Indigenous Cultures That Used Psychedelic Plants

By Sandra Nomoto

You might know about psychedelic plants and their potential for healing, but how much do you know about the indigenous cultural groups that used them? Here is a brief review of groups that were documented to have used plants as part of their cultural, spiritual, or healing traditions.

North America

Peyote ceremony, 1892

Dating back more than 5,000 years in the Southern Plains of the USA and Mexico, peyote (Lophophora williamsii) ceremonies have become more widespread to preserve the culture of the Native Americans who take part in them. The often communal rituals involved a shaman guiding a group through songs as they ingested the dried cactus buttons together and experienced hallucinations lasting 10 to 12 hours. (nationalgeographic.com)

The cactus was also used to treat wounds and burns.

Documented in the 18th century, the eastern North American Algonquin confined adolescents to a longhouse for two weeks as part of a puberty ritual, and fed them a drink containing the flowering plant datura (Datura stramonium) so that they might learn what it meant to be a man. Datura is also known as jimsonweed or devil’s snare.

Mexico & Central America

Records from 3780 to 3660 BCE indicate use of peyote by the Huichol after long pilgrimages to experience their soul’s journey to the underworld. The Tarahumara and other peoples of the area likely had similar ceremonies.

Visual and written documentation of pre-Mayan cultures using psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms dates back to 1500 BCE, though the mushrooms are believed to have been used for thousands of years.

Stones and temples were built in 1000-500 BCE in Central and South America in honour of the gods of the fungi; magic mushrooms were used in Aztec rituals, served with honey or chocolate.

First documented in the 16th century, other indigenous groups used the seeds of morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor) called tlitliltzin by Aztecs, or ololiuqui by Oaxacans. In Aztec ceremonies, morning glory seeds were crushed and produced hallucinogenic effects for the users.

For centuries, shamans of the Mazatec of Oaxaca oversaw the ingestion of fresh salvia (Salvia divinorum) leaves, or created teas for drinking during ceremonies, which lasted several hours. It was believed to induce visions of prophets and saints and treat a variety of ailments, though the Mazatecs may have consumed it in low, perhaps inactive, doses.

The Mazatec, along with other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples, bathed magic mushrooms in smoke from copal incense, then ate two at a time to represent the duality and power of the unified sexes. Together, participants shared the darkness and silence of a hut while listening to the voice of the shaman. (nationalgeographic.com)

Greece

Accounts of The Eleusinian Mysteries, initiation rituals dating back to 500-300 BCE, suggest that the ancient kykeon drink may have contained a number of psychedelic substances, including ergot fungus and magic mushrooms.

Hecamede preparing kykeon for Nestor, kylix by the Brygos Painter, ca. 490 BCE, Louvre

In Hellenistic culture, the Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) herb was associated with the goddess Artemis. Popularly known as the active ingredient in the drink absinthe, wormwood was added to herbal incense to aid in psychic reception, high spirits, and relieve anger and negative emotions. The Greek philosopher, Pythagoras (570-495 BCE), claimed that wormwood eased childbirth, while Hippocrates, the father of medicine (460-370 BCE), recommended it for a number of ailments, including menstrual pain, rheumatism and anaemia. (lafee.com)

Also found in Northern Africa and North America, wormwood was also reported to counteract the effects of poisoning by hemlock, toadstools, and the seadragon.

Australia

In Northern Australia, some of the earliest records of psychedelic mushroom use date back to cave paintings in 10,000 BCE.

Literature from the 18th century documents indigenous peoples from Central Australia using pituri, consisting of ash and leaves of the corkwood tree and tobacco, which contain both nicotine and potentially scopolamine, a potent drug. Pituri also acts as an anaesthetic and was used during ceremonies where adolescent males were circumcised and subincised. It’s also thought to increase suggestibility, allowing cultural norms to be transmitted and accepted during a ceremony. (thepsychologist.bps.org.uk)

Africa

For at least 1000 years, Bwiti practitioners in Western Africa as well as the tribes of Gabon and neighbouring countries conducted healing or rite of passage ceremonies using iboga. The N’ganga, or shaman, would interpret and direct the user’s retelling of their visions, while elders, healers, and children witnessed the messages that surfaced.

Golden Guide: Hallucinogenic Plants, erowid.org

The Bushmen of Dobe, Botswana experience the psychoactive properties of kwashi (Pancratium trianthum) by making an incision in the tribesman’s scalp and rubbing juice from the plant’s bulb into the open wound.

India

During the Vedic period in India (1500-500 BCE), soma, a drink derived from an unidentified plant, was named after a Hindu deity. After it was offered to the gods, it was consumed by a priest and the sacrificer and was reported to have powerful and hallucinogenic properties (britannica.com).

Vayu wins the race for the first draught of the Soma juice. Illustration in “Hindu mythology, Vedic and Purânic” (1882)

The sadhus in the Hindu religion also used datura spiritually, smoked with cannabis in pipes. Potentially harmful, it was used for centuries in India as part of ayurvedic medicine to treat conditions like asthma, as well as in Asia.

Datura was also used in sacred shamanic ceremonies by indigenous groups in North and Central America and Mexico, where the plant also grows.

Siberia

The red-and-white spotted mushroom Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) has been consumed by indigenous shamans in Siberia since the 1600s, and continues to be used. Its purpose was to evoke visions of the mushroom spirits known as wapaq, and for divination, healing, a boost in physical endurance, creating music, interpreting dreams or memories, and communicating with the dead. (thepsychedelicscientist.com)

South America

In Peru since 1300 BCE, indigenous groups used San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) in a tea which was served in long nocturnal ceremonies. The individual’s problems would be diagnosed, and at dawn, they would be sent on long pilgrimages in the Northern Andes mountains, where they would bathe in the healing waters of sacred lakes.

Source: Kahpi.net

The ayahuasca brew was used by indigenous groups in Peru, Brazil, and other South American countries since at least 1000 AD, and continues to be consumed in ceremonies today. The rituals involve shamanic songs, and the brew containing chacruna leaves and a pure jungle tobacco called mapacho symbolize the taking in of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, who aids the user to experience a physical release (vomiting, diarrhea), and hallucinations lasting up to four to six hours. (nationalgeographic.com)

Hallucinogens were believed to help people see the future, track enemies, insure fidelity, and diagnose and treat disease.

The Amahuaca, who remained isolated in Peru and Brazil until the 18th century, drank ayahuasca in hopes that the nature of forest animals and plants were revealed to them.

As modern medicine catches up to discoveries of ancestral usage of psychedelic plants, more research is required to safely capture their healing benefits, while preserving the sacredness of nature. The Amazon rainforest wildfires of 2019 are an example of economic interests threatening indigenous lands and ecosystems, and the potential for plant medicine to thrive.

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