Plant Admixtures to Ayahuasca, the South American Hallucinogenic Drink1

Homer V. Pinkley
(Botanical Museum of Harward University, Cambridge, Massachussetts)

Lloydia, vol. 32, pp. 305-314, 1969

Throughout the last century, explorers, botanists, chemists, pharmacologists and anthropologists have been fascinated by and have given attention to the South American hallucinogenic drink variously called ayahuasca, caapi, yajé, natema and prepared basically from the malpighiaceous genus Banisteriopsis (fig. 1 and 2). Equally as long, it has been known that this drink was often prepared from more than one botanical ingredient. Only recently, however, has it been shown that some of these additives contain chemical constituents which could possibly add to or alter the hallucinogenic effects of the drink. This paper purports to review the literature reports of admixtures and to discuss several which recent field work has brought to light.

Richard Spruce, who described Banisteriopsis Caapi and witnessed its use among the Tukanoan Indians of the Rio Uaupés of Brazil in 1852, was the first to refer to an admixture called caapi-pinima; he ventureed to identify it from sterile material. He thought that this admixture was possibly "... an apocynaceous twiner of the genus Haemadictyon ... It is possibly the same species ... distributed by Mr. Bentham under the name of Haemadictyon amazonicum n. sp." (20). Schultes observed, however, that this published report, edited by Wallace, shows a discrepancy in emphasis from Spruce's original field notebook which reads: "This [Banisteriopsis Caapi] is beaten in a mortar with the addition of water and a small quantity of the slender roots of the Apocynac. (apparently a Haemadictyon) called caapi-pinima or painted caapi, from its lvs. Being stained and veined with red .. Query? May not the peculiar effects of the caapi be owing rather to the roots of the Haemadictyon (though in such small quantity) than to the stems of the Banisteria? [Banisteriopsis] The Indians, however, consider the latter the prime agent, at the same time admitting that the former is an essential ingredient." (18)

In view of the fact that Prestonia amazonica (Haemadictyon amazonicum) is believed to be "... either a very rare species or else a strict endemic, confined to the general area at Trombetas on the lower Amazon," I believe that Schultes and Raffauf have conclusively shown that the identity of Spruce's caapi-pinima, collected on Río Uaupés and its affluents, should still be considered only a possibility, as indicated by Spruce, rather than a positive determination, as some specialists, without justification, have treated it (18). The name Prestonia amazonica has often been associated in the literature with the plant and drink called yajé, and because of the lack of voucher specimens, confusion inevitably resulted. The name yajé was first mentioned by Simson in 1888 in his Travels in the Wilds of Ecuador, where he reported, "Like the Zaparos, the Piojes also drink ayahuasca, mixed with yajé, sameruja leaves and guanto wood..." (19). Yajé again was mentioned by Reinburg, the French anthropologist, who studied the Indians between the Río Napo and Río Curaray in Ecuador during the 1920's. He reported that their "... narcotic drink was an infusion of a few fragments of ayahuasca, ... and the leaves of yajé..." (13). He expressed the opinion that the yajé in this region was neither ayahuasca nor Prestonia amazonica but that it was another species of the genus Prestonia or at least a genus closely realted to it. Today, we find the literature replete with opinions regarding the botanical identity [306] of caapi, ayahuasca, and yajé. Some writers have advocated that these three names refer to one and the same species, while others have argued that different plants are incolved.

Part of this confusion, I feel, could have been avoided if investigators had been more careful in associating aboriginal names with scientific names. Often an Indian will discuss a plant in lingua franca, withholding the name used in his

Fig. 1. Banisteriopsis Caapi, the basic plant ingredient of the South American hallucinogenic drink commonly known as ayahuasca, caapi, and yajé.

[307] tribal language, trying to avoid confusing the investigator whose knowledge of local dialects is usually limited. Consequently, the dimension of our botanical problem may become more complicated with the introduction of a linguistic variable. For example, all of the tropical rain forest tribes in Ecuador are familiar with the name ayahuasca, which is Quichua, the language of the ancient Incan Empire. In addition to this name, which may be known also to most travellers in Ecuador, each tribe likewise has its own name for the same plant, as illustrated in table 1.

The origins of the words ayahuasca, caapi, and yajé are only partially known. The term ayahuasca, can be broken down into two Quicahua words meaning "death" and "vine" (11). Spruce states, "Caapi ... is the Tupi or Lingua Geral name for 'grass'. It means simply 'thin leaf', and, in that sense, may correctly be applied to the Banisteria Caapi" (20). He translated caapi-pinima as 'painted caapi' and said, "The Tucano Indians call this plant cadanapira, which means the same as the Tupi name" (20). The word yajé, however, has a more obscure origin. In Kofán, the last morpheme means 'leaf', but the first morpheme has no synchronic recognizable meaning.

Table 1. Native names of tribes in Ecuador are given for the plants which are used to prepare their hallucinogenic drinkb
a Member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.
b Throughout this paper, the phonetic symbols are those commonly used by American linguists.

Many of the botanical identifications of this widespread hallucinogen, made without voucher specimens, are incorrect. Some of these "identifications" were made because of similarity of words in different languages. Other "identifications" were made on the basis of the habit of the plant: that is, whether the plant was a liana, shrub, or bush. Whether or not the plant was cultivated or found in the primary forest was the criterion of other "identifications". All of this information, in its proper perspective, may be used to help towards a possible determination, but such data should never take the place of voucher specimens.

Based on voucher specimens Klug 1971, Naranjo 9, and Pinkley 310 and 449, we now can state with certainty that Banisteriopsis Rusbyana, (fig. 3), is an additive regularly used by the Kofán Indians of eastern Ecuador and Colombia.2 The [308] Kofáns add the leaves of this plant (oko yaje) to their drink "... in order to increase their visions and to make them of longer duration." Upon analyzing material of Pinkley 449, Der Marderosian and Holmstedt found independently that this species contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine as its principal active compound (6, 1). These chemical studies agree with the earlier study made by Poisson on Banisteriopsis Rusbyana material collected by Friedberg among the Jivaro Indians who also

Fig. 2. Banisteriopsis inebrians, the basic plant ingredient of the hallucinogenic drink yajé in certain areas of southeastern Colombia.

[309] call this admixture yajé (12). The Jivaro refer to Banisteriopsis Caapi as natém (7).

In 1967, Schultes reported my discovery of the use of Psychotria as a second additive among the Kofáns (16). This collection has now been fully determined as Psychotria viridis (fig. 4). The Kofáns assert that they add the leaves as well as the fruits of this plant for the same reason that they add the leaves of Banisteriopsis Rusbyana: in order to "... increase their visions and to make them of longer duration." This discovery was made after I attended an all night yajé ceremony. The following morning, as the Indians began to pour out the remaining drink from a large earthenware cauldron, I noticed a sediment containing leaves

Fig. 3. Banisteriopsis Rusbyana, a common admixture to the hallucinogenic drink prepared basically from B. Caapi or B. inebrians.

[310] of Banisteriopsis and small rubiaceous fruits. These fruits came from the plant that the Kofáns call oprito, the same name by which they refer to the "heavenly people" with whom they commune during the yajé intoxication. Recently, Der Marderosian has isolated dimethyltryptamine from Psychotria viridis Pinkley 235 as well as material collected by the anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger (Kensinger 227 and 228). Kensinger's material collected among the Cashinahua in southeastern Peru, was sterile and, consequently, could be identified only to genus. The Cashinahua call this admixture kawa. Kensinger states that these Indians know of five or six "varieties" of kawa. The voucher specimens of Kensinger and Pinkley are now preserved in the Economic Herbarium of Oakes Ames in the Botanical Museum of Harvard University. Psychotria is one of

Fig. 4. Psychotria psychotriaefolia, a relative of P. viridis which is an admixture to the narcotic drink yajé among the Kofán Indians of eastern Ecuador and Colombia.

[311] several admixtures recently received by the Botanical Museum from the Swiss students, Mr. Laurent Rivier, a chemist, and Miss Isabell Rüff, an anthropologist, who spent a year with the Culina and Sharanahua Indians on the Purus River in Loreto, Peru. The Culina Indians call this additive appane, while then Sharanahua Indians, linguistically related to the Cashinahua, call the plant kawa. These tribes, like the Cashinahua, also recognize different "kinds" of this rubiaceous additive. Since Psychotria is used as an admixture by the Kofáns in eastern Ecuador as well as by tribes in southeastern Peru, one is led to believe that perhaps other tribes, especially those between these two widely separated areas, may likewise employ a rubiaceous admixture which has been overlooked.

Fig. 5. Brunfelsia sp., reported to be an admixture of the South American drink prepared basically from species of Banisteriopsis.

The very significant discovery by Der Marderosian of another admixture containing DMT leads to wonder what is the relative significance of this compound to the harmaline derivatives of Banisteriopsis in terms of the hallucinogenic effects associated with the drink. Holmstedt points out: "The combination in yajé of monoamine oxidase inhibiting harman alkaloids with N,-dimethyltryptamine might result in specific pharmacological effects" (1). The beta-crabolines, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, could potentiate the action of the simple indoles (21). Equally worthy of note is the fact that DMT is known to be the active constituent of certain South American snuffs prepared from plants in unrelated families. For example, DMT has been found in Anadenanthera (Piptadenia) peregrina as well as Virola theiodora (2).

Admixtures belonging to the Solanaceae have likewise been reported: Nicotiana, [312] Datura and Brunfelsia. It is believed that the peji used by the Sionas in the Putumayo of Colombia and guanto wood employed by the Indians of Ecuador are derived from Datura (14). Datura as part of the magico-religious ceremony of the shaman, is an important and sometimes even dangerous admixture, since it alone can induce psychotomimetic effects.

Brunfelsia, without voucher specimens, has been reported as an admixture in eastern Peru (7). This genus, presently being studied taxonomically by Mr. Timothy Plowman, is widely distributed in the American tropics (fig. 5). In these areas, the plant is commonly found to be a component in the ethno-medicine of the indigenous tribes. The Kofán Indians, for example, who call the plant isontinbak'o, informed me that an infusion made of the bark would cause a very cold sensation, and they use the plant for high fevers and severe back pains. The Quichua Indians of Río Napo value the plant for treating similar problems. To them, the plant is called chiri-huayusa: chiri means cold. Although Brunfelsia is not a common admixture, among certain groups it apparently plays a role similar to that of Datura in the magico-religious ceremony of the shaman.

A member of the Apocynaceae, which is employed in a similar way as Datura and Brunfelsia, was reported by Schultes, although he did not witness its use: "The Makunas of the Popeyaca report that, in difficult cases of diagnosis, the medicine man will add a few crushed leaves of a tree which is abundant along the flood-banks of the river..." (14). This tree, represented by Schultes & Cabrera 15556, was determined as Malouetia Tamaquarina. Another genus of this family, Tabernaemontana, has also been recorded as an additive, but voucher specimens were not cited in connection with the report (7).

An amaranthaceous admixture has been reported by the Colombian botanist, García-Barriga. Among the Kofán of the Putumayo in Colombia, he encountered the additive Alternanthera Lehmannii, but in my year's stay among the Kofáns on Río Aguarico in Ecuador I did not witness the use of this plant (8). Another amaranthaceous plant, Iresine, has also been reported as an admixture in southeastern Colombia (16). In the literature, there are several aboriginal names to which we cannot hazard a botanical identification. We do not, for example, know the identity of the sameruja leaves mentioned by Simson, nor do we have an inkling into the identity of the several aboriginal names which have been given by Alves da Silva who worked among the Tukanos in the same area where Spruce first described Banisteriopsis (3).

Rivier and Rüff, in addition to collecting the Psychotria among the Culina and Sharanahua of Peru, have reported other admixtures with voucher specimens which are now preserved in the Economic Herbarium of Oakes Ames in the Botanical Museum of Harvard University. The identification of the plants in this interesting collection are: two ferns, Nos. 13 and 14, Lygodium venustum ... (Culina: rami, Sharanahua: tchai); Nos. 17 and 18, Lomariopsis japurensis ... (Culina: dsuii teitseperi; Sharanahua: shoka); No. 15, Phrygilanthus eugenioides ... (Sharanahua: miya, Culina: kohobo); No. 11, Ocimum micranthum ... (Culina: iroro; Sharanahua: fweroro); No. 10, Epiphyllum sp. ... (Sharanahua: pukara); No. 12, Cyperus sp. ... (Sharanahua: shako shayari); No. 20, Clusia sp. ... (Culina: tara (appane), Sharanahua: miya); Nos. 16 & 19 were unidentifiable. Psychotria viridis is represented by Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 9. Specimens 5, 6, and 7 were called kawa by the Sharanahua and rami appane by the Culina. Specimen 9 was called the "variety" kawa kui by the Sharanahua. Specimen 8 is Psychotria carthaginensis; the Culina name attached is rami appane. Banisteriopsis Caapi is represented by specimens 1, 2, 3, and 4 (1 ... Culina: rami; 2 ... Culina: rami wetseni; 3 ... Sharanahua: shuri fisopa; 4 ... Sharanahua: shuri oshinipa). To my knowledge, this excellent collection represents the largest representation of admixtures by a specific group of Indians. [313]

The discovery of the botanical components of this South American hallucinogenic drink, in certain respects, parallels the discovery of the plants which make up the South American arrow poisons of curare. Curare was once described collectively by the container in which it was found: "pot curare", "tube curare" and "calabash curare". The narcotic beverage discussed in this paper has been referred to by the collective terms ayahuasca, caapi, and yajé, although we now realize that we are dealing with a number of problems, several of very major importance, which can be resolved only through properly identified botanical voucher specimens.


The line drawings were executed by Mr. Eimer W. Smith (Banisteriopsis Caapi and B. inebrians), Mr. Joshua B. Clark (Banisteriopsis Rusbyana), and Miss Irene Brady (Psychotria psychotriaefolia). These drawings were made possible by support from a grant LM-GM 00071-01 to R. E. Schultes from the National Institutes of Health. I wish to acknowledge a travelling fellowship in biology from Harvard University for study in Ecuador during the year 1965-66. My thanks are given to Dr. John D. Dwyer of St. Louis University, Department of Biology for studying collections of Psychotria, Pinkley 225 and 235. I appreciated the kind assistance of Mr. M.B. Borman and Miss Carolyn Orr of the Summer Institute of Linguistics for aiding me in collecting linguistic data. The linguistic assistance I received from Mr. Stig Eliasson of the Linguistic Department of Harvard University is also gratefully acknowledged. The photographs during my stay in Ecuador were made possible by a gift from Mrs. Charles Creaser and Miss Metcalfe in honor of the late Professor Charles Creaser of Wayne State University. I wish to express special thanks to my professor, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, who turned my direction toward the Kofán ethnobotany. Thanks are given to Dr. Der Marderosian for permitting me to report his chemical findings in Psychotria. I also appreciate the kindness of Mr. Rivier and Miss Rüff in granting me the privilege of citing their specimens in this paper.


1 Presented 14 April 1969 at the Tenth Annual Meeting, Society for Economic Botany, Kennet Square, Pennsylvania.

2 Banisteriopsis longialata, based on the vague statement of Macbride, has also been reported as an admixture (14, 15, 4, 6). Macbride states, "These two forms or entities (B. Rusbyana and B. longialata) may be the 'oco yaje' or 'chagro panga'; cf. Morton..." (9). Morton, however, does not mention B. longialata.

Literature Cited

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