Please enjoy this transcript of a special edition of The Tim Ferriss Show, featuring episodes from the podcast Plants of the Gods, hosted by Dr. Mark Plotkin. I’ve listened to all the episodes and chose a few favorites to share with you all.
Mark (@DocMarkPlotkin) is an ethnobotanist who serves as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which has partnered with ~80 tribes to map and improve management and protection of ~100 million acres of ancestral rainforests. He is best known to the general public as the author of the book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, one of the most popular books ever written about the rainforest. His most recent book is The Amazon: What Everyone Needs to Know. You can find my interview with Mark at tim.blog/markplotkin.
I am excited to share with you three episodes from Plants of the Gods—the first covering the adventures of the legendary ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, the second on ayahuasca, and the third on coca and cocaine. These episodes cover a lot of fascinating ground.
If you enjoy them and want more, be sure to check out the Plants of the Gods podcast wherever podcasts can be found. You can learn about everything from hallucinogenic snuffs to the diverse formulations of curare (a plant mixture which relaxes the muscles of the body and leads to asphyxiation), and much, much more.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Episode 10 — Richard Evans Schultes
Dr. Mark Plotkin: I want to focus this episode on my mentor Richard Evans Schultes, often known as the father of ethnobotany. Any time Schultes was addressed that way, he was quick to point out that ethnobotany began with an expedition launched by an Egyptian pharaoh to the Land of Punt, Somalia in search of frankincense trees, and he wasn’t quite that old. Nonetheless he was a towering figure, in fact, the towering figure in 20th century ethnobotany.
Now, it was a warm September night in 1974 when I entered his classroom. The classroom was like an ethnographic museum. One wall was covered with huge green maps of the Amazon. From the rafters hung Amazonian Indian dance costumes with glistening black demon faces. Two long parallel display cases flanked the room filled to overflowing with botanical booty from around the world: black palm blowguns from Colombia, shiny silver hashish pipes from India and tiny bows and arrows from the Congo. Presiding over the tableau was Professor Schultes himself, tall, crew cut, and dressed in an immaculate white lab coat, white dress shirt, crimson tie, and silver wire rim glasses.
As he called the class to order and began to show his slides, one picture in particular changed my life forever: a scene in which three Indians in grass skirts and bark cloth masks danced at the edge of a jungle clearing. “Here, you see three Indians of the Yucuna tribe doing the sacred kai-ya-ree dance under the influence of plants to keep away the forces of darkness. The one on the left has a Harvard degree. Next slide, please.” From that moment on, I and many, many others we’re hooked on plants, ethnobotany, indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest. Schultes, without question, was not only an incredible inspiration to his students, but the greatest botanical explorer of the Amazon in the 20th century. He survived plane crashes, boat sinkings, bandits, hunger, dysentery, and repeated bouts of malaria, but he always insisted he never had any adventures in the Amazon.
Schultes lived and traveled with forest peoples for almost 14 years, sometimes amongst tribes that had never seen a white man before. At one point, he was gone for so long that friends in the Colombian capital of Bogota had given him up for dead. They were in the process of arranging memorial services in his honor when he reappeared at the National Herbarium, frightening more than a few of his fellow botanists.
Ethnobotanist, taxonomist, writer, and photographer, Schultes is widely regarded as a great conservationist as well. In December of ’41, he entered the Amazon on a mission to study how indigenous peoples used plants for medicinal, ritual, and practical purposes. He went on to spend so much time with these indigenous peoples that he created a relationship or relationships with them equaled by few people in the Western scientific community.
His area of focus was the Northwest Amazon, an area that remained largely unknown and uninfluenced by the outside world, isolated by the Andes to the west and dense jungles and impassable rapids on all other sides. In this remote area, Schultes lived amongst little-studied tribes, mapped uncharted rivers, and was the first scientist to explore some areas that have not been researched since. His notes and photographs are some of the only existing documentation of indigenous cultures in a region of the Amazon on the cusp of change. Let me refer you to the Richard Schultes storybook map on the Amazon Team website, amazonteam.org. This multifaceted multimedia presentation of his life and adventures has to be seen to be appreciated. This is created by the Amazon Conservation Team under the leadership, in this case, of the cartographer Brian Hettler.
Let me talk a little bit about what Schultes was like to the people around him, and let me start with the students. In the words of Dr. Paul Cox, who was an entering graduate student at Harvard 1977, he was looking for a thesis advisor, which is what graduate students do. Somebody to study under, essentially a mentor. He received some very disturbing advice. He was told by one professor there, “Whatever you do, stay away from Richard Evans Schultes. He spent a decade alone in the Amazon. He’s a dinosaur, and he’s dangerous to otherwise good students.” Wade Davis, an undergraduate at the time, said to the undergraduate students that Schultes was a hero in an age without heroes.
In the ’70s or ’80s, it was the first ethnobotanical congress in Latin America. It was held in Mexico, and much of the tenor of the discussion was how the Mexicans and other Latinos resented the fact that all of these gringos were coming down there and doing all these studies, and that the Latinos should study their own plants and their own indigenous peoples. I had to smile when the proceedings were published and here’s the dedication: Para Richard Schultes, quien abrió el camino (For Richard Schultes, who blazed the trail). So Schultes was beloved by the undergraduate students, by the graduate students, by many, if not most, if not all of his Latin colleagues. But I think most important of all is how he was regarded by the indigenous peoples themselves.
Now, I’ve been to Oklahoma where Schultes studied peyote and I’ve lived in Oaxaca where Schultes studied the magic mushrooms, and I have spent decades going back and forth to the Northwest Amazon where Schultes did his most important field work of all and where he made the scientific discovery of ayahuasca. Let me tell you what the indigenous peoples told me in Oklahoma, in Mexico, and in the Amazon. “Schultes was the first white person we met who not only treated us with respect, but actually wanted to learn from us. By our side, he danced our sacred dances, ate our peyote, chewed our coca, and drank our ayahuasca. We loved him.”
Schultes began his career in 1933 as a poor kid in East Boston. Got a scholarship to attend Harvard and because he was a scholarship student, he had to do a work-study job. At the time, he was interested in medicine. Remember, at that point in time, medicine and botany were very much intricately intertwined, so he went to look for a work-study job at the Botanical Museum which stands today on Oxford Street, just north of Harvard Yard, and looks the exact same as the day that Schultes showed up on the doorstep looking for a job.
He was actually born in East Boston, and it’s a particularly interesting part of his backstory. His father was German, his mother was English, and he was born and raised in East Boston. Now, East Boston at the time was essentially an Italian and Irish ghetto, so Schultes was already an outsider. Learning how to live and get along with other communities, I think, was fundamental to his development and his beginning and his training as an ethnobotanist.
When he was about 10, he got very sick. I don’t know what exactly he had. I’ve talked to his son, Neil, who’s an esteemed biologist in his own right. Nobody’s sure what it was, but he was bedridden for months. His father Otto was anxious that young Richard not lose any time while he was bedridden, so he went four blocks south of the house to the East Boston Public Library, which still stands, and pulled a book off the shelf called Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes. This was essentially the autobiography of Richard Spruce, who became Schultes’ hero. Schultes read about Spruce’s 14 years in the Amazon and in the Andes. He was the first scientist to encounter ayahuasca. I can assure you that Schultes was the only 10-year-old in East Boston reading about ayahuasca in those times.
Now at the Botanical Museum, Schultes quickly fell under the sway of the director, a Boston patrician by the name of Oakes Ames. This being the ’30s, the depths of the Depression, naturistic museums were kept afloat by wealthy men with deep pockets. Ames took a special liking to Schultes and really took him on, essentially, as an apprentice.
In Ames’ famous class, Bio 104: Plants and Human Affairs, that Schultes went on to teach himself, Ames announced that each student would have to do a term paper, and they would have to do it based on a book at the back of the classroom. Schultes later told me, “As the only work-study kid in the class, I had less free time than the other students. So as soon as class was over, I raced to the back and pulled the smallest book off the shelf.” That book was called Mescal: The Divine Plant and Its Psychological Effects by Heinrich Kluver. Essentially, it was an account of peyote. Schultes brought the book home to East Boston, read it that night, and he said, “Decades later, I can still recall the dazzling accounts of the visions induced by the peyote cactus. I vowed that one day, I would try it myself.”
Well, he turned in such an impressive paper that Ames reached deep down into his pockets and financed an expedition to Oklahoma to visit the Kiowa peoples, some of the last of the Plains tribes living a traditional lifestyle in teepees, so that Schultes could experience peyote in its ritual settings. Now, Schultes had never been west of the Hudson, so this really was Indian country, as he referred to it. He made the trek in an old Studebaker across country with a graduate student named Weston La Barre, who became famous in his own right. He wrote a classic paper called Shamanic Origins of Religion and Medicine, did La Barre, and I heartily recommend it.
Anyhow, they spent a night in the teepee taking peyote in a ritual setting led by what the Kiowa called a roadman, essentially a shaman. In 1936, Schultes came out of that teepee a changed person. Clearly, the peyote talked to him. Clearly, he realized that he was not going to medical school, that he would be on the healing path, but it would be a different path than other Western scientists interested in a profession which involved bringing medicine to the masses.
Schultes finished his degree at Harvard with honors and then applied to study further with Ames, entered a PhD program and for his thesis, he went down to Oaxaca. At the time, there were accounts of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Now at the time, nobody believed there were hallucinogenic mushrooms. There was Amanita muscaria, that we’ll talk about in another episode, from Siberia, but other than that, there were no known hallucinogenic mushrooms in the new world, in Mexico, in Central America, in the Amazon.
A Smithsonian scientist named William Safford said that, “No, there were no hallucinogenic mushrooms. It was just peyote. It was the Indians trying to mislead the missionaries.” But Schultes was a better botanist than Safford, and he knew there would be no peyote, which thrives in desert-like conditions. There would be no pipe peyote in the tropical forest of Oaxaca and Southern Mexico, and he set out to prove Safford wrong.
Here’s how Schultes described taking peyote with the Kiowa. “It began with a period of contentment and oversensitivity, and a period of nervous calm and muscular sluggishness. Then came the colored visual hallucinations and abnormal synesthesia, the mingling of the senses, alterations in tactile sensation, very slight muscular incoordination. Disturbances in space and time perception and auditory hallucinations may accompany severe peyote intoxication. The most striking characteristic, however, is the occasionally induced peyote visions which are often fantastically colored.” There’s two things that are particularly noteworthy about this count. One is the striking visions, which he discovered by reading about them. Unlike most people, he pursued it and he experienced it himself. The other is the idea of synesthesia, and this is characteristic of many of these entheogens, the mingling of senses where you can see music and taste colors.
Schultes brought the magic mushrooms back to Harvard. They were later analyzed by Albert Hofmann. Albert Hofmann, of course, is that fellow who synthesized LSD in 1938, and did it in part on compounds extracted from these magic mushrooms. But there’s another aspect to the story which is not very well known and that is that Hoffman also synthesized the first beta blockers. I think the very first one is called Visken. This is a multi-billion-dollar class of drugs, and Hoffman did it, in part, inspired by the compounds he extracted from these magic mushrooms.
So when we talk about plants of the gods or fungi of the gods, we’re not just talking about compounds which may be useful for treating mental or emotional ailments. We’re talking about compounds which have revolutionized Western medicine and Western culture, as discussed in the episode on ergot. These compounds may have played a vital role in the beginnings of Western religions in addition to many of the aboriginal ones as well.
Now when you visited Schultes in his lair, in his office at the Botanical Museum, you couldn’t help but notice two pictures over his shoulders behind them on the wall of his office. Schultes was a great photographer. If you haven’t seen his photographs, I strongly encourage you to pick up a book called Plants of the Gods. I think he was as great a photographer as Ansel Adams, and he was taking those pictures in much more challenging circumstances.
Over his shoulder to the left is a picture of two Yucuna boys snuffing tobacco snuff during the sacred kai-ya-ree dance to keep away the forces of darkness. On the right was Chiribiquete. Chiribiquete is, thanks primarily to Schultes, his indigenous colleagues and the Colombian government with some assistance from the Amazon Conservation Team, is the largest rainforest protected area in the whole Amazon Basin. The reason this is important is that Schultes was showing the importance of culture and the importance of nature. This led to the creation of an entire field known as biocultural conservation. It’s not about protecting indigenous cultures or just about protecting healing plants. It’s the combination of the two which is the most holistic, the most shamanic, and the most effective.
Schultes did his training at the Botanical Museum. The Botanical Museum is actually part of a complex. It is the Peabody Museum, which is anthropology; the Mineralogical Museum, which is geology; the Botanical Museum, and the Zoology Museum. Now these are all grouped together known as the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but the museum got its start under the leadership of Louis Agassiz.
Louis Agassiz was a very famous Swiss biologist. He came to Boston to give some lectures and they were so well received that he was offered a job at Harvard. He worked with Harvard and some of their donors to create the Museum of Comparative Zoology. At the time, this was one of, if not the finest naturist museums in the world, certainly in North America.
Now Agassiz, in 1865, decided to launch an expedition to the Amazon. This became the biggest natural history expedition in the Amazon in the 19th century. He was accompanied by several museum people and several of his students, the most famous of which was William James. William James is known today as the father of American psychology, but I believe that it was James’ experience in the Amazon with Louis Agassiz that led to his understanding of the human mind.
Keep in mind that William James was a rich Bostonian white kid who hung out with other rich white kids, whose idea of cultural diversity was going to Europe and hanging out with rich white kids. In the Amazon, he was living and working and collecting with indigenous peoples, with Afro-Brazilians, with Brazilian military, with Portuguese royalty. I believe that this is what led James to understand that we are all one, and learn to understand different aspects of the human mind, a part of the Amazon story, a part of the history of psychology under-reported in the technical literature. I recommend a classic paper called The Biology of Consciousness written by my pal Brian Farrell, who is the number two director at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It’s The Biology of Consciousness: From William James to Richard Schultes. This is easily findable on my personal website, markplotkin.com.
Schultes’ most enduring work in terms of publications was the book Plants of the Gods, which in many ways was the inspiration for this podcast. He coauthored it with Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD. Their basic thesis was that these plants played a fundamental role in our history, our culture, and our religion, and that we’re still not only understanding their role in the past, but we’re charting a course for the future with the understanding of the power and the healing potential of these plants.
From Central America, from Oaxaca, Schultes, having graduated with a PhD from Harvard, went to the Amazon in 1941. He was in search of arrow poisons, which were then becoming important in Western medicine. Arrow poisons are the embodiment of Paracelsus’ dictum that the dose makes the poison. In other words, a poison in one dose is a medicine in a smaller dose and vice-versa.
Schultes got to Colombia, started poking about, doing some collecting. On his first day in Bogota, he took the subway to the end of the line and started looking at plants in the rainforest there growing in some hills at the end of the line and saw an orchid that he’d never seen before. Now Schultes was, at the time, an expert on orchids. He saw this tiny orchid which he thought must be new to science, but he didn’t have his plant press. The only way he could preserve it was to take out his passport, gently press this little tiny orchid between the pages of this passport, brought it back, and found that it was indeed a species new to science. I think you’ll agree this is a very auspicious beginning to his long career with Colombia and the Colombian Amazon.
Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor was bombed and Schultes, as a patriotic American, went back to Bogota and reported for duty at the American Embassy and said, “I’m here to enlist.” The ambassador said, “Forget about that. We have other plans for you.” The Japanese have overrun the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. Now, rubber is native to the Amazon, but it grows in plantations where there’s no natural pests in Southeast Asia. It was planted there by the British. Rubber is fundamental to any war effort. Back then, even today, natural rubber, it cannot be replaced by synthetic rubber.
So they said, “Instead of going off to fight in Europe or the Pacific, go back to the Amazon, find out how much rubber there is, figure out how to cut it to supply rubber for the war effort.” The American mainstay of the infantry was a Sherman tank. A Sherman tank could take up to a ton of rubber, between wires and brakes and all that other stuff. So it was a bit like “Throw me in the briar patch,” because they sent Schultes back to the Amazon to study the forest, work with the indigenous peoples, and collect rubber.
One of the first tribes he worked with were the Cofan, who were master curare makers. He was able to collect many different forms of curare. In fact in later years, Schultes sent a student, a graduate student, to continue studying with the Cofans and he actually found a curare, an arrow poison made from a nutmeg — I mean, a cinnamon tree. This is totally unreported prior to Pinkley’s groundbreaking work.
Another important finding amongst the Cofan which was made by Schultes himself was that of yoco. Yoco is a forest liana. Now, I’ve taken this with the Cofan. They collect the liana in the forest, they scrape the bark into cold water, you drink it first thing in the morning. It’s such a powerful stimulant that your fingertips tingle and you don’t get hungry or thirsty all day. The Cofan insist that if you take yoco, you don’t get malaria either. Remember that the first and most effective malaria drug ever discovered is quinine, which comes just west of there from the Andes. So this is something whose research needs to be followed up. I’m very proud of the fact that the Amazon Conservation Team, my organization, partnered with the Cofan people about 10 years to set up the Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Plants Sanctuary, an entirely new category of protected area established at the behest of the indigenous peoples themselves in partnership with the Colombian government to protect yoco and other medicinal plants.
Schultes’ most important finding in terms of biodiversity was the landscapes of Chiribiquete. Chiribiquete was an extraordinary region right in the middle of the Colombian Amazon. You have to keep in mind the Colombian Amazon. We Americans tend to think of the Amazon is basically Brazil with a couple of suburbs in these other eight countries, but the Colombian Amazon is bigger than New England. It’s a huge base.
Right in the middle of the Colombian Amazon is a region known as Chiribiquete. It is a region full of unexplored and unclimbed mountains. It is a region home to, we think, three uncontacted tribes. It is a region which is the richest repository of pre-Columbian paintings. There are thousands of thousands and thousands of these paintings which have been very poorly documented to date. Schultes went there and was bewitched, and he kept a picture of Chiribiquete over his desk his entire time at Harvard.
Interestingly enough, Schultes was not the discoverer of Chiribiquete. And of course, as an ethnobotanist, we always have to point out that we don’t discover anything. The indigenous peoples got there first. But when I say Schultes was a discoverer of ayahuasca, I mean that the indigenous people showed it to him and gave it to him and led the ceremony with him. When I say that Schultes discovered Chiribiquete from a Western perspective, further research has revealed that it was another Harvard fellow who got there first, an extraordinary character named Alexander Hamilton Rice.
Alexander Hamilton Rice was a patrician. He was one of Boston’s first families. Born into wealth. He went to Harvard college. An extraordinary character. At one point, he was a professional boxer. He loved one thing more than anything, and that was travel. He decided to recreate the journeys of the voyageurs in eastern Canada and made an incredible trek over land paddling and dragging his canoe. That is where his wanderlust was born.
He went back to Harvard, finished his undergraduate degree, and entered medical school. However, once again, nature called. His first great expedition was to recreate the trip of Orellana, which I think was 1521. It was the first European crossing of the Amazon. He landed in coastal Ecuador, crossed the Andes, and sailed all the way down the Amazon.
His second trip to South America was to recreate Bolivar’s famous trek from Caracas to Bogota overland. He was accompanied by a fellow who wanted to learn how to be a South American explorer. His name was Hiram Bingham. Bingham later went on to discover Machu Picchu and became much more famous than Alexander Hamilton Rice ever was. But I don’t think he ever would have got there if he hadn’t been trained in the field by Rice himself.
Rice made the first map of Chiribiquete in 1907, went back to Harvard and created the Harvard Geographic Institute and married Mrs. Widener, one of the wealthiest women in the world, who built Widener Library in Harvard Yard. Named it after her son who drowned on the Titanic. Her money turbo-charged his career because he realized that if you wanted to map the Amazon, it’s easiest to do it from the air, and began using her wealth to custom build planes and map the Amazon from the air. That was the first mapping of Chiribiquete and ironically preceded Schultes’ explorations and exploits by several decades.
The next formative experience Schultes had in the Amazon was the Baile de Muñeco. This is the dance of the dolls, the dance of the spirits, where the Yucuna peoples danced for three days to propitiate forest spirits and to give thanks to nature for the bounty, particularly of the rivers, the forest, fish. When I asked Schultes the details of the dance and he said it’s three days, I thought, “Okay, that’s like nine to five, nine to five, nine…” He said, “No. Three days without stopping.” When I asked him how they danced for three days without stopping, he said, “Each dance honors a particular spirit or particular animal. And then at the end of that dance, which can be 20 minutes to an hour more or less, they stop, take off their masks, and snort tobacco and chew coca.”
Now, Schultes’ most extraordinary ethnobotanical find in the Amazon took place in the Sibundoy Valley in 1942. The Sibundoy Valley is the headwaters of the Putumayo. There are four great rivers in the Colombian Amazon, the Putumayo, the Caquetá, the Apaporis, and the Vaupés. The headwaters of the Putumayo are the Sibundoy Valley, which is known as the Valley of the Hallucinogens, for that is where Schultes met a shaman of the Kamsa tribe called Salvador Chindoy. Schultes took ayahuasca in a ritual setting with Salvador Chindoy.
Now, Schultes was famous for saying and for writing he never felt anything from ayahuasca. A couple of flashes of color. If you read The Yage [Letters], which I’m not a great fan of but it has a huge following — this is William Burroughs’ account — Schultes says to Burroughs, who was a Harvard classmate, “Sorry, Bill. I just saw some flashes of color. No big deal.” Ethnobotanists always worried how this father of ethnobotany, this so-called scientific discoverer of ayahuasca, never felt the effects.
About 10 years ago, I was in Bogota and I was visiting Jesus Idrobo. Schultes passed away, I think, in the year 2000. I was visiting Jesus Idrobo, one of the Schultes’ old botanical colleagues, and I said, “Why did Schultes never feel the effects of ayahuasca?” He smiled and said, “He did, and I can prove it.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “One week ago, right on that chair you’re sitting, was Pedro Juajibioy. Now, Pedro Juajibioy was Schultes’ guide in the Sibundoy. His uncle was Salvador Chindoy. I asked Pedro the exact same question. How come Ricardo never felt the effects of ayahuasca?” And he said Pedro replied, “I was there the night my uncle Salvador gave Ricardo ayahuasca for the first time. I watched as Schultes sat in the hammock and laughed and sang and told stories the entire time.” Idrobo said, “What did he say? What did he say?” Pedro shook his head and said, “I don’t know. It was all in English.”
Schultes’ legacy lives on in many ways. First and foremost, his respect for indigenous colleagues. Time and time again, I talked to elderly indigenous healers who said, “Schultes was the first white man who came to us wanting to learn from us. Schultes danced our dances. Schultes took our peyote. Schultes chewed our coca. Schultes took our ayahuasca. Schultes took our snuff. This was unheard of at the time. The only outsiders we saw, for the most part, were missionaries who told us that all of those things were bad and we should stop doing it. Schultes was quite the opposite. Instead of telling us what to do, he wanted to learn from us.”
Secondly, Schultes’ legacy is that nature is the ultimate medicine chest. There are medicines to be learned from nature which can heal our ills. Even ills which physicians cannot cure can sometimes be treated and sometimes be cured by indigenous shamans. Whether it’s with peyote, whether it’s with mushrooms, whether it’s with ayahuasca, or whether it’s just by chanting, to the shaman, the hallucinogen, the entheogen, is a vegetal or fungal or biological scalpel which allows him or her to analyze, to diagnose, to treat, and sometimes to cure the human mind in ways that our own physicians cannot.
Schultes’ other lesson to academics in particular and westerners dealing with other cultures is humility, that these people are different than us, that these people may not have had the advantages we have but ofttimes, particularly in the rainforest, these people know far more than we do. So in that sense, in an age where the outside world is discovering the value and the potential of the plants of the gods, Richard Evans Schultes got there before we did, and the indigenous peoples got there before he did.
Episode 1 — Ayahuasca
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Hi, everyone. I’m Mark Plotkin, Dr. Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team. I’m an ethnobotanist, a scientist who studies the uses of plants, fungi, and even animals for medicinal purposes in the rainforests of Central and South America. I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years. I am, or I was a student of the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes often called the father of ethnobotany.
I dropped out of college after my freshman year and started working in a museum at Harvard, essentially as a gopher. Enrolled in a night school course on lobotomy and chemistry of hallucinogenic plants taught by professor Schultes himself and I’ve been hooked ever since. The point of this podcast is to teach and to learn about the hallucinogenic, entheogenic, mind-altering substances used by shamans and other healers around the world, with a heavy emphasis on the rainforest. And to be able to share some of what I’ve learned at some of what I’ve seen, both answers and questions with people who have an interest in this topic.
Now I learned from professor Schultes that if you want to save the rainforest, you have to save the indigenous peoples of the rainforest. And if you want to save the indigenous peoples of the rainforest, you not only have to work in partnership with all of them, you particularly have to partner with the shamans themselves. This is what we call biocultural conservation. It’s not about saving rainforests or saving shamans. They are intricately linked.
And if you look at the best rainforest left in the Amazon, it tends to be not in national parks, but indigenous reserves. So indigenous peoples from the view of the Amazon conservation team are the glue that holds the forest intact. And the shamans are the glue that holds the indigenous cultures intact. When missionaries go in, the first person they attack and typically try to undercut, is the shaman, the medicine man, or medicine woman, who, as I said, is the cultural glue that holds the tribe and the tribal culture together. And it’s the tribal culture that holds the rainforest in place.
And we’ll be talking more about that through the course of this podcast. Now, as I said, I followed in the footsteps of professor Schultes, who was a pioneer in many aspects of plants of the gods partnering with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented LSD to write the classic book Plants of the Gods, which I highly recommend. Schultes was the first scientist to study ayahuasca, to take ayahuasca in situ in place, in a tribal setting, and go through many ceremonies, many ayahuasca ceremonies, with the indigenous peoples themselves.
And let me read for you my favorite quote, excuse me, of Schultes on ayahuasca. “There is a magic intoxicant in the northwest Amazon in which the Indians believe can free the soul from corporeal confinement, and allow it to wander free and return to the body at will. The soul, thus untrammeled, liberates its owner from the everyday life and introduces him or her to wondrous realms of what he considers reality and permits him or her to communicate with his ancestors. The Quechua term for this inebriating drink — ayahuasca (‘the vine of the soul’) — and it refers to this freeing of the spirit.”
Now, ayahuasca and many other hallucinogens and entheogens are coming to the fore. Studies, and we’ll get into this in the course of the podcast, are now indicating that the birth of many, if not most religions, are rooted in these types of magical plants or other hallucinogenic properties found in fungi and in some cases, even animals. There’s a new book coming out called The Immortality Key that I recommend by a fellow named Brian Muraresku, which talks about the origins of Christianity and entheogenic fungi.
There are indications some of the beginnings of Judaism may be rooted in these mind-altering substances as well. But as I said, there’s fodder for more discussions of this. The most significant medical development in terms of Western medicine recently, has been the mainstreaming of hallucinogens into our own Western medicine. Hallucinogens are the shamanic medicine par excellence, but now they’re finding their way almost magically, almost shamanically, into very traditional halls of Western medicine.
These hallucinogens in the tropical forest permit medicine men and women to investigate, diagnose, treat, and sometimes cure ailments that have an emotional or spiritual basis, which is why they can sometimes alleviate a medical issue unresponsive to the therapies of Western physicians. In a sense, hallucinogens are vegetal or fungal scalpels which allow the shaman to find, analyze, treat, and sometimes cure emotional issues which our own physicians cannot.
The recent creation of the center for psychedelic and conscious research at Johns Hopkins University, supported in part by my buddy, Tim Ferriss, as well as similar efforts underway at other prominent universities like Yale and NYU, shamanic medicine is rapidly shifting from being considered unconventional, non-effective, primitive to conventional. It is becoming part of conventional medicine.
Many of the initial evaluations from the Western medical perspective have focused on mescaline, which is of course from Mexican peyote. We’ll be talking about in a later podcast, psilocybin from magic mushrooms, and ayahuasca itself. These mind-altering remedies have been clinically proven to produce promising therapeutic effects in some cases of addiction, depression, and even OCD.
Clinicians are equally enthused about the possibilities of experimenting with these therapies to treat ailments as diverse as anorexia, early stage Alzheimer’s, insomnia, and even PTSD, one of the most terrible afflictions of our troops. The late Stanislav Grof, a pioneer in the field of psychotherapy, I love this quote, was fond of saying that “Psychedelics are to psychology the same way that telescopes are to astronomy, and microscopes are to the study of bacteria.”
This newfound interest in hallucinogenic therapies is not only improving our understanding of the human mind, it’s also driving an enhanced appreciation of the effectiveness of shamanic healing. Now my organization, the Amazon Conservation Team, was founded on many of these precepts. We believe that shamans are some of the most accomplished in the world. We don’t believe it, we know it. And they can sometimes treat and even cure ailments which Western medicine cannot.
This was taught to me, this was taught to us by the late professor Schultes. And we were specifically set up to partner with indigenous cultures, particularly shamanic cultures, to protect indigenous culture and indigenous rainforest. And we at ACT, find more about us on the web at amazonteam.org, have been able to partner with many of the original ayahuasca tribes, like the Kamsa, which is the tribe that first taught ayahuasca to Schultes, the Sionas, the Koreguaje, the Cofans, and the Inga. And the Amazon Conservation Team works with them to this day.
And the importance of this type of conservation based on these shamanic precepts has already been manifested in two concrete examples. We have partnered with our indigenous colleagues in the Northwest Amazon, as well as the Colombian government, to establish the Orito Indi-Wasi Floral Sanctuary with the Cofan tribe in the Colombian Amazon, as well as the establishment of the Indi-Wasi protected area with the Ingano tribe.
This was perhaps the first co-managed area in the Northwest Amazon, between indigenous peoples and the outside world, just like the Indi-Wasi reserve was the first sanctuary set up to protect sacred plants like ayahuasca and yoco, which is a tribal stimulant. We have worked with these tribes, with our Colombian colleagues in academia and the government, to map, manage, and enhance protection of over 500 square miles of indigenous ancestral rainforest.
I want to talk a bit more about what is ayahuasca, and its importance and increasing importance in the world today. And what it teaches us about healing, what it teaches about entheogenic plants and fungi, what it teaches us about tribal knowledge. This was a plant, this was a liana first discovered and of course, as a Schultes said, ethnobotanists don’t discover anything, we just write with our indigenous colleagues teachers, we write it down.
It’s now become global in its reach. From Argentina to Australia, from Israel to Istanbul. This once obscure Amazonian liana admixed with a few other species, is now celebrated even venerated as a plant of power, knowledge, and healing, which has spawned two state recognized religions in Brazil. It’s first and foremost, a liana called ayahuasca in the Northwest Amazon. Its scientific name is Banisteriopsis caapi. And that honors the indigenous name in the Northwest corner of Brazil, the indigenous tribes and adjacent tribes across the border into Colombia call it caapi.
When the scientist works and respects indigenous culture and wisdom, she or he typically develops a scientific name based on the indigenous name, to honor their knowledge and that’s why it’s called Banisteriopsis caapi. The vine is also known as yage. Y-A-G-E. It is predominantly known by this name in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. And it’s also known in Huasca and other parts of Brazil, where it’s become a staple of these new religions.
Any of these names may refer to the liana itself, or to the potions which feature this liana as well as the admixtures. Now, the origins of ayahuasca are impossible to determine, because very few things fossilize in the rainforest for complex ecological reasons. However, there are abundant archeological finds of figure snuff trays, snuff tubes, and snuff residue, that prove that hallucinogenic plant use in the Western Amazon, in Western South America, goes back at least as far as 2000 BCE.
Schultes wrote, “The drink employed for prophecy, divination, sorcery, and medical purposes is so deeply rooted in native mythology that there can be no doubt of its great age as part of aboriginal life.” The ethnobotanist Constantino Torres, who was an authority not only on ayahuasca, but also hallucinogenic snuffs, recorded some of the first documentation of ayahuasca, which was by a Jesuit missionary named Jose Chantre y Herrera as far back as 1675.
Chantre y Herrera wrote, “The diviner that is the shaman hangs his hammock in the middle of the round house, the Maloca, and takes a bench or small platform. And next to it places a hellish brew called ayahuasca. Remarkably, effective, and depriving of the senses. He makes a tea of the vine after which, much boiling will become very thick and bitter. It is so strong, it disrupts judgment, even in small quantities.”
Typically, this missionary’s reaction to his experience is in keeping with the response of most ecclesiastic chroniclers, when they encountered mind-altering plants and fungi employed by indigenous peoples in the new world. The clergy quickly demonized and condemned these substances and mixtures, whether it was peyote in the North, magic mushrooms in central America, or ayahuasca, yopo, and epena hallucinogenic snuffs in Amazonia.
Equally characteristic to the missionary reaction is what transpired when the very first botanists stumbled upon an ayahuasca ceremony among the Tukanoan peoples on the upper Valpez river in the Northwest of Brazil near the Colombian border. This was Richard Spruce, one of the great botanists in the history of Amazonia. Spruce took a small drink of the caapi mixture and did not have the same deep spiritual experience that Schultes later did, who did it many times.
But after the ceremony, Spruce ventured into the forest to collect the vine and flower, which was necessary for making a precise identification. Botanists cannot take a piece of a vine and typically identify it. Indigenous peoples can take a piece of the vine and not only identify the name of the vine, they’ll tell you the use of the vine, they’ll tell you where it grows, they’ll tell you what soil type it likes. They’ll tell you when it flowers, what pollinates it, and what the seeds look like.
Spruce realized that this represented a species unknown to science, and he named it Banisteriopsis caapi, honoring the Tukanoa name, which, as I said, was caapi. Now, one of the great and understudied aspects of the plants of the gods of the hallucinogenic substances is admixtures, which are plants, typically plants, sometimes insects, added to the potion with the intention of altering the type, intensity, and duration of the experience.
They represent complex and fascinating aspects of the story. In fact, we’ve been able to document over 100 different plants from 40 different families, added to the ayahuasca brew. Most of these that I said are flowering plants, although one is a gymnosperm, a conifer, essentially. Another is a fern. There’s also records of snake fangs, snake poison, frogs being added. It is a rich field for further research.
The two most important admixtures to ayahuasca are either the shrub chacruna, which is a vine of the coffee family, Psychotria viridis, or the liana oco yagé Diplopterys cabrerana of the Malpighiaceae, which is actually the same family as ayahuasca itself. What’s interesting about these two, is chacruna is found throughout the Amazon, whereas oco yagé is not. So one of these admixtures is really found predominantly in the Northwest Amazon, the other is found throughout Amazonia.
As I said, ayahuasca itself, traditionally, is native to certainly the Northwest Amazon and quite possibly the Western Amazon. I spoke to Bronwyn Gates, the botanical expert on the Malpighiaceae family, who herself worked with Schultes, and she said, “At this point, we’re still not sure of the original distribution of the ayahuasca liana. And now that it’s being grown throughout the world, it makes it even more difficult.”
Now what’s intriguing about these admixtures is that they contain hallucinogenic tryptamines, which is another type of alkaloid, a chemical substance common in many plants. Caffeine is an alkaloid, strychnine is an alkaloid. Now these tryptamines prove inert when consumed orally, unless they are activated by the presence of compounds which are known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, MAO inhibitors.
Ayahuasca contain psychotropic alkaloids of this type. Meaning the combination of these plants produce strikingly more potent and profound effects, than a potion prepared from either species. How shamans living in a rainforest comprising 40,000 species of plants discovered the appropriate blend to induce otherworldly visions and insights remains a shamanic riddle.
Imagine being in a rainforest of tens of thousands of plant species and figuring out which two go best together. This is an incredibly impressive shamanic achievement, medical achievement, however you want to look at it. Scientists simply cannot come up with an adequate explanation through the prism of Western science and knowledge. In the Amazon, the brew is typically prepared by boiling the stem of the ayahuasca vine with the admixtures for several hours, producing a thick and highly bitter concoction, which is then consumed in small doses.
Approximately 20 minutes after the initial dose, the subject usually experiences the onset of dizziness, and nausea often preceding a purge, either vomiting or defecation, which the shamans insist is part of the process, that you must clean your body of toxic substances. And shamans insists that many of the ills that afflict Western society are because we do not expel toxic substances like they do, using a variety of plants, often ayahuasca, but not only ayahuasca — there’s shamanic cultures that don’t use ayahuasca — purge themselves intentionally to cleanse themselves of toxins that the body accumulates over time.
Within the next hour, visions commence, often inducing fear, stress, and even terror and frequently followed by scenes of unsurpassed loveliness and spiritual illumination. Participants in traditional ayahuasca sessions sometimes report the ability to communicate telepathically with the shamans guiding the ceremony. So much so that the first alkaloid isolated from ayahuasca vine was named telepathine.
Now Schultes often said that the difference between an ethnobotanist and an anthropologist was the shaman leans forward, and she or he offers you the brew containing ayahuasca or the snuff tubes containing yopo with the hallucinogenic snuff, or the magic mushrooms that the anthropologist typically says, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. I would lose my objectivity. How would I take notes?” Whereas when the shaman passes it to the ethnobotanist, she or he looks at the shaman and says, “Yee ha!”
If you want to truly begin to understand shamanic cultures and shamanic healing, and the plant of the gods, and the fungi of the gods, and the magic frogs of the gods, you need to experience the ceremony as the shaman as the indigenous people see it. Now as an ethnobotanist, I’ve been through probably 80 or 90 ayahuasca ceremonies. Always in a ritual context, always led by a shaman, because these are plants of power and knowledge and danger as well.
These are not plants or compounds to be trifled with. And let me tell you about my worst ayahuasca experience of all. I was in the middle of a ceremony with a Komsa shaman, actually an Ingano shaman from Colombia, and I soon was able to realize that this was going to be a very, very, very bad trip. And I then found myself vomiting purple phosphorescent scorpions. So anyone who thinks that this is going to be a fun ride, anyone who thinks this is always going to be a world of wonder and magic, and lots of fun, is underestimating what these types of journeys can consist of.
And which is all the more reason why you need a guide. And when I finished with the most horrible night of my life, going through this terrible, terrible ceremony, I asked the shaman who was a friend and teacher why he has subjected me to this. And he said, “As a conservationist, as a friend of the indigenous peoples, you confronted many challenges.” He said, “By experiencing your death in a ritual fashion, you will never fear death and travail ever again. I have prepared you for the path of the warrior. And these are the depths of the emotions and the challenges, mental and spiritual, which all of us who have an interest in trying, taking, consuming the plants of the gods must be ready to face.”
So let me conclude this podcast with perhaps the most germane comment in terms of the history and the power of ayahuasca and particular and the plants of the gods in general. Amazonian shamans imbibe ayahuasca to diagnose, treat, and cure illnesses and claim that the potion empowers them to see into the future, ward off misfortune, and provide protection against jealousy and negativity.
In the words of professor Schultes, ayahuasca can free the soul from confinement, allow it to wander free, and return to the body at will. Ayahuasca, the vine of the soul, refers to this freeing of the spirit. The plants involved are truly the plants of the gods.
Episode 2 — Coca and Cocaine
Dr. Mark Plotkin: Today, we want to talk about coca, truly a plant of the gods. It’s often confused with coconuts or cacau, but coca is a family unique to South America, typically about a meter or two high, and has been in use by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The latest finds, I think, indicate use of coca, coca quids, coca that’s been chewed, about 8,000 years ago.
Of all the plants of the gods, coca is a masticatory, that is a plant, which is chewed by people. There are two types of masticatories. There is the mechanical, that is plants or plant products, which are chewed purely for mechanical reasons essentially. It’s just something enjoyable. It doesn’t produce a physiological response. A good example of that would be the resin of the red spruce tree, which is traditionally chewed by indigenous peoples in New England. Larch resin, which was popular amongst the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and the best known of all, which is chicle, which is the source of chewing gum.
Now chicle is a resin of the sapodilla tree, which also produces a very tasty indigenous edible fruit. It is best known to the Western world. It has had a major impact on our history in a very unique and interesting way. Chicle, as I said, was native to Central America. It was long chewed by indigenous peoples there, and the commercialization of chicle in chewing gum got its start with General Santa Anna, the Mexican hero of the Alamo.
By the 1860s, he was actually living in exile in Brooklyn. He was planning his return to his native country. To relieve his tensions, he chewed chicle, a pile of what he’d brought from home. When at last he left Staten Island for Mexico, he left a bunch of chicle behind with his host Thomas Adams, who was an amateur inventor. Adams initially tried to vulcanize the chicle like you do with rubber to produce waterproof shoes. This failed. Hot weather caused the soles of the galoshes to stick to the pavement.
His next brainstorm is to market the chicle to the dental community as a denture adhesive. This also failed. Finally, Adams flattened the chicle with his wife’s rolling pin, added sugar, cut it into little pieces, and put it into a Brooklyn candy store for sale. The results were immediately snapped up, as they say, leading to the birth of a multi-million, if not billion-dollar chewing gum industry.
Now there are two species of coca. As I said, there’s 200 species in the genus Erythroxylum. But there’s two species that are chewed as what we know as coca leaves or coca powder. And this work was originally done by Tim Plowman, who was a student of Schultes, who spent about 10 years in South America, trying to figure out the coca story.
So Plowman broke coca down into four varieties of coca. Erythroxylum coca, which is Bolivian Coca, which is typical of the highland of the central and southern Andes. The second variety is Erythroxylum coca variety ipadu, which is the coca powder that I’ll be talking quite a bit about. The other species was E. novogranatense, which Plowman broke into two varieties. There was Novogranatense novogranatense, which is Colombian coca, which is what the Kogi Indians of northern Colombia chew. And the final variety was Novogranatense truxillense, which is what’s grown around Trujillo in Peru, which figures into Coca-Cola, which I’ll be getting into.
Now, coca is known best as a powerful stimulant, but it has many other benefits as well. It suppresses hunger, prevents altitude sickness, and pain relief, and it is very rich in minerals, vitamins, and proteins. So it means the people that are chewing this are chewing this for the stimulating effects, but also it’s an important part of their diet, especially amongst very poor societies, like the miners in the highest parts of the Andes.
The Kogis, the extraordinary people from Northern Colombia. This is not in the Amazon. These are living in this Sierra Nevada. It is a snow-capped mountain overlooking the Caribbean, the only snow-capped mountain overlooking the ocean as far as I know. They are prodigious chewers of coca. In fact, coca is so central to their way of life that when one Kogi meets another, the typical offering is to open his coca bag, which they’re never without, which is a handwoven fiber sack. And his friend takes leaves out of there and chews them, and vice versa. So it’s the ultimate bonding exercise.
As I said, coca has been found as far back as 8,000 years ago. And remember that when you make a find, it doesn’t mean that’s exactly when it began. So what it means is it’s older than 8,000 years ago. And one of the most famous cultures in terms of coca chewing are the Moche from coastal Peru, Northern Coastal Peru. That’s Moche, M O C H E. And they were famous for many things. Perhaps the most extraordinary is the tomb, the Moche tomb, the Lord of Sipan, which has been called the King Tut of the New World. It is an extraordinary temple complex with the King, the Lord of Sipan, with several of his attendance. I think they found coca in the tomb as well, but it’s really worth having a look at some of the pictures. They’ve done facial reconstructions. They’ve done DNA analysis. It’s an extraordinary story and something which really needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Also another spectacular find was the Lady of Cao, C A O, which is a similar story. And in terms of Moche pottery, it is a depiction of many aspects of daily life, many of which involved coca chewing. When you see the heads of the Moche people in the Larco Herrera Museum in Lima, many of them have a big quid of cocoa stuffed under their left cheek. The other thing that’s famous about their pottery is it’s incredibly pornographic. They depict all sorts of extraordinary sexual acts, and Professor Schultes remarked on this by saying, “If they’d spent as much time performing these acts as they did portraying them in pottery, perhaps they wouldn’t have died out.”
Now, coca was brought to Europe in the 1500s from South America, and it became extremely popular all the way up to the 19th century. Sigmund Freud was an early proponent, promoting its use as a stimulant and a potential treatment for morphine addiction. Others who were big fans of coca included Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, the playwright Henrik Ibsen, and even Jules Verne. They were primarily fond of what was known as coca wine, Vin Mariani. This was a wine that was produced in 1844 for about 50 years, and it had coca in it. So you not only had all the benefits of drinking wine, you had the powerful kick of the stimulant, that is the extract of the coca leaf that was put in it.
Another reason the coca leaf became popular is in 1886 an Atlantan druggist named John Pemberton came up with a concoction of coca leaves and kola nuts from Africa, which he called Coca-Cola. And it really is the pause that refreshes, although it doesn’t refresh as much as it used to because the cocaine has been taken out of it. But a drink which had cocaine and kola nuts, which are very rich in caffeine, would definitely give you a powerful kick. However, as it became obvious that cocaine was highly addictive, and therefore very dangerous, cocaine was removed from many of the tonics in which it was added. In Storyville, in my native New Orleans, the old red light district in the 1900s, it was very common to use cocaine extracts as pain relievers and for a variety of other ailments. But these are the kinds of things which once people understood better the chemistry of what was going on that cocaine was removed from many of these products.
Interestingly enough, coca and cocaine is still produced in enormous quantities around Trujillo in northern Peru. They take the cocaine out of it and use the rest of the leaf as a flavoring for Coca-Cola still. However, the drug, which is widely used in ophthalmologic surgery and in treating inoperable cancer as a painkiller, is then sold to pharmaceutical companies, which distribute it with a license, with a prescription.
Now the most interesting use of coca to my mind is that of coca powder, the so-called ipadu or mambe, which you find only in the Colombian Amazon and the adjacent Peruvian Amazon. The Indians cultivate a variety of the plant, which is E. coca variety ipadu, as I mentioned earlier, of the four varieties that are used to produce cocaine. And since most of their agriculture is carried out solely by women, proof of the extraordinary role of coca in the society of tribes like the Yucunas and Tanimucas is that this is only propagated and cultivated by men. It is exclusively grown and processed by the men of the tribe.
When the leaves are ready to be harvested, which is usually after a year it was planted, the men trek to the gardens and fill these wonderful handmade baskets with the leaves amid much joking and good cheer and enormous consumption of prepared powder, that is what they call ipadu or mambe. They then haul back to the roundhouse, what they call the maloca, the leaves of the plant, which are then toasted on a large flat clay pan or iron plate, which is also used to bake cassava bread during the day.
The dried leaves are then placed in a hollowed out tree trunk, which serves as a mortar, and pulverized with a sizable wooden club, which serves as a pestle. The rhythmic thumping of the coca being ground to a fine powder echoes through the maloca for hours every night. Meanwhile, other men burn leaves at the cecropia tree, which is added to the coca powder to provide the alkaline substance that facilitates the release of the alkalides.
We talked earlier about the importance of admixture. These are plants or other compounds which are added to an arrow poison or ayahuasca or hallucinogenic snuffs, which may not be toxic or hallucinogenic in and of themselves, but they enhance the potency of the other compound, be it hallucinogenic or otherwise. Such as truly the case with coca. You need to add something to extract the alkaloid and make it more effective, more stimulating.
So in the case of the Kogis in Northern Colombia, they add seashells, because this is essentially calcium carbonate, which helps extract the cocaine and other compounds and makes the coca more effective. In the case of ipadu, the coca powder of the Amazon, which is my favorite masticatory of all time, they add the ash of certain plants. Usually this is a cecropia member of the fig family, where they add the ash and it helps extract the compound and make it more potent.
How these people discovered this complex chemistry is really beyond me, but this is yet another mystery of these plants of the gods. In these coca chewing tribes, people use an alkaline substance to extract the alkaloid. In the case of the Kogi, since they live on the edge of the Caribbean sea, it’s seashells. In fact, seashells are sacred to the Kogis, and they’re always trekking down them out into the sea to collect these seashells. Amongst the Kogis, seashells are a form of commerce, or a form of money almost, or a very important part of their sacred offerings.
Whereas in the Amazon, where they’re chewing ipadu, where there are no seashells, they’re using the leaves of the cecropia tree, which not only facilitates the release of the alkaloids, it also gives it a particular flavor. There are several other plants they add to fortify the effects of the ipadu, or imbue a certain flavor. The most important of these is pourouma, which is a tree of the fig family. And it’s said to amplify the strength and improve the flavor of the coca powder. When you sit around the maloca at night and all the men are chewing the cocoa powder, there are endless discussions about which cocoa powder is the best, which additives are the best, which flavors are the best, which varieties produce the best buzz essentially. And it is stored in a hollowed out calabash, or more commonly these days a plastic container with a tight fitting lid. Throughout the day, the container is seldom outside the reach of its owner.
When you see Yucuna men hunting, or you see them in the gardens helping their wives, they always have that container with them. And every time they feel the need, they use the spoon, or in really traditional communities they use a leg bone of a tapir, this is a big forest mammal, as a spatula to scoop out the powder and place it between the cheek and the gum. Unlike the coca leaf, which is prized by the Andean cultures and the Kogis in Northern Colombia, the ipadu quid is not chewed, but it’s gradually allowed to dissolve and be swallowed at which point the user takes the scoop.
Now it’s a real art to learn how to do this because when you put the ipadu in your mouth, it’s a very fine powder. So people inhale, suck it down into their lungs, choke, spit it out, pour this nasty stuff all over the front of their shirt. The stain is very difficult to get out, and I speak from experience. But when you learn how to do it, it truly is a plant of the gods, which gives you a lovely feeling, which allows you to talk through the night, which suppresses your hunger, which is just in my mind, the greatest stimulant in the world.
From a botanical perspective, coca is a member of the family Erythroxylaceae, which has four genera. One of those genera is Erythroxylum. Erythroxylum has about 200 species, two of which, four varieties of these two species, produce what we think of as coca, or coca powder, or coca leaves.
Now in the market, when you’re in the Andes and want to buy and try some coca, you want to make sure they’re selling you the real thing. And here’s a botanical trick. Coca leaves have an almost unique characteristic. They have what are called vernal lines. Vernal lines are lines that run through the leaf parallel to the central vein. This is very unusual in the plant world. If you pick up a leaf and there are lines that run parallel to the central vein, instead of running out from the central vein to the edge of the leaf, you know you’ve got the real thing.
Coca, which most foreigners encounter in the Andes is the number one drug, the effective treatment and cure for what is known as soroche. Soroche is altitude sickness. It’s really a dreadful thing. If you’ve suffered it, you know how miserable it is. You can feel like you’re having a heart attack. You’re short of breath. You have a pounding headache. It’s really quite terrible. I remember once I was collecting in the Peruvian Andes and I got to the town of Huaraz, way up in the mountains, and I was terrible. I stumbled into a cafe and I heard Dark Side of the Moon that was playing at about half speed. I thought I was having a heart attack.
They saw the look on my face, and they knew immediately this gringo had soroche. They quickly brought me a glass of coca tea, which is ubiquitous in the Andes. I drank it, and I quickly felt better. And I then found out the reason that Dark Side of the Moon sounded so weird was that the record player was running out of juice. So it wasn’t the soroche. It was indeed the batteries in the record player. But the feeling that I had, which was so terrible, was immediately cured by this coca tea, which is why I think it has such a bright future in Western medicine.
The Yucuna tribe lives along the Miritiparana River, one of the most remote rivers in the world, that flows into the Caqueta in the Colombian Amazon. They are a tribe of several hundred people. They are members of the Arawakan family. As I explained in an earlier podcast are about four language families in South America. Carib and Arawak are the two biggest. So they speak a language which is related to other Arawak tribes, but they are a very proud group of people, proud of their traditions, proud of their knowledge. They keep their language. They tend to keep foreigners and missionaries out. And they are the most prodigious chewers of coca or consumers of coca powder that I’ve ever seen.
Now, among the prodigious consumers, a person may consume over a pound of the powder daily, which is why every night in the maloca you hear thud, thud, thud, which is the creation of the ipadu powder to be used the next day. And I might add that the Yucunas were Schultes’ most favorite tribe. He referred to them as the most valiant and reliable of all the peoples he worked with. And I think a lot of ipadu went into that judgment.
Now, unlike purified cocaine, ipadu is non-addictive and it offers many positive attributes. Slight and pleasant mood elevation, staving off hunger, thirst, and fatigue. In my opinion, coca leaves, coca tea, coca chewing gum, and even ipadu powder one day could become an internationally safe and effective stimulant and diet drug. When I was growing up in the ’70s, it was the age of reform Reefer Madness, where everybody was convinced that marijuana was a dangerously addictive drug, and people would go crazy.
That’s not true, and we’ll cover that in another podcast. But I see the same potential for coca and coca products. However, I have to say that cocaine is addictive in a way, which in my opinion, marijuana is not. So some safeguards need to be built in there. It’s a wonderful crop. These people grow it for their own uses, and I think encouraging them to expand the cultivation of coca, if it’s done in a sustainable way and doesn’t involve processing, which involves dumping all sorts of nasty chemicals into the rivers, is a potential crop of the future. But only if it can be carefully controlled. Only if the indigenous peoples and the peasants, the campesinos, the caboclos can benefit first and foremost. Only if it doesn’t involve destruction of further forest, and with the understanding that cocaine is a dangerous and addictive drug.
To the Indians, living a traditional lifestyle, coca is employed to facilitate conservation, conversation, and bind the community together, both to protect the culture and the forest, to cure and to give offerings to the nature spirits. For much of the past half century because of its ready conversion to cocaine, coca has been much more of a curse than a blessing outside of its ritual context. Violence, death, deforestation, pollution, and corruption have all flowed from the murderous cocaine trade.
Perhaps some of the lessons learned from the increasingly widespread legalization of marijuana in many countries might help us one day pursue a similar positive path with coca in its native form. In the meantime, the traditional use of coca by its traditional users should be celebrated and protected. The bottom line here is the coca used in its traditional cultural setting is a plant of the gods, which only benefits humanity.
But it’s when we take these things out of the ritual setting, the ritual context, the ritual preparation, and abuse them, we once again pay a real price. So coca, like ayahuasca, can heal and it can hurt. It can be good for the indigenous peoples. It would be good for the rainforest. It’d be good for all of us, with the proper respect and utilization. Once more, we have to look to our indigenous colleagues to find out how to properly use this plant of the gods, how to properly process this plant of the gods, to make sure that this sacred plant can benefit them and us. If we don’t listen to our indigenous colleagues, we pay a real price.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.