Ethnobotany & Psychedelics: An Interview with Wade Davis

Ethnobotany & Psychedelics: An Interview with Wade Davis

What follows is a transcript for the podcast: HomeGrown Humans - Wade Davis - Ethnobotany - Hosted by Jamie Wheal

Topics include the following:

  1. The Start of the Psychedelic Era
  2. How Did Wasson Discover Psychedelic Mushrooms?
  3. The Innate Appetite in Taking Hallucinogens
  4. About Psycho-Technologies 
  5. Stories of Schultes and Castaneda
  6. Psychedelic Research & Indigenous Culture
  7. When Did the Linear Shift Happened in the Study of These Psychedelic Substances?
  8. Kogi Initiation Rituals
  9. Striking a Balance Between Modern Life & Indigenous Wisdom
  10. The Complexity of Different Cultures Throughout the World
  11. New Book - Magedalena: River of Dreams

The Start of the Psychedelic Era

Jamie Wheal: Pow! All right! So Wade Davis is a Harvard-trained ethnobotanist, a National Geographic explorer in-residence, a current professor at the University of British Columbia, and all around renaissance man, adventurer and scholar in the old mold. So Wade, you've had a big impact on my life, my thinking, and my work over the years. I'm delighted and honored to be able to get to sit with you, welcome to Home Grown Humans.

Wade Davis: Well thanks, Jamie, I think the [inaudible 00:04:11] of the word is "old". Dennis McKenna and I always joke that you just have to live long enough, and before you know it you're the venerable sage that everybody's looking up to. And you're still thinking like a little kid, looking up at your predecessors. And Dennis and I tease each other about that, because we've been friends for so long, and we had such reverence for individuals like Albert Hofmann and Gordon Wasson and Professor Schultes and a host of others. And sometimes I think if you just live long enough, you suddenly enter into the steps of the mentors. It's a glorious place to be, in a way.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, absolutely. And that's something that I'm actually writing about in my current book is just how, in the current psychedelic renaissance and the emphasis on transformational culture and all those kinds of things that there is a... what at least I perceive, being a Gen X from the middle of it, is a generational knowledge gap, or wisdom gap. And the story that I tell myself is that there's a degree of parental individuation, in the sense that millennials, every generation separates from what their parents did. Thinks that anything that their parents did can't be cutting edge, edgy, or cool, and that when they come to something, they're the first on the planet to have discovered it.

And there's a sort of echo boom, voltage drop between what happened in the '50s through the '70s and what's happening now, and there's a lot of lost knowledge. And something that is [crosstalk 00:05:46]... Oh, go ahead?

Wade Davis: No, I was just going to say, I think that's so true, Jamie. It's very interesting. Even in Michael Pollan's book, which I actually didn't read because I just never got around to it. But it strikes me there's an element of stumbling upon something that was new to him, yet almost naively so. It's like, for someone who first takes psychedelics in this moment in time, there's an element is, "What have you been doing all these years?" No but I mean, in seriousness, every generation has to find its own path.

But I do think it's worth remembering these pioneers, if only to remember how unique they were in their vision. It's remarkable to think that back as recently as the 1930s, the only volume available that described the [inaudible 00:06:45] pharmacological effects of mescaline in peyote was Heinrich Kluver's monograph that Schultes stumbled upon as a young student. So these guys were very much working in a void. I'm talking pre-Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. These early, early explorers, Schultes and Weston La Barre who went out to work with the road men of the [Kioa 00:07:08] and the Native American Church as it became codified. They had no reference points.

They were taking these psychedelics, and they had no-one to tell them what this was all about. And they were such an eclectic cadre. I mean Gordon Wasson, the Vice President of Morgan Guaranty Trust, Albert Hofmann this very serious scientist over there in Basel, Switzerland, and Sasha Shulgin. All these great characters, but they really kind of came out of nowhere, this eclectic group. And they birthed the potential for what became the psychedelic era.

And I think it's worth looking back too, to remember that these people were, in many ways, heroic. Tim Leary, for example, reduced to caricatures, sort of an Andy Warhol figure. Turn on [inaudible 00:08:06] and drop out and everything. But people forget that Tim was a very serious social psychologist, and even though What Birthed The erhe didn't have the academic position that Richard Alpert did, I Ram Dass would have always agreed that Tim was a real intellectual visionary.

And just at that critical moment, a study had come out saying that no matter what the psychiatric ailment, and no matter what the intervention, a third of patients got better and a third stayed the same, and a third got worse. Both of them had a crisis of confidence, right at the moment when Tim Leary opened the Life magazine with the article written by Gordon Wasson with a snappy title picked by an editor at Life, Seeking the Magic Mushrooms.

He made a beeline for Cuernavaca, ate the mushrooms and came back transformed, and just as Gordon Wasson said... Again, you have to think of these individuals taking these substances. They're not taking them as I did, I was influenced by the airplane, the dead in the early '70s. There was a whole psychedelic culture, I wanted to be a part of in part, as a teenager growing up at that time. There were multiple reference points, if only in the psychedelic music of the era, from pepper to the dead, right?

These people were taking these substances very much in a void. Wasson first took mushrooms, he was just completely speechless. He said, "Words do not exist, it's like trying to tell a blind man what it's like to see." And I find it fascinating to think of those individuals on that unique and very eclectic and esoteric quest. I mean, when Schultes discovered the mushrooms, it's a story right out of Indiana Jones. I don't know if you know, Jamie? He was a kid at Harvard from too modest a family to even attend the dorms.

He commuted from his tenement in East Boston. He had to make money, so he took a job filing cards in probably the most extraordinary library then in North America, the Library of Economic Botany at The Botanical Museum. And between the folios of [inaudible 00:10:19] and the monographs of distant tribes, and the accounts of these strange, psychoactive plants, he kind of fell away into a trance. And he took the course that had been taught at Harvard longer than any other, Plants & Human Affairs.

And the professor Oakes Ames, who was a great libertarian, hated the domination of the US government and so throughout all the months and years of Prohibition, as one of the laboratory experiments, the students had to distill and ferment and drink copious amounts of alcohol during the height of Prohibition. And yet when it came to these curious plants that were known as "the fantastica" according to Lewis [Lewan 00:11:00] in that great early monograph, even Professor Ames had his limits.

And so the kids had to do a book report. Schultes had so much homework that he rushes to the back of the room, gets the thinnest volume, puts it into his satchel, goes home to East Boston and that night, botanical history is made. Because that turned out to be Kluver's monograph on mescaline and peyote. And as he read through these visions of orb-like brilliance that thwatted over the consciousness, he was entranced. And he came back the next day, and said to Professor Ames, "I must study this plant for my undergraduate thesis." And Ames said, "You can, but you must know it, and you must live it."

And that's how, in the summer of 1933, '34, Weston La Barre and Schultes, La Barre being an anthropology students from Yale in this beat-up 1928 Studebaker found themselves bouncing over the dusty trails of Tennessee en-route to Indian country in Oklahoma. Where the two of them, these young lads from the Ivy League, Schultes had never been west of the Charles River, ate peyote four or five nights a week, for eight weeks of their young lives. And they came back, needless to say, men transformed.

And it was while Schultes was doing his research at the National Herbarium in Washington on peyote, that he stumbled upon the clue to solve the greatest mystery in ethnobotanical history. And that was of course, the identity of these long lost Aztec plants, teonanácatl and ololiuqui, the flesh of the gods, and the Serpent Vine. And there had been a famous anthropologist at the Smithsonian by the name of [Sawford 00:12:45], who claimed that teonanácatl was in fact, peyote. And Schultes was loyal to the early Spanish chroniclers, and he thought this was nonsense. But he couldn't challenge this leading academic until he found amazingly, a letter attached to a herbarium specimen of peyote addressed to the former director of the herbarium, the late Doctor Rose.

And the letter said very simply, "Dear Doctor Rose. I understand your man Sawford says teonanácatl is peyote. He's an idiot. It's a mushroom, I've seen it used. Yours sincerely, BP Reko."

Well Schultes [crosstalk 00:13:23], he was this, kind of the unknown German engineer in Mexico. And Schultes made a beeline for Mexico City, hooked up with Reko, and together they marched into the back country of Oaxaca to live amongst the Mazatec. And en route, Schultes discovered that Reko is an ardent Nazi. And this is literally-

Jamie Wheal: Yes, okay so this is the story. So who is the fellow who was with us at the conference in Vancouver that has a ponytail, who's just been down in the Amazon for years and years?

Wade Davis: ... I can't remember.

Jamie Wheal: Because he was telling me this story, that there was a box of letters found in Mexico City that had like... It was literally Indiana Jones in the sense of Nazi mysticism, but it was Nazi psychedelicism that attracted all the way down to Oaxaca. So this is the same story, I think.

Wade Davis: Well it's part of the same... At that time, whether Reko was actually affiliated formally with the German government at that time, or whether he was just by sentiment a Nazi? But he certainly was. And Schultes and he were sort of... Remember, this is 1938, so it's a year before the invasion of Poland. And [crosstalk 00:14:36] as they make their way into [Oauoutla 00:14:39], this small village in Oaxaca, there's another team seeking the same identity of this magic mushroom, and that's led by Bernard Bevin, who's Ernest Bevin's brother. And Ernest Bevin would be in Churchill's Wartime Cabinet. And rumors were that they were British Secret Service.

And so you had this scenario of these two teams converging on this little Mazatec community in pursuit of the identity of teonanácatl. And actually what happened is that the British team, together with a young anthropologist from Berkeley by the name of Johnson, were the first to actually witness a ceremony. But they didn't collect the mushrooms, it was Schultes who found the actual mushrooms and created the link that the mushrooms were in fact the holy sacrament involved.

Jamie Wheal: So wait, so where does Gordon Wasson come in? Schultes there prior to Wasson?

Wade Davis: No, then here's a crazy story. Is that, okay, so Schultes publishes in both the Botanical Museum leaflets, and then in the American Anthropologist in 1940. But on paper, on the discovery of a hallucinogenic mushroom at the time when people didn't even know what that meant, with Europe ablaze in war, hardly warranted attention. And Schultes meanwhile, went off to the Amazon, in pursuit of the botanical sources of curare, but then got caught up of course in the wartime emergency seeking national [crosstalk 00:16:09] after the Japanese had taken control of 95% of the world's supply.

And it was only after the war, and by that point, Johnson had been killed in the [inaudible 00:16:19] in North Africa, Reko murdered mysteriously in the streets of Mexico City, and the thread of the whole mystery was picked up by Gordon Wasson, who was this banker in New York. And he was married to a Russian woman. And Russians love mushrooms, and he was an amateur scholar in the best tradition of that.

And he thought that somewhere in the world, there were people that worship mushrooms. He didn't know where, or how. He would later write a similar book on Soma, suggesting that the ancient sacrament of the [inaudible 00:16:52] scriptures was in fact amanita muscaria, right?

Jamie Wheal: Okay, so what's your update on that? That to me, that trail runs cold, and it becomes deeply ambivalent, and no-one really knows and the people who have tried to recreate comparable states [crosstalk 00:17:04]... not sure?

Wade Davis: I think, well that's sort of another issue there, but let me just finish that one story. 

How Did Wasson Discover Psychedelic Mushrooms?

Wade Davis: So what happened is somehow, the poet Robert Graves, living on Mallorca sent Wasson-

Jamie Wheal: Dude, dude, Robert Graves is my OG hero. For sure. I feel like he's what Joe Campbell wanted to be when he grew up.

Wade Davis: ... Yeah, well he, I know a lot about Robert Graves. I wrote about him in a book, Into the Silence, because he was a great friend of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. And all that saga. But Graves had been left for dead at the Battle of the Somme, his entire back had been blown out, and he was left in a pile of corpses. And he managed to survive days like that. He must have been a very interesting man. But he left England after the war, and never went back.

But the thing is, he somehow had a copy of Schultes' paper, which he sent on to Wasson, and that's what connected the two men. And then Wasson calls up Schultes and Schultes says, "Go down to Oaxaca and look up this María [Sarina 00:18:32], the legendary [Spanish 00:18:33]." Which Wasson does.

Wasson then does three trips to Oaxaca, and on the third, he finally is able to ingest the mushrooms in sacred context, and he writes that up for Life magazine, and as I said, an editor picked the snappy title, Seeking the Magic Mushrooms, and the psychedelic gold rush was on. But that was the link.

Jamie Wheal: And so Graves is in the pudding as well, huh?

Wade Davis: Yeah, and it even gets more interesting actually, because okay, once they had the mushrooms, and they had identified them botanically, the question was, "What is the cause of these violent hallucinations? What's the chemical ingredient?" And they did a number of attempts to identify it futilely, and they finally decided, Schultes had a contact with Albert Hofmann at Sandoz Labs in Basel. And so the two of them, Wasson and Schultes sent Hofmann, I think it was 46 mushrooms. And Hofmann fed half the mushrooms to his dog, and nothing happened. So he ate the other half, and something did happen. The landscape-

Jamie Wheal: You mean a whole supply? So he ate like 20 full caps, kind of thing?

Wade Davis: ... Yeah, yeah. And then he got obviously very intoxicated, and he said the landscape outside his window of his lab began to look like Mexico. The pencil in the hand of his assistant looked like an obsidian blade, and they feared he might be swept away into the whirlwind of color and never come back. But such an experience might have unnerved an ordinary scientist, but of course Hofmann wasn't ordinary. He had been working for years on the indole alkaloids derived from ergot, the parasitic fungi that is found on rye crops. And that fungus was known as St. Anthony's Fire, at least the syndrome caused by it.

Because what would happen, and this goes back to the Middle Ages, periodically small villages would go crazy. People would be coming-

Jamie Wheal: It was LSA, right? Was the active ingredient?

Wade Davis: ... Well what it was is, it was... No one knew what it was, that was the point. And they had identified these ergot alkaloids, and Hofmann... And of course because one of the symptoms of the mania was that tissues would get necrotic. Noses would fall off, fingers would fall off, and it was obviously a very powerful vasoconstrictor that could have medical applications, particularly for women who hemorrhage after childbirth. And that was what Sandoz was interested in the drug for.

And Hofmann had synthesized a whole series. His job was actually to learn how to synthesize it. They had extracted it, he had to synthesize it.

Jamie Wheal: So wait, so Hofmann had eaten a heroic dose of mushrooms, prior to then synthesizing LSD and having his famous bicycle ride?

Wade Davis: No, no on the contrary. He had initially, remember this is going on in... The Mexican adventure with Wasson was placed in the 50's, 1956, 1955, I can't remember exactly which year. But it was way back during 1940s, and culminating in 1943, when Hofmann one day in his lab felt a little dizzy, and he felt he had to go home. And he didn't have a car because of wartime shortages of fuel. And so he rode his bicycle home, and that turned out to be the most momentous bicycle trip in history. Because on the way home, he went on the world's first acid trip. Because what had happened is that the LSD 25 had seeped into his skin, right?

Now the fascinating thing is when, jump ahead 10 years and he gets the mushrooms, and he very quickly isolates psilocybin and psilocin as the active constituents. Then he-

Jamie Wheal: But he [crosstalk 00:22:25] marker, he knows what the hell is happening because he's already had the LSD. But it's just like, "I don't know what's causing it?"

Wade Davis: ... Exactly, so the mushroom experience didn't come out of the blue. He could recognize it and know what it was, and not be afraid of it as he describes in his book. But the interesting thing is that when he then turns to the identity of the second of the sacred plants, Ololiuqui, which Schultes had also identified botanically and collected and shown that it was a Morning Glory. Not really a great deal different on our garden varieties, then he began to extract the active ingredient there, what he found, he could scarcely believe his eyes. He thought he had polluted the samples with other material from his lab.

Because it turned out that the active constituent of Ololiuqui, the Serpent Vine, were only a couple of methogroups, if I recall, removed from LSD. So in a sense, Schultes had discovered LSD in nature, in a sense, five years before Hofmann synthesized it in the lab. Only Schultes had found it in a humble Morning Glory worshiped by the Aztec as a god incarnate.

Jamie Wheal: Wow, and so this is also what Oliver Sacks ends up dabbling in. When he writes, I think that piece for the New Yorker of his experiences in LA on Morning Glory, is he having a full hallucination [crosstalk 00:23:54].

The Innate Appetite to Take Hallucinogens

Wade Davis: And then of course, when Tim Leary comes along with the great experiments and everything, it cracks open the sky. And it raises one of the really haunting things about all this, why the renaissance today is both encouraging but also precarious, is that these substances are inherently subversive. If you think in the sense that Joseph Campbell famously drew a distinction between shamanic religions whereby the role of the shaman is essentially to catalyze and release the wild genius of the individual, wherever that may go. Whereas of course, the priest's job is to socialize the congregation into a religious ideology, largely for state control.

So these hallucinogens are inherently subversive. I remember when our parents in the '60s and '70s would say, "Don't use these things, you'll never come back the same." Well they didn't understand, that was the whole point. And it's fascinating to me, Jamie, that when you look at the incredible social changes that came about women in a generation going from the kitchen to the boardroom. People of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay people from the closet to the altar. Children beginning to speak in terms of gaia. The biosphere, biodiversity. All of these changes which in many ways, are the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom came about in incredible rapid succession in historic terms.

And yet when we look back on that trajectory, the one ingredient in the recipe of social change that we've seen to expunge from the record is that tens of millions of us lay prostrate before the gates of awe having taken some psychedelic. Now people use psychedelics in different ways. Some people quite judiciously and thoughtfully, find that the use of these substances periodically throughout their life is a fabulous medicine, a teaching tool. Others, like Ram Dass famously said, "Get the message and hang up." In other words, as George Harrison did, as the Beatles did except for John Lennon. There was a sense, "Okay, you get it, now what?" And many people of course turned to Eastern religion in that era in the wake of that.

Haitians used to say to me, "You white people go to church, and you speak about God. We hear the Indians eat plants and speak to God. We dance in the temple and become God."

Jamie Wheal: Oh shit, okay. Because I'd already had the [inaudible 00:32:39] the first half of that, for my current book that I'm writing. But the Haitian build on that takes it. It's perfect, because it's the grammar of the pronouns. It's first person, second person, third person relationship to the divine.

Wade Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Jamie Wheal: That's brilliant, that's [crosstalk 00:32:56] outstanding.

Wade Davis: When you've spent time as I have in Haiti or other countries in the Americas with the African foundations, from Brazil to Jamaica. But certainly in West Africa, this spirit possession is the hand of divine grace. It's a very powerful, transformative technique of ecstasy.

About Psycho-Technologies

Jamie Wheal: I mean, there's a million different branches and paths off what you've already laid out, and I'd love to explore them all. Let's just clarify that. Because A, I've never heard the thesis of western hemispherical... The disproportionate representation of entheogens in this hemisphere, and its relationship to other psycho-technologies. And I'm imagining presumably, interior contemplative trans-ecstatic traditions of the eastern hemisphere. And that that being a potential driver of discovery and adoption of use. Is that something you have formally articulated anywhere? Is that part of the literature [crosstalk 00:34:08] body of knowledge?

Wade Davis: Well, yeah. I think that kind of anomaly is well-reported in the literature and always has been there.

Jamie Wheal: You have the hashish, you have Iboga, [crosstalk 00:34:24] things.

Wade Davis: You have exceptions, I mean the hashish, I wouldn't really classify any of the cannabinols as truly enthiogenic in that sense. Soma is, the fly agaric, is the one exception of course, is the shamanic traditions in Siberia, and the use of fly agaric. Which it's not clear, frankly, if you really talk to linguists and friends of mine who have worked in Siberia, it's not clear how widespread the use of amanita muscaria really was. And it can be very toxic, right? But certainly-

Jamie Wheal: It's got the [inaudible 00:35:08]? It's got something pretty gnarly in it.

Wade Davis: ... Muscarine, muscarine, it's... But the one exception of course is Ibogaine, or Iboga in Ecuador, West Africa, which is definitely used as an antigenic, transformative plant. So I'm not saying there are no substances there, but if you look at the San Pedro cactus, peyote, ayahuasca, [ebene 00:35:34], the mushrooms, these are new world things. One important point is what I've seen is that, even though Indigenous people respond to this universal desire to change consciousness, there's no question that the use of the substance is, particularly ayahuasca, is always within a social context. Whereby the ceremony is a collective journey into the divine.

You don't see in the Amazon, except in pure, shamanic initiations where the individual may go off into the forest and just, in the case of the Cofán they may in fact, bring themselves to the edge of death with ingestion of [inaudible 00:36:24], the "tree of the evil eagle" jaguar's intoxicant. Randy Borman, who was a chief of the Cofán. Complicated story, but he was, told me that he knew of a individual who went off in quest of the shamanic vision of the Cofán, and he literally had a dugout canoe which he filled with macerated [inaudible 00:36:43] with scopolamine and atropine. These are dangerous drugs. They bring on an induced state of psychotic delirium, visions of hellfire, a burning thirst, a total [crosstalk 00:36:58] sense of flying, possibly blindness, amnesia. They were generally see as the drug of last recourse by the shaman who, with the idea that just touching the realm of madness unleashed by the drug, you achieve some kind of illumination.

I've never known anyone who has used those drugs who would ever use them again. And people like Schultes were wise enough to never use them in the first place, and I followed his lead. I would never take datura.

Stories of Shultes and Castaneda 

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, I have to feel Castaneda did a lot to encourage folks down that road, that they probably shouldn't?

Wade Davis: Well the problem with Castaneda, he made it all up. And I remember when his first book came out, I was... Long before it was passed off as his PhD at UCLA, I knew people who were on his committee. But even as a young student of botany under Schultes, where you certainly learned your botany if you were a student of Schultes, the appendix in that book which was the meat of his thesis if you will, was so crazy in terms of his botanical identifications. He had everything wrong. I mean now we know, mushrooms are conflated with peyote and we now know of course that the Yaqui are nothing like he described.

But at the time, the books were taken very seriously, and I remember when I was studying anthropology as a sophomore, A Separate Reality was one of our textbooks, and it was presented as a legitimate, true monograph by a legitimate anthropologist. And one of the reasons that it became so difficult to write first person accounts in the time when I wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow about my experience in Haiti was that Castaneda cast a long shadow. And people really felt betrayed by him. And [inaudible 00:38:51], because as literature the books, some of them are wonderful. But the fact that he... And we now know, probably, he grew up in Cajamarca in northern Peru, much of what he wrote about was probably inspired from [inaudible 00:39:05] and the contemporary healing cult of the Cactus of the Four Winds in [inaudible 00:39:13] and in the mountains of [Spanish 00:39:18].

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, I mean it felt like a peer trickster play.

Wade Davis: Totally.

Jamie Wheal: That he was having... It's like Kesey's opening to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He has Chief Bromden say, "And it's the truth, even if it didn't happen."

Wade Davis: Yeah, and I think, and it also fed into, there was kind of a hysteria of that era where anthropologists were looking and finding hallucinogens everywhere. I remember once when I was traveling with Tim Plowman in the mountains of Ecuador, I came upon this plant that Schultes said was hallucinogenic. So Schultes used to say that Tim and I, "ate our way through South America". And so I took this big wallop of these seeds of coriaria, the genus it was. And I got back to the campfire and I told Tim, I had just taken this big wallop of coriaria, and he said, "What did you do that for?" And I said, "Well Schultes said they're a hallucinogenic." He said, "Oh he says everything's hallucinogenic, it could just be poison." And I said, "Oh, too late!"

So there was that sort of thing. The same thing with the misrepresentation of bufo marinus as hallucinogenic, that's something that Andy Weil and I finally solved, and revealed that the Mayan archeologist who had been suggesting bufo marinus was a psychoactive substance had been confused and were referring to the wrong species of the genus bufo.

Jamie Wheal: So was it a bufo various? Was it the... [crosstalk 00:40:47]? Yeah. So actually, there's two threads I definitely want to come back to. The first is, just to clarify western hemispherical stuff. Because at least in my understanding, and tell me if I'm missing something, it would feel like it could be even compressed down to the quadrant of Central and South America. Because the peyote starts in northern Mexico, it's not until the area of reservations and railroads and those kind of things that it really comes up into what we call the Lower 48. I'm unaware of any longstanding tradition... By the way, in grad school, my advisor was [inaudible 00:41:22] Junior. So I worked with the [inaudible 00:41:25] world and then [crosstalk 00:41:26] out of that scene.

Wade Davis: The Plains cultures had the mezcal bean. Which was more of an ordeal. And again, it's that fine line, what is a hallucinogen and what is a poison? Schultes always quoted [crosstalk 00:41:40] the poison in medicine in narcotics is just dosage. And you point out really properly that the use of these substances is frozen in time. And the spread of peyote came about in the Great Plains in the wake of the collapse of traditional Indigenous life, as a pharmacological shortcut to the distant realms of heaven reached by the vision quest, and by the sun dance, and by the ingestion of the toxic beans.

And again, people often will ingest toxic plants with the idea that either impurities will be revealed... I mean in Africa, famously amongst the [Kalamens 00:42:30] people, everybody had to eat the toxic calabar bean, physostigmine. Which has physostigmine in it, once a year. And there was a significant morbidity and mortality. And the mezcal bean was a little bit like that, there was this ordeal and if you survived the ordeal you must be blessed by the divine.

But you're right. And I think part of that is just the, they... Remember that the research again that it was concentrated in a handful of individuals, Reichel-Dolmatoff in Colombia, Schultes in Mexico and Colombia. My friends amongst the Haida maintained that the Haida use certain substances in this ordeal way. But we don't really have much evidence for example that the psilocybin mushrooms which are ubiquitous today in Haida Gwaii, were used Aboriginally by the Haida.

But again, this just gets back to this idea that the use of these substances is rooted in culture. And one of the things that so fascinated Schultes was the elaboration of these substances, what they tell us about a different way of knowing. So for example, whenever you try to account for this curious fact that ayahuasca for example is a combination of substances, it's got the woody liana, which is in the genus Banisteriopsis, and then these various admixtures, whether it's [inaudible 00:43:59] a shrub in the coffee family. And in the case of those two substances, it's very interesting because the active psychoactive agent are the tryptamines, [inaudible 00:44:09], methyltryptamine, dimethyltryptamine found in the shrub. And those tryptamines can't be taken orally, because their DNA [inaudible 00:44:17] by an enzyme found in the human stomach, monoamine oxidase. And somehow, they learn to combine those leaves with this liana which happens to have beta-carbolines, harmine and harmaline which are exactly the kind of MOA inhibitors necessary to potentiate the tryptamines.

Now on the face of it, the only scientific explanation for that discovery would be trial and error, which statistically is revealed to be a meaningless euphemism. I think probably the answer lies in the fact that further north, the admixture that contains the tryptamines is [inaudible 00:44:53]. Which is a liana in the Malpighiaceae like Banisteriopsis morphologically very similar. And I think the people further south just began to look around and check out any plant with opposite leaves. Because plants in the coffee family all have opposite leaves and the Malpighiaceae has opposite leaves. So that was a clue, a doctrine of signatures kind of thing that led the experimentation.

But the bottom line is that all of these substances involve deep levels of knowledge. These shaman were real natural philosophers. I mean curare's another example. You could drink as much curare as you wanted, and nothing would happen to you unless you had a stomach ulcer. You have to get it into the blood for it to be efficacious. Well that's kind of a interesting discovery.

Jamie Wheal: It is, and so that brings up Indigenous modes of knowing and I want to go down that road too. But before we do, so there's two examples that come up to me... Well, there's three things. First is, Eliade. So Mircea Eliade's notion of psychedelics or entheogens being corruptions of former earlier pure rituals and traditions. Now obviously that fell out of favor, he even retracted it a little bit by the end of his days, but nonetheless, that matched mainstream puritanical American norms as well, the idea that using drugs is cheating, skin bag bias or hypothesis. Was Schultes one of the first... Where does the linear shift and change to what you were describing as the cultural relativism of saying, "Hey, these are unique and Indigenous life ways, you have to take them... You don't want to be guilty of upstreaming and project way back into a [crosstalk 00:46:30] something you happened to catch [crosstalk 00:46:31]... When did that shift happen?

Psychedelic Research & Indigenous Culture

Wade Davis: I think the fantastic thing about Schultes is that he was fundamentally a botanist. He never pretended to be an ethnographer. He was fundamentally an economic botanist and a taxonomist, and because he found himself in the Northwest Amazon, remember he went there for medical research to try to identify the botanical sources of curare, because in 1943, scientists at McGill University had extracted d-tubocurarine, as a muscle relaxant, and were beginning to use it in abdominal surgery, and yet we didn't really know what the botanical source was, right?

And that was Schultes' mission. And then he gets caught up in the wartime emergency, and because of that, he has the luxury of spending 12 uninterrupted years in the Amazon extensively looking for both sources of latex, but more importantly disease-resistant clones that can be the foundation for a new American-based rubber industry. But that gives him license to move freely in the Northwest Amazon, living amongst dozens of Indigenous people. And he had a very unique position, because in many cases he was the first outsider that these societies had encountered who didn't want to exploit their labor, transform their religion, or rape their daughters. He was a solitary student of plants, who developed an extraordinary respect for the people.

And I think for the Indigenous people it made so much sense that someone would come so far to study what they knew to be one of the greatest aspects of their culture, which is their knowledge of the botanical realm upon which their lives depended. So I think, Schultes, he was later colored as an early environmentalist. He wasn't really that at all. But he did respect the Indigenous people, he believed they should be treated fundamentally fairly. There was the famous case where a Native person murdered a rubber exploiter, if you will, who had killed some Indigenous people. And to protect that guy, Schultes immediately offered him a job. He was that kind of guy.

But I think he stood up and said, "This knowledge counts. This knowledge is important. This knowledge has been lost." And at the same time, you had people like Reichel-Dolmatoff, his great friend, in Colombia, the legendary anthropologist and archeologist, and he was saying, "There's really something going on here in these belief systems." And other anthropologists, and even travelers and explorers, plant explorers like Richard Spruce who was the first to report yagé or ayahuasca, saw the richness of these traditions. You have to understand that the [Badasan 00:49:38] and the Macuna and the [Tanimocos 00:49:40] and all the peoples of the Anaconda in the Northwest Amazon, they literally believe that they maintain the energetic flows of the universe. They believe that plants and animals are just people in another dimension of reality.

They believe that the beginning of time, the culture heroes, the four thunders, the [Ayuhua 00:50:02], came up the Milk River and gave order to the world. They believe that the [moloka 00:50:11] in which they live is echoed in the sky by universal moloka which is a longhouse anchored at the sacred points. And when they take ayahuasca, they don't become symbols of the ancestors, they become literally the ancestors. When they put on a corona of yellow feathers, those feathers are not feathers, they are the rays of the sun. They're not signs of the rays of the sun.

And they journey collectively in their great celebrations to all points of origin of their people. And celebrating in that sense their central idea, which is that human beings must maintain the energetic flows of the earth. Now, this touches upon something you asked about, which is absolutely fundamental. People try to assess Indigenous people as if they're a monolith, and the way we try to account for their relationship with the natural world is to invoke the cliches of the speech of Chief Seattle which was of course, composed by a white guy.

Indigenous people are neither weakened by nostalgia, nor are they sentimental. They're not [inaudible 00:51:21] savages, animal-like, and they're not throwing reflective philosophers. They have developed, however, a traditional mystique of the earth that's based not on the idea of directly protecting the earth, but on a far more subtle intuition, that's the idea that the earth only exists because it's filtered through the human imagination. So society after society after society defines its relationship with the natural world through reciprocity. A simple idea. The earth owes us its bounty, but we owe the earth our fidelity.

And that balance, which is expressed in cultures throughout the world but particularly in the Indigenous cultures of the Americas, is fundamentally different than the lineage that we inherited from Descartes.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, absolutely. That brings to mind the Mayan villages around Lago Atitlán in Guatemala that were far enough away from Spanish colonization that they remained relatively intact. And have that notion of feeding holy. The idea is that we do consume, we hunt, we fish, we chop down trees, we do all of these things, and rather than thinking that we've been cast out of the garden, and need to atone for that, we understand that reciprocity that you're talking about, and we give back. And in the giving-

Wade Davis: Indigenous societies never think of people as part of the problem. People are the solution. In the Arctic if a young hunter kills a seal and doesn't drop fresh water into its mouth after it's dead, he'll never hunt again. This idea that blood on ice in the Arctic is a sign of death that Greenpeace would suggest, nothing could be further from the truth. It's an affirmation of life itself.

They believe that animals, you have to honor the animals, but the animals also have to be hunted, otherwise they'll disappear. And you see this, and it has real consequences. So for example, I always try to suggest to people of the West that climate change, for example, has become humanity's problem, but it wasn't caused by humanity, it was caused by a narrow subset of humanity that deanimated the world and consumed for 300 years the ancient sunlight of that world. And again, this is not to judge our lineage harshly, it's just to observe it.

And when we attempted legitimately to liberate the individual from the collective, to liberate all of us from the tyranny of absolute faith, when Descartes came along and said that, "All that exists is what can be measured, mind and matter." In a single gesture, he deanimated the world. And all notions of myth and magic mysticism, but more importantly metaphor were dismissed until [Asobello 00:54:05] said, "Science had made a complete house cleaning of belief." Now-

Jamie Wheal: ... A complete what clean? House cleaning?

Wade Davis: ... House cleaning of belief. And the triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it shouldn't... It's dumb, it shouldn't suggest that it's the norm. It's the anomaly. And most cultures view the world very differently.

We tend to see the world as a stage set upon which the human drama alone unfolds, trees and animals just props on our theater piece. Most Indigenous societies don't view it that way at all. So what does that really mean in real terms? Well, if you and I are raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined, and inert mass, we're going to have a different relationship to it than a people that are raised to believe that it's a deity. It doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong, the interesting thing is the metaphor, how the believe system mediates a relationship with the landmark, if you will, with profoundly different consequences for the ecological footprint of the people.

And that's why when the elder brothers, the Arhuacos, the Kogi, the Wiwa and the Kankuamo in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, they literally maintain that their prayers maintain the cosmic balance of the world. They believe that their rituals maintain the ecological health of the planet. They refer to themselves as the "elder brothers" because they know these things, and they dismiss the rest of us who have ruined the world as the "younger brother".

Jamie Wheal: So I wanted to ask you about that. This specific... Because wasn't this the Kogi? This was, or was this a different tribe?

Wade Davis: No, the Kogi are one of the four Indigenous groups, all Chibchan language groups, and mutually unintelligible languages. But they all are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization and they live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. 

Kogi Initiation Rituals

Jamie Wheal: Okay, and I think I've heard you tell a profoundly beautiful but also really odd story of isolation of their young initiates in stone huts? Would you mind just recapping that, because it's such a profound

Wade Davis: One of the things that is so fascinating about the Kogi, but especially the Arhuacos is that they articulate their beliefs which such profundity and not with glib platitudes like, "My people love the earth." Or, "My people live by..." You know, all that kind of stuff that, I'm not saying it's not true or sincerely felt but it doesn't take us very far, right?

But the Arhuacos in particular when they speak, it's incredibly moving full paragraphs of wonder. And they still remain ruled by ritual priesthood, in the wake of the Conquest they've fled into this isolated massif where for the most part of 200, 300 years they were virtually unknown. And they, by all accounts they kind of reinvented their society from a warlike society to a devotional culture of peace, and I'm not invoking hippie ethnography to say that.

I think there's a strong sense that the intensity of the religiosity of that complex of people is in some sense a consequence of the Conquest, and this idea like, it was so violent, so sudden, so overwhelming, you almost get the feeling that there's a collective sense, "Boy, we screwed up, we'll never mess up on the Great Mother again." I can't say that to be true, but you get that feeling, right? So in this sense, they've never really been fully conquered by the Spanish. And they're ruled still by a ritual priesthood, and the training for the priesthood, according to Reichel-Dolmatoff who reported it in the 1940s involved acts like going into a shadowy world of darkness at a very young age, and spending two nine year periods, 18 years all together in this very intense initiatory process. Whereby, according to Reichel they never saw the light of the sun.

Jamie Wheal: For that entire time?

Wade Davis: Well, that was what he reported. Now Reichel had never... And then he said, after this incredible initiation where amongst the central notions conveyed to the initiate, the idea that the ritual activities literally maintained the balance of the earth. The initiate, according to Reichel was taken out on a journey to the heart of the world, and for the first time in his life, saw the true glory of the earth. The sun, the moon, the horizon, the snow-capped peaks of [Solenquoi 00:58:55].

Jamie Wheal: So that's the whole Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley's origins, and roots in Ghana?

Wade Davis: Well, this was the idea. Now the thing is that Reichel had never actually seen one of these pilgrimages to the heart of the world. And he'd never seen an initiation. So it was almost a fable in anthropology for the longest time, and I was always intrigued by that. I wrote about it in my book One River back in the '90s. And then a wonderful thing happened by accident one day, when Carolina Barco the Colombian ambassador came into my office at the Geographic with a delegation of elder brothers, [inaudible 00:59:40] of the Wiwa and the Kogi and the Arhuaco led by a political figure, Danilo Villafane.

And as Danilo pitched... I mean in fact, what they were interested in, they're very politicized, very organized. And there had been a series of BBC films on the Kogi, in which the old canard that Reichel always promoted, that the Kogi were the real spiritual ones. The films had sort of suggested as much. And the Arhuacos were pissed, and they wanted their own film, because they know damn well which is true that their rituals are just as broke, just as complex, and that they hold up the world as much as the Kogi. So they were bringing this idea of doing a film to me at the Geographic, and I looked at Danilo and I said, "I don't want to be rude, but you look an awful lot like an old friend of mine." And I pulled out a copy of One River, which happened to have a photograph of two Arhuaco men as part of the frontispiece of one of the chapters, and it turned out that the guy in the photograph was Danilo's father, [Aloberto 01:00:49] who had been murdered by the paramilitaries.

And then I said to Danilo, "Son, you don't remember, but when you were a baby boy I carried you on my back for weeks with your dad in the Sierra." And Danilo just was so moved by that, and we've become best friends since then. But he invited me to go back and I said, "What I'd like to do is make a film of the journey to the heart of the world." And we went back and made the film about the initiations, and by this point, we had been training the Arhuaco and the Wiwa in cinematography at their request, and it was fortunate we had because as we were making the film, we got to the penultimate stage of the pilgrimage and suddenly we had to abandon the expedition because the [Fark 01:01:40] had set up to kidnap us.

So we handed the cameras to the Wiwa to finish the last stage of the film, and we had to escape... Well it's not a dramatic escape on a mule, you clip-clop your way to rescue. But the thing we did have to escape was, and it was quite dicey actually, but the point is that what we found is that the acolytes don't spend 18 years in the darkness, that didn't really make much sense. But they do spend 18 years in the immediate environs of the men's sacred temple, much of the time at night, in the darkness learning the broke religiosity of the belief system. And they're on a restricted diet, they don't see women.

It is an 18 year initiation. That's why many people, in a kind of colloquial way have compared the [Mamos 01:02:28] as the Tibetans of South America. They have that kind of intensity of belief.

Striking a Balance Between Modern Life & Indigenous Wisdom

Jamie Wheal: Well your story, even of just... Whether it's Lago Atitlán or whether it's the high country, the Sierra Nevada, or the [inaudible 01:02:42] shamans being too high up for the cultural revolution, to find or catch, that idea of retreating into rugged, remote places to protect life ways. Now, have you come across the book Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta? He's an Aboriginal professor down in Australia, and it's a beautiful recent, it's just come out about very... He's trained in academia, so he toggles between both really beautifully. And one of his descriptions is effectively, "This difference between the Cartesian, Western way of seeing things, false certainty, precision, owning, all that sort of things." But it says, "The much more generative, and organic ways of being." And then, layer into that just what you were describing with several of these tribes and cultures truly and sincerely believing that their prayers hold up the world. That's part of the feeding of the holy.

I found myself just broken-hearted and torn from way back when, when I was in school learning stuff for the first time, but especially now where you're like, "Yes, it feels like we're missing something, yes it feels like there's malaise and disease in our world view and our relationship to the planet we live on." And all of those less agentic, less material cultures, all got steamrolled. So we can hold these [crosstalk 01:04:19] high perspectives, but if we don't live... How do we strike this balance between [crosstalk 01:04:25]-

Wade Davis: I think it's true they got hammered. Decimate in Latin means, "to kill one in 10." It was the opposite, 90% of the American Indians and the Polynesians got swept away by foreign disease. But as Father Berry says in his book, Dream of the Earth, the miracle is that they're still with us. At all, right? And these visions are visionary realms of different societies, are here to remind us that there are other alternatives, other ways of being. And you mentioned the Aboriginal people of Australia. I think that's a really classic example that people can come to understand.

When the British arrived in Australia, and we know now by the way from studies of the Y chromosome that the ancestors of the Aboriginals were the first hominids to walk out of Africa. And within 5,000 

years, they had walked across the underbelly of Asia, and somehow got across the sea.

Jamie Wheal: ... That was quick! Like [crosstalk 01:05:27].

Wade Davis: Yeah, yeah, very quick. And settled the most parsimonious continent on Earth, establishing probably 10,000 distinct clan territories over the body of what is now called Australia. Now, when the British arrived, they saw people that looked strange, had a simple material technology, but what really offended the British was that the Aboriginal people had no interest whatsoever in improving upon their lot. And because progress and optimism and change through time was the essential ethos of Victorian Europe, notions of progress and optimism that would die in the mud and blood of Flanders, but were very much alive during the period of settlement of Australia by the Europeans. The Aboriginal people deeply offended the British, in a sense.

And as a result, the British in their [inaudible 01:06:23] void saw them not to be human at all, and began to shoot them. And as recently as 1902, in the lifetime of my grandfather, it was debated in parliament in Melbourne as to whether or not Aboriginal people were human or not. As recently as the 1950s, ranchers in Australia had quotas as to how many Abbos could be shot with impunity, who trespassed upon the ranches. As recently as the 1960s, there was a book used in curriculum across the country in Australia, A Treasury of Fauna of Australia, that listed the Aboriginal people as amongst the interesting forms of wildlife of the country.

And what was missing was any ability to understand the subtlety of the Aboriginal mind. And the essential notion of the dreaming, and the dream time. And the songlines. And the dreaming wasn't a dream as we would think of it, it was a state of existence in which there was no sense of past, present and future. There's not a word for time, for past, for present, for future in any one of the 670 dialects of Australia, and the languages. There's no notion of past and present. The world at your feet exists, but is eternally waiting to be born in the realm of the dreaming.

And the point of all this, is that the people developed an incredible fidelity to place. Because it wasn't like they were wandering the songlines, their main obligation was to do the ritual gestures along the places. And the songlines were seen to be the trajectories walked at the dawn of time, when the ancestors sang the world into being, where the rainbow serpent laid its body. And the goal is that within your clan territory, you have to do the ritual gestures along the songline that are deemed to be necessary, not to change the world, but to maintain the world exactly as it was at its creation. It'd be like, if all of Western thought had gone into pruning the shrubs in the Garden of Eden, to keep it as it was when Adam and Eve had their conversation.

Now again, who's to say who's right and who's wrong? Had humanity as a whole embraced that intellectual devotion, we wouldn't have put a man on the moon, we wouldn't have developed allopathic medicine. But on the other hand, we wouldn't be talking about climate change, and our ability to transform in mere centuries, the living conditions for life on Earth. So again, when I look-

Jamie Wheal: Where do you peg that? Because some critiques I mean obviously you can do, Weber in the Protestant Work Ethic, you can trace it all back through the Western tradition. I've seen some suggestions of, "Hey, it's the Judeo-Christian Alpha and Omega. It's the breaking of [inaudible 01:09:08] from circular time into time's arrow. That breaking causation and that sense of incremental progress that has effectively been the thing driving us forward and marching us off the cliff." Does that track for you as you surveyed the world's cultures, is it complex, is it different?

The Complexity of Different Cultures Throughout the World

Wade Davis: ... I don't see it as somehow, when we... I just see it as being different. And I don't think that things that motivate us today are informed necessarily by events that happened amongst the ancient Greeks, for example. I think it can be much simpler than that. We really did want to break the hold of the church on our lives. We really wanted... I mean, if you look at the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. It says very simply, "I swear upon the altar of Almighty God..." He wasn't quite willing to reject God, "To fight all forms of tyranny over the mind of Man." The idea that the mind of Man could be the arbitrager of life was an incredibly inspired idea. I mean, it gave us the enlightenment, it gave us the scientific method, it gave us everything we know about being modern.

I'm not in any way denigrating it. But just reflecting that one of the consequences of it was this pause of this tradition, that said that, "If [inaudible 01:10:31] can't be measured, they can't exist." And this deanimation of the world led to this extractive model which served us well for a while, but is clearly not sustainable. When I wrote a book called The Wayfinders, about this whole issue of culture, an editor put a snappy title on, Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. I didn't really like the subtitle, because it implied that these visionary realms of Indigenous people were vestigial or were ancient. They're not, they're contemporary.

But I did have to answer that question in the book, and I ultimately did so in two words, "climate change." Not to suggest that we go back to a pre-industrial past or anybody be kept from the genius of modernity, but just simply to suggest humbly that the very existence of these hundreds, if not thousands of other ways of being, ways of thinking, ways of orienting yourself in social, cultural, spiritual, ecological space, truly puts the lie to those of us in our own culture who think that we cannot change. As we all know we must change the fundamental way we interact with the planet.

The key thing is that every culture's myopic, faithful to its own interpretation of reality. We think of ourselves as the real world and everybody else as a crude attempt to be us. The Greeks did the same thing, when Herodotus came back from his journeys in Persia and had the audacity to suggest something interesting was going on over there, Plato wanted him banished from Athens for betraying the supremacy of the Greek world.

The Aztecs had the same notion in [inaudible 01:12:15], the word "barbarian" is from bárbaros, one who babbled, if you didn't speak Greek, you didn't exist. Most native tribal names mean "the people", the implication there to be everyone else is a savage. The point is that we can't afford that kind of cultural myopia in a pluralistic, interconnected, dynamic world. And this gets back to the central lesson of anthropology, every culture's got something to say, each deserves to be heard just as a nun has a monopoly on the route to the divine. The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being us, every culture has a unique answer to a fundamental question, "What does it mean to be human and alive?"

New Book - Magdalena: River of Dreams

Wade Davis: Let's just do a little wrap. And maybe you could do a favor for me, and get some kind of plug in for my new book on this podcast, Magdalena: River of Dreams.

Jamie Wheal: We'll put the link in, we'll do it all.

Wade Davis: Great.

Jamie Wheal: So bottom line is, I mean I would love to come back in six months, nine months, whenever and have this conversation [crosstalk 01:23:40]?

Wade Davis: We're just getting going. We're just getting going.

Jamie Wheal: Absolutely. So Wade, you said at the beginning that you didn't quite know how you got into elder status, and it was just kind of a something that happened accidentally. But in knowing a little bit of your career and your life, and even just a fragment of the stories that you shared today on Home Grown Humans, I have no idea how you fit all that in in 10 decades, let alone 6? So, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on your viral Rolling Stone article on the state of things, on your upcoming book, on the Magdalena River in Colombia and thank you, deeply, for all of your work, and the way you have bridged worlds so skillfully for so many of us. Thank you.

Wade Davis: [inaudible 01:24:28], and I look forward to talking to you again Jamie, thanks so much.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, you're welcome.

Wade Davis: Bye bye.


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