Anadenanthera spp.

Constantino Manuel Torres and David B. Repke, authors of Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America, the most comprehensive study of this plant maintain: “The genus Anadenanthera was, together with tobacco, one of the most widely used shamanic inebriants. 

It is primarily South American in distribution and includes two species with two varieties each. 

The earliest evidence for the use of psychoactive plants in South America is provided by remains of seeds and pods recovered from archaeological sites four millennia old. 

Seeds are roasted, pulverized, and inhaled through the nose, or smoked in pipes or as cigars.”

They also point out that “the earliest descriptions of the use of visionary plants in the Americas refer to smoking of tobacco and inhalation of powdered seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina by the Taínos of the Greater Antilles […] 

The first description of snuffing practices in the Americas was written by Christopher Columbus from observations made during his second voyage (1493-1496). 

During his brief period of residence on the island of Hispaniola, Columbus observed that the natives engaged in a religious ceremony in which the snuffing of a psychoactive powder was an integral part.” 

The images from the confocal microscope that we have included in the website are of Anadenanthera colubrina, which is from South America. The incontrovertible archaeological evidence in the form of actual seeds that Torres and Repke mention is from sites in northern Chile and Argentina, as well as Bolivia, near Lake Titicaca. There are also extraordinarily artistic snuffing trays and other paraphernalia associated with the ingestion of the toasted and crushed seeds that contain high amounts of bufotenine.

I met Manolo Torres in 1983 when we both had Fulbright grants to work on projects in Chile. I was doing the research necessary to edit and translate a bilingual anthology of contemporary Chilean poetry ten years after the military coup. I had the rare privilege of seeing Manolo as he worked through his hypotheses and fascinating questions, still unresolved at that time, when he invited me to visit him in San Pedro de Atacama, one of the driest and most beautiful places on earth. Ancient mummies, snuff trays and, at night, more stars than I had ever seen! The Milky Way is a white river there!

The very closely-related species Anadenanthera peregrina, called cohoba by the Taínos in the Caribbean, was documented by a friar, Ramón Pané, who was commissioned by Columbus to study the ceremonies and antiquities of the indigenous people who inhabited the islands. Pané, beginning in 1494, worked a full four years on his ethnographic research, which included specific references to this all-important psychoactive powder made from the seeds of A. peregrina. It is for historical, rather than geographical reasons, then, that Anadenanthera opens the selection of images on this website. The Inquisition produced the violent banning of this sacred plant and the rituals associated with it that were considered a threatening source of indigenous social coherence and unwanted competition with Christianity. This tragedy also marks the beginning of Europe’s ecological devastation of the Americas. And, of course, the regional human toll with regard to the subsequent extermination of the Amerindian population of the Greater Antilles could not be greater.

Palaeoethnobotanic evidence discovered by a team of researchers led by Matthew E. Biwer during excavations at a site in Quilcapampa strongly suggests that the Wari culture during the Middle Horizon (AD 600-1000) produced a psychoactive fermented drink by combining Schinus molle drupes and Anadenanthera colubrina (vilca) seeds. According to this article published in the journal Antiquity: “Vilca-infused molle chicha enabled a more inclusive psychotropic experience in Wari society. For perhaps the first time in the Andes, the consumption of vilca therefore moved beyond those spiritual leaders who communed with the supernatural realm.” The public, ritualized partaking of this brew is an example of the ancient use of hallucinogens in Peru to coordinate collective action and create social cohesion.

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