traveling in large numbers to ayahuasca retreats across the Amazon.

An artistic rendition of Mother Ayahuasca

What is Ayahuasca? 

Ayahuasca is a strong-smelling, bitter-tasting (to put it mildly), traditional medicine and spiritual tool utilized commonly in the Amazin basin. It is a powerful psychedelic, or entheogenic brew, generally made from the stem of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of a shrubby, flowering plant called Psychotria viridis (Chacruna).

Different admixtures are common throughout the Amazon basin. Depending on the specific tradition, some liniages vehemently use only two plants while others may add additionally, carefully studied plants. These additional plants may be added to potentiate the psychadelic qualities in the brew, or to perhaps to connect to subtler aspects of energetic healing facilitated by the ceremony surrounding the use of ayahuasca.

Psychotria viridis 

Psychotria viridis can be substituted with two other DMT-containing compañeros, or “companion plants” — the closely related shrub, Psychotria carthagenensis (sameruca), and the Diplopterys cabrerana vine, which goes by various names including chagropanga, chaliponga, oco-yajé, and yajé-uco. In addition to DMT containing alkaloids, chagropnga also contains what is widely considered the most powerful psychedelic compound found in nature, 5-MeO-DMT.

Psychotria viridis contains the classic psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is inactive when taken orally due to the action of peripheral monoamine oxidase-A (MAO), an enzyme found in the stomach that catalyzes the oxidation of monoamines, such as DMT. As a consequence, when taken orally, DMT must be combined with something that inhibits the activity of this enzyme.

Somehow, shamanistic cultures in the Amazon were able to get around this problem, and that’s where Banisteriopsis caapi comes in…

The Ayahuasca Vine: Banisteriopsis caap

Banisteriopsis caapi is a vine native to South America in the family Malpighiaceae. It contains three beta-Carboline alkaloids — harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine.

All three of these compounds are potent monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), meaning they have the ability to inhibit the action of the MAO enzyme in the lining of the stomach, thus promoting the absorption of DMT in the ayahuasca admixture. Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis work synergistically to facilitate a 4-6 hour journey through the psyche’s vast expanse.  

Now, how did indigenous Amazonians know to combine the DMT-containing Psychotria viridis with the only MAOI-containing plant out of the tens of thousands of different plant and tree species surrounding them? Well, as yet, this remains an impenetrable mystery. It’s almost as mind-blowing as the most transcendental ayahuasca experience ever could be.

Interestingly, the ayahuasca shamans believe that “plant spirits” instructed their long-lost ancestors as to how this healing visionary brew could be prepared. 

Indigenous shaman believe that plants have spirits, and that a shaman can communicate with those spirits.

Side Effects of Ayahuasca 

To be clear — and this is important — experimenting with Mother ayahuasca is no joke.

The gastrointestinal effects of the beta-Carbolines make the brew a powerful emetic. Within 45 minutes of consuming the foul-tasting brew, people often begin to sweat, feel nauseous, purge, and may even fall victim to the frequent excretion of loose and watery stools that is diarrhea.

However, Amazonian shamans interpret this purging as a form of emotional cleansing necessary for healing to occur. Consuming ayahuasca be be physically and psychologically challenging. The phenomenological rigmarole induced by ayahuasca is considered crucial to its profound effectiveness. 

Historical Use of The Ayahuasca Vine 

Scholars of Mother ayahuasca often suggest that the tradition of consuming the brew is very ancient; many anthropologists formulaically claim that indigenous people have been doing it for 5000 years or longer. Although strong evidence dating this far back exists for the ingestion of yopo, a snuff made of ground-up DMT-containing Anadenanthera peregrina seeds, there exists no such compelling evidence for oral ingestion of ayahuasca. 

A 2009 study in which researchers analyzed hair samples from Azapa Valley mummies did produce chemical evidence suggestive of Banisteriopsis caapi consumption during the Tiwanaku Middle Period of approximately 600-1000 AD. The researchers identified harmine in the hair of two mummies who had been buried with snuffing pipes, providing conclusive evidence of use of the ayahuasca vine at least 1000 years ago. 

DMT, however, was not detected, which would suggest that the tradition of drinking ayahuasca originated quite recently. 

It is of course entirely possible that oral ingestion of ayahuasca does date back many thousands of years. Many reputable anthropologists, including the author of The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby, believe that Amazonians have been absorbing Mother ayahuasca’s lessons for “at least five thousand years.”

The absence of archaeological evidence may merely be a consequence of the fact that no specific paraphernalia is required for the consumption of the brew, unlike non-biodegradable yopo pipes that were preserved in graves and therefore easily retrieved for inspection. 

If not as one half of a psychedelic brew, how else might Banisteriopsis caapi have been used? One possibility is that the Tiwanakuans consumed the vine by itself for its own psychoactive properties.

Alternatively, the leaves of the vine could have been chewed together with the ingestion of yopo, a combination which reportedly enhances the visionary effects of this 5000-year-old snuffing practice, or, as is done today by the Piaroa people, the vine, along with Anadenanthera seeds, may have been ground into a paste

Modern History of The Psychedelic Brew 

Written descriptions of ayahuasca use didn’t appear until the 18th century, when Jesuit missionaries Chantre y Herrera, Juan Magnin, and Pablo Maroni published their separate encounters with the sacred medicine.

It wasn’t for another century that the first ethnobotanical accounts of ayahuasca appeared when Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio relayed what had been communicated to him by the Shuar people of the Upper Amazon regarding the consciousness-altering effects of ayahuasca. In his 1858 book, Geografía de la República del Ecuador, Villavicencio writes: 

“The possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge…they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear.”

Villavicencio’s accounts were soon followed by those of an English schoolteacher turned botanist named Richard Spruce. During his explorations throughout the diverse flora of South America in the 1850s, Spruce encountered the ingestion of a tea the Tukano people of Brazil called “ayahuasca.” Spruce would go on to observe the Guahibo on the upper Orinoco and the Záparo on the border of Ecuador and Peru consuming this very same brew. 

Before almost dying of malaria and dysentery, Spruce managed to send samples of Banisteriopsis caapi home for chemical analysis. In his Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes, Spruce described the preparation of ayahuasca and the effects it had on him, in what is the earliest known Western record of an ayahuasca experience.

Mother Ayahuasca’s Therapeutic Power 

Increasingly often, curanderos have been traveling to North America and Europe, covertly offering Mother ayahuasca to kickstart a paradigm shift in global consciousness, often at personal risk.

Additionally, Westerners are traveling in droves to the Amazon each year to journey with this consciousness-expanding medicine. At multi-day retreats, ceremony participants have reported broadening their spectrum of awareness, obtaining fresh perspectives, realizing novel psychological insights, and working through traumatic memories. 

This, of course, can be of tremendous therapeutic importance.

Studies investigating ayahuasca’s therapeutic potential have demonstrated potential efficacy for substance-use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Additional studies suggest that ayahuasca may also have neuroprotective and neurorestorative effects, as well as an ability to increase mindfulness, acceptance, and life satisfaction

That said, if one feels called to experience the power of Mother ayahuasca, it is important to do so under the guidance of a significantly skilled, reputable shaman who possesses the tools and techniques necessary to help people navigate what can be a destabilizing process. As with all psychedelic journeying, set and setting are vital. 

In a clinical context, for instance, important emphasis is placed on the development of a therapeutic rapport with the therapist and the presence of specially trained therapists to oversee the unfolding of the experience. Also, integrative psychotherapy sessions are held and mindfulness activities encouraged to help participants interpret their experiences, resolve confusing feelings, and consolidate meaningful insights. 

Furthermore, ayahuasca contains MAO inhibitors that can interact dangerously with serotonergic medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. 

Additionally, people with certain medical conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, seizure disorders, or substance-use disorders, should be aware that ayahuasca use may pose potential health risks. Complex trauma can also be exacerbated by the intense psychological effects of ayahuasca, making it unsuitable for some individuals without careful consideration and guidance. It is essential to approach ayahuasca with extreme caution and ideally under the guidance of a trained and experienced shaman or healthcare professional. 

Ayahuasca has demonstrated potential to treat certain mental health conditions  and alleviate mental turmoil that comes with the inevitable challenges of life. But the power of ayahuasca mustn't be taken lightly. It is imperative that recipients of Mother ayahuasca’s call to adventure honor it with the mindful preparation and respect it deserves.


An artistic representation of the plant's spirit, "Mama Ayahuasca"

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