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South America - Comisaria del Vaupés - Ayahuasca

For the Tukanoans, at the time of creation, people arrived to populate the Comisaria del Vaupés. These people had to endure incredible hardship as the rivers were populated with dangerous fish and hideous snakes while within the forest lived spirits with cannibalistic proclivities. Only the spirit beings knew all the rules of life therefore it was “essential for the welfare of mankind to have at its disposal a simple and effective means by which, at any given moment, an individual or a group of people could establish contact with the supernatural sphere.”

According to the creation myth, man was promised a drink that would transport him beyond the confines of everyday life; for the Tukano, ayahuasca reveals the real world while daily life is fantasy. Among the first Tukanoans was the first woman, Yajé. She was impregnated through the eye by the Sun-Father and she gave birth to Caapi, the narcotic plant. The child was born in a brilliant flash of light and the mother rubbed his body with magical plants to shape his limbs. The Caapi child lived to be an old man who zealously guarded his hallucinogenic powers. From Caapi, owner of the magical plant caapi and the sexual act, man received his semen. For the Tukano, the hallucinatory act is a sexual one.

According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, the objective of ayahuasca use among the Tukano is to reaffirm religious faith through the personal experience of seeing with one’s own eyes the origin of the universe and of mankind together with all supernatural beings. Hallucinations convince the individual of the truth of religious teachings. Similarly, the ayahuasca experience for the Tukano is also described as a return to the maternal womb, to the source and origin of all things. Participants see all tribal divinities, the creation of the universe, the first human beings and animals and even the establishment of the social order.

These visions portraying the establishment of the social order are used by the men of this society to confirm their position above women. Women are not permitted to take part in the consumption of ayahuasca, however they are permitted to participate in the song and dance of the ayahuasca ceremonies. There are several ceremonies that employ the use of the hallucinogenic drug. Ayahuasca is employed for prophecy, divination, sorcery, ancestor communication, and medicinal purposes. While all the men of this society may take part in certain rituals that employ the use of ayahuasca, it is especially important as a shaman’s tool. As a shaman’s tool, ayahuasca can be used to diagnose illness, to ward of impending disaster, to guess the wiles of an enemy, and to prophesy the future.


Tukano Rituals involving ayahuasca begin at sunset and take place in the maloca, or longhouse. The men will sit in a semi-circle facing the interior of the maloca, while the women and children are confined to the back part of the house in almost total darkness. The only source of light is a tall resin covered torch that emits a red glare. The men will consume eight to ten cups of the potion while dancing, singing, and playing a number of musical instruments such as flutes, pan-pipes, horns, and seed and gourd rattles. At times the women will emerge from the darkness and join the dance only to quickly disappear again. The ceremony is extremely formalized and solemn, the rhythm of the dance becomes more and more coordinated as the steps and gestures come together making the group appear as a single organism. The singing and dancing continue as the members embark into their visions.


Yurupari is defined as a complex ceremony that surrounds the sacred origin of a certain large trumpet of the same name. It is also defined as an ancestor-communication ritual, the basis of a man’s tribal society and adolescent male initiation rite. The Yurupari trumpets consist of strips of bark that are twisted in spiral fashion into elongated, funnel shape instruments, with a tubular mouth-piece of black hardwood (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978:5-6). These trumpets are not to be seen or heard by women and are used to call the Yurupari spirit in an attempt to favorable influence fertility spirits, effecting cures for prevalent illness and improving the male prestige over women (Schultes 1992:123-4). The ritual is essentially a male fertility rite with mythical origins. It refers back to the incest committed by the Sun-Father with his daughter in the creation of Caapi.

In most Tukanoan languages, the ritual is referred to as miria-pora. The first part of the word, miria can be defined as “to suffocate,” “to drown oneself,” or “to submerge oneself” and the second part, pora, can be defined as “children” or “descendents.” The term has marked sexual connotations as the Tukano compare the sex act to a state of intoxication during which the pair “drown” in visions.

One account of the ceremony tells that the beginning of the ceremony is marked by the retreat of the women into the forest. Four pairs of horns were then taken from a place of concealment and decorated ceremoniously with feathers and feathered ruffs by a group of older men who had formed a semi-circle in the middle of the maloca. The newly decorated horns were then paraded up and down the center of the maloca as the master of ceremonies, or paye, produces a red clay jar containing the caapi, or ayahauasca tea. As the younger men began the first of the ceremonial whippings, the tea was distributed in tiny round gourds. Most who consumed it promptly vomited. Whipping then continued in pairs, starting at the ankles and legs; the pairs switching off, those whipping became the whipped, and so continued until all the younger men were covered in bloody welts.

The ceremony eventually slowed, leaving two lone players in the center of the maloca surrounded by a dancing semi-circle composed of a dozen older men who had outfitted themselves in ceremonial feathers, each with their right hand on the shoulder of their neighbor. At this point the paye, who was leading the ceremony, blew tobacco smoke over the group and a ceremonial chant was intoned by all.

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