Category Archives: Ritual

Ayahuasca Visions: Ceremonies Two and Three

This is my third post on my experience with the medicinal brew ayahuasca in San Roque, Peru. In my two previous posts (Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience, and Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”) I provided background information on ayahuasca and described my first experience in an ayahuasca ceremony. In this post I will relate my second and third experiences in the ayahuasca ceremonies and include information on the Quechua and Shipibo cultures who discovered ayahuasca and still practice ayahuasca shamanism.

WP_20160425_015My second ayahuasca ceremony was a celebration of my life. First I had visions of all my family and friends, past and present. These visions filled me with joy and I extended blessings and felt gratitude to each and every one. If a sad or otherwise negative thought started to creep in, it was immediately replaced with joy and gratitude. Next, I re-experienced moments of rapture in my life; everything from football plays, to moments in nature, to my son’s birth, to being accepted to graduate school. My whole life may have passed before my eyes. During this ceremony I felt as if I had more control of my body and it was easier to come down off of the medicine. Once again, both shamans were there, Antonio and Virginia, and there were also two other novices. Like the first time, I had diarrhea afterwards, but this time I did not vomit.

My third ceremony took place in the morning. Virginia was not there and it was me, Antonio, and the other two novices. This ceremony was a sensory trip. The music and icaros were especially vivid and I felt as though I could see and feel the sounds. At one point Antonio stood above me with a seed shaker and large bird feather and the sounds and motions were amazing. WP_20160427_008There was a butterfly which kept flying around me and landing on me and the movement of air from its wings felt like an enormous eagle was just above me. At one point I had a thought that the explosion of language which modern humans experienced was the result of trying to describe what one experienced in altered states of consciousness. After the ceremony I sat by the river singing songs, including my non-English language ayahuasca song. I laid down in the river for quite some time and it was a very powerful feeling. Then I walked up to the kitchen where Carmelita had a wonderful meal awaiting- I didn’t fell hungry, but it was a pleasure eating.

WP_20160427_006I am still amazed at the power of these two plants, neither one of which works its magic on its own. How did the Quechua and Shipibo figure out how to mix these two plants together? It is one of the great profound accomplishments of humankind.

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Antonio and Carmelita

The Shipibo are an indigenous people along the Ucayali River in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Many of their traditions are still practiced, such as ayahuasca shamanism. Shamanistic visions have inspired artistic tradition and decorative designs found in their clothing, pottery, tools and textiles. Some of the urbanized people live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Ecuador. Shipibo women make beadwork and textiles, but are probably best known for their pottery, decorated with maze-like red and black geometric patterns. While these ceramics were traditionally made for use in the home, an expanding tourist market has provided many households with extra income through the sale of pots and other craft items. They also prepare chapo, a sweet plantain beverage. Their homeland has been affected by drought and flooding, having a detrimental effect on agriculture. The Shipibo are noted for a rich and complex cosmology, which is tied directly to the art and artifacts they produce. The Shipibo are threatened by severe pressure from outside influences such as Christian missionaries, oil speculation, logging, narco-trafficking, and conservation.

Shipibo friends
Shipibo friends

Quechua is the collective term for several indigenous ethnic groups in South America who speak the Quechua language. The speakers of Quechua, who total some 4.4 million people in Peru, have an only slight sense of common identity. The various Quechua dialects are in some cases so different that no mutual understanding is possible. Quechua was not only spoken by the Inkas (which is the Quechua spelling of Inca), but also by long-term enemies of the Inca Empire. These include the Huanca (Wanka is a Quechua dialect spoken today in the Huancayo area) and the Chanka (the Chanca dialect of Ayacucho) of Peru, and the Kañari (Cañar) in Ecuador. Quechua was spoken by some of these people, for example, the Wanka, before the Inkas of Cusco, while other people, especially in Bolivia but also in Ecuador, adopted Quechua only in Inka times or afterward. Quechua became Peru’s second official language in 1969 under the military regime of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Despite their ethnic diversity and linguistic distinctions, the various Quechua ethnic groups have numerous cultural characteristics in common.

Beginning with the colonial era and intensifying after the South American states had gained their independence, large landowners appropriated all or most of the land and forced the native population into bondage. Harsh conditions of exploitation repeatedly led to revolts by the indigenous farmers, which were forcibly suppressed. The largest of these revolts occurred 1780-1781 under the leadership of José Gabriel Kunturkanki. Some indigenous farmers re-occupied their ancestors’ lands and expelled the hacienados during the takeover of governments by reform-minded juntas in the middle of the 20th century, such as in 1952 in Bolivia (Víctor Paz Estenssoro) and 1968 in Peru (Juan Velasco Alvarado). The agrarian reforms included the expropriation of large landowners. Quechuas continue to be victims of political conflicts and ethnic persecution. In the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s between the government and Sendero Luminoso about three quarters of the estimated 70,000 death toll were Quechuas. The forced sterilization policy under Alberto Fujimori affected almost exclusively Quechua and Aymara women, a total exceeding 200,000.WP_20160428_024

Quechua ethnic groups share traditional religions with other Andean peoples, particularly belief in Mother Earth (Pachamama), who grants fertility and to whom burnt offerings and libations are regularly made. Also important are the mountain spirits (apu) as well as lesser local deities (wak’a), who are still venerated especially in southern Peru. The Quechua and Shipibo both make and use ayahuasca and it plays an integral role in their healing practices.

 

The Kuelap Ruins: A Chachapoyas Fortress and Religious Center in Peru

On May 4th, 2016, I was able to visit the ruins of Kuelap, Peru. WP_20160504_010The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap is associated with the Chachapoyas culture, and consists of a walled city, with massive exterior stone walls surrounding more than four hundred buildings. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). It was rediscovered in 1843.The complex, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples. However, evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap’s construction required considerable effort, rivaling or surpassing in size other archaeological structures in the Americas.WP_20160504_004

There are multiple levels or platforms within the complex. Because of its extension, these flat elevations support about 400 constructions, most of them cylindrical. Of them, only bases remain. In some cases, there are decorated walls with friezes of symbolic content that seem to evoke eyes and birds that take the form of a letter “V” in a chain. On my visit I had an indigenous Chachapoyas guide who said the site supported 3,000 people and was the home of ruling elites and shamans. The “V” pattern reliefs with 3 levels symbolized the levels of the world- below, ground, and above. These were also represented by the animals serpent, puma, and condor respectively. He also said the elites lived on the upper-most level and the other people lived below. There is also a double diamond pattern which represented duality.WP_20160504_023

The shamans lived in round houses on the upper level. These houses contained many obsidian artifacts as well as many llama bones, suggesting sacrificial activity; there were no human bones found in these areas. There is a stone structure on the site which is aligned with the cardinal directions. There is a pictograph face on one of the shaman’s houses.

WP_20160504_048There is not a scholarly consensus regarding the function of Kuelap, it is thought of as a fortress because of its location and the high walls which support its primary level. Adolf Bandelier and especially Louis Langlois tried to demonstrate that Kuelap might have been a fortified place destined to serve as a refuge for the population in emergency situations. The high walls that cover the outer surfaces of the platform, and the tightness of the access to the citadel in its final stretch, also suggest that the monument of Kuelap could have been constructed as a defensive sanctuary, or at least that it provided a refuge that protected against intruders. It likely also had religious or sacred functions. It is suggested that Kuelap could have been a pre-Inka sanctuary, and that a powerful aristocracy lived in it, whose primary mission was to administer food production and provide religious leadership.WP_20160504_037

My Chachapoyas guide said that the Chachapoyas people allied themselves with the Spanish conquistadores because the Inka had begun trying to make slaves and indentured servants of the Chachapoyas, moving them away from their homelands to work on projects for the empire. He said the Chachapoyas area including Kuelap was the last area conquered by the Inka and it took 100 years for the Inka to build roads into the area.

Soon the conquistadores began enslaving the residents and forcing then to work in the silver mines. Disease from the old world also took its toll, with some researchers estimating as much as 90% of the population dying from smallpox, flu, and other illnesses previously unknown in the Americas. However, the elites of the Chachapoyas culture intermarried with the conquistadores and their bloodlines became mixed with those from Spain.

Note: I use the spelling “Inka” because Wade Davis suggests it is more accurate.

Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience

Long ago there was a Quechua man hunting in the forest. He can across a jaguar and was preparing to shoot it with his bow and arrow when he saw the beast beginning to chew on a vine wrapping itself around a tree. He thought this was strange and instead of shooting stood silently and watched the jaguar. Next, the animal began to chew on a leafy, green plant that was nearby. The jaguar then lay on the ground without moving. The hunter came close and saw that the beast’s eyes were open even though it appeared to be sleeping. The hunter came forward and nudged the jaguar with his foot. The animal did not respond. “How strange, that the beast will not attack me even though I can tell it is not dead and its eyes are open!” thought the hunter. The hunter realized this must have something to do with the plants the animal had eaten, and he collected some of the two plants and brought them to his village. He told the people what he had saw and they were curious, so they ate some of the two plants- nothing happened. The shaman of the village decided to cook the two plants together, which shamans often do. He then gave the tea to the villagers and they entered a state of wonder and saw many visions and experienced profound revelations about life. The shaman and the people realized this was a strong, spiritual medicine and it was cherished and valued among the people.

Quechua myth concerning the discovery of ayahuasca

More than once I was fascinated by the discovery of mixing these two plants together. I had heard that shamans state that the plants sing to them. On one level I can accept this, on another level I cannot. One morning I was talking with Antonio, who was my shaman for my three ayahuasca ceremonies, and he related this story the Quechua tell of the hunter in the forest and the jaguar. This remains one of the great mysteries of anthropology.

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My Casita

My previous post gave some background information on ayahuasca; in this post I would like to relate my experience with the brew on April 23, 25, and 27 of 2016. I had met two backpackers while conducting research in the Bribrí community of Yorkín, and they told me of the amazing experience they had taking ayahuasca in Peru. I had been interested in the healing powers of ayahuasca (and indeed other psychoactive plants) for quite some time and decided to make a reservation, take a much needed break from fieldwork and grant writing, and head to Peru where ayahuasca is legal. I arrived at the lodge I would be staying at above the small community of San Roque, in the mountains above Tarapoto and was informed I could participate in a ceremony with the shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo. I was to be the only other person at the ceremony. I had a meeting with Antonio, who speaks English as well as Spanish, about what I could expect to experience and what my intentions were. He suggested that I remain open to whatever happens, as the medicine works in different ways with different people and different ways at different times.

Below is my word for word account of my first ceremony taken from my journal which was written the next day:

Rio Cumbaza

I am sitting by the river (Cumbaza); I just soaked for a while- it was colder than I expected- I am feeling pretty shaky- only slept a couple of hours- took a shower, ate some food, laid around listening to the Dead. Last night was fucking intense, I was lucky, as Antonio’s teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia was here and it was only me and them at the ceremony. I walked down the hill to the ceremony lodge, a thatch-roofed open-walled structure where Antonio lives upstairs. He gave me some pointers- focus on my breath if I start to freak out, try to remain quiet, ask for more if I want it (there will be a “last call”), keep my purge bucket handy, keep my body “open”, and if things get hard- know that it will pass.

When I arrived, Virginia was massaging Antonio with some oil and blowing mapacho (local pure tobacco) smoke over him. Antonio then purified the space with mapacho and called me to him to give me a shot glass of ayahuasca. I actually did not mind the taste- kinda sweet and bitter at the same time. I went and sat on my mat- before long I could start to feel it starting to take effect and I laid down flat on my back. I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio then began to sing an icaro (song). Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded almost Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness.

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Soon my sense of self began to dissolve and all I could do was breathe and listen to the icaros- which they alternately sang, accompanied by various shakers and rattles- at one point Antonio played the guitar. I had the sense that other people were there with us, as the sounds seemed to be coming from all around me. Sometimes I felt people standing over me- all with positive and healing intent. I could barely move my hands to wipe sweat from my brow and eyes.

At some point Antonio asked me if I wanted more, I could barely answer “no”. I had no sense of time- sometimes it felt as if minutes went by between each breath. I sometimes perceived myself as being like one inch big- then in the next instant massive- then completely flat- then round- then no longer there. Then Antonio asked me if I wanted to sing, it took me a while to register what he said- but then I started to sing- I do not know how- I do not know the words or if they were words- it wasn’t English- I just kept going until Antonio exhaled loudly and my singing automatically stopped.

He then came to me and asked me to sit up and move forward on my mat. – It was a real struggle. He said he was going to purge the medicine from me and sang an icaro while he was tapping me with his feather bundle (shacapa).

Shacapa
Shacapa

They both then sang another icaro and I told him I was going to go to the bathroom. I started to crawl and he helped me stand up and I staggered to the outhouse and released diarrhea for a short time. I came back to the lodge and sat on my mat, then threw up just a little bit- they both began to sing another icaro. Then Virginia came over and rubbed me with oil- it felt very loving and nurturing.

Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo
Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo

After a bit I stood up and felt like I wanted to head back to my casita. Antonio suggested I sit with them a bit longer- I am glad because I started to feel more grounded. Virginia commented that I was now more “abajo” (low) and had been very “arriba” (high). I then gathered my stuff and slowly, shakily, walked up the hill to my casita, stopping once at the bathroom by the communal kitchen to have some more diarrhea.

The ceremony lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Some of the few thoughts I remember are “wonder” and “wonderment” and later “gratitude”. When I came down from the high I felt a little melancholy (if that is the right word- it was more like the Japanese term “mono no aware”) and I still feel a little like that today- but at peace. I am now going to head back up the hill and get something to eat.

p.s. – Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was and he said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.” I replied that makes me feel good about myself.

It just occurred to me that today I have been in a “liminal stage”- halfway between the physical and spiritual worlds. End quote from journal.

So, that was my first experience with the medicine. Looking back I see that the first experience was all about the wonder of being alive and the power of the medicine. I also felt gratitude at being a human and being able to experience such wonder. My next two ceremonies would prove to be similar, but also different in what I was thinking, feeling and the revelations which occurred to me. Read about them in my next post.

Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”

Ayahuasca was first described outside of Indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had originally worked with the Kiowa in the U.S., participating in peyote ceremonies. Schultes was famous for ingesting all types of plants and their derivatives while traveling throughout the amazon. He was Wade Davis’ advisor, and sent Davis to the amazon to study coca. Ayahuasca is the Hispanicized style spelling of a word in the Quechua languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Speakers of Quechua languages or of the Aymara language may prefer the spelling “ayawaska.” This word refers both to the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means “spirit, soul”, “corpse, dead body”, and waska means “rope” and “woody vine”, “liana”. It is often referred to as “La Medicina”- the medicine.ayahuasca

People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, as well as attaining insights into their lives. Individuals also sometimes report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who act as guides or healers. In my experience, I did not sense other beings, but instead experienced aspects of my own mind which were very different from normal waking consciousness. I experienced profound emotional joy and bliss and insights into my life goals and behaviors. I will describe my three experiences (all somewhat different) in upcoming posts.

Ayahuasca is made by mixing Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the family Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis, a leafy plant, and cooking it down to create a dark, bitter tasting liquid. Banisteriopsis caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and MAOIs. The MAOIs in B. caapi allow the primary psychoactive compound, DMT (which is introduced from the other primary ingredient in ayahuasca, the Psychotria viridis plant), to be orally active. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are chemicals which inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression.Banisteriopsis caapicaapi

Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna. It contains about 0.10–0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT). DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria viridis) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. DMT can produce powerful psychedelic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations.psychotria viridis

DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in rat brain, human cerebrospinal fluid, and other tissues of humans and other mammals. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena. A role of endogenous hallucinogens including DMT in higher level sensory processing and awareness was proposed by J. V. Wallach based on a hypothetical role of DMT as a neurotransmitter. Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM sleep – a function now lost. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal (Gable 2007).psychotria viridis 2

People often report profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca. Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The first time I used the medicine I had diarrhea after the ceremony and vomited a little bit, the second time I had diarrhea only, and the third time had neither.

The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. A few deaths due to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. The deaths may be due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants, and in some cases possibly a result of the addition of toé in the brew. I made sure that this plant was not included in the mixture I was going to consume beforehand, as I had read is it dangerous to ingest it orally. The mixture I ingested only contained the caapi and Psychotria. MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome. Therefore, persons using prescription drugs for bipolar disorder or depression should discontinue use before using ayahuasca. However, persons using dopamine blockers, often used for some forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may not be under the same risk, but in my opinion should also discontinue use to avoid potential interactions.

Da Silveria et al. (2005) conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. Da Silveria et al. measured psychological functioning on participants who used ayahuasca in a culturally specific manner twice per month and started doing so just at the onset of adolescence. These included substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems.

MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria, which involves repeated episodes of depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.

The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. Some groups are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A Supreme Court decision allowed the União do Vegetal Church to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case the Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I went to Peru to use the tea legally; On June 24, 2008 the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that ritual ayahuasca ceremonies are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru and are to be protected.WP_20160427_001

All this sounds great, however there are problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing the tea who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans, if they really are shamans. In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses. I would like to warn people who want to experience the medicine to only use it under the supervision of someone they know they can trust. I got the name of my shaman from friends who had worked with him and had positive experiences. I would be more than happy to connect people with this shaman at their request.

Stay tuned for a post about my personal experiences with ayahuasca.

Below are some references for further reading. I would also suggest Wade Davis’ “The River.”

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Barbosa, PC; Cazorla, IM; Giglio, JS; Strassman, R (September 2009). “A six-month prospective evaluation of personality traits, psychiatric symptoms and quality of life in ayahuasca-naïve subjects.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41 (3): 205–12.

Strassman R.J. (1996). “Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine” (PDF). Behavioural Brain Research 73 (1–2): 121–4.

Rick Strassman (2001). Dmt: the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of near-Death and Mystical Experiences.

Schultes R.E., Raffauf R.F. (1960). “Prestonia: An Amazon narcotic or not?”. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 19 (5): 109–122.

Robert S. Gable (2007). “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids”. Addiction 102 (1): 24–34

The Origin of Sibö

Sibö (the Bribrí god) made the first indigenous people from seeds of corn. He brought the seeds from a place called SuLa’kaska, which means the Place of Destiny. At the time the earth was only rock, and Sibö knew he had to create soil in order to plant his corn seeds. On another planet there lived a tapir family. Sibö asked a bat to fly to that place and suck the blood of a little girl tapir. The bat did as he was told and when he returned to the earth he defecated on the rocks. A few days later the first trees began to sprout from that place. Sibö realized that his experiment to make soil was working, so he sent the bat again to suck the blood of the little girl tapir. The bat returned and again defecated upon the rocks and more trees grew. Sibö then made more soil from the flesh and blood of the little girl tapir. Sibö then planted corn seeds of all different colors to create the indigenous people of the earth; this is why indigenous people have different skin colors and tones. Sibö brought the seeds to the earth during the nighttime; that is why the awapa chant and do their curing ceremonies at night. He named the people dtsö, which means corn seeds. One of Sibö’s relatives, Plekeköl (the king of the leaf-cutter ants) created the white people of the earth which he named síkua. The Bribrí belong to Sibö; he is their owner, they are his things, not his relatives. Bribrí creation story

Perego and colleagues obtained DNA samples from people living in Panama including Bribrí from Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. They found that the Amerindians located in the area of the Isthmus of Panama contain some of the oldest DNA groups in the Americas (Perego et al. 2012), suggesting that the modern-day populations are related to some of the first people to populate the Americas.

“Considering the most recently accepted age estimate for haplogroup A2 in the American continent as a whole at 15–19 ka ago and as a proxy for the time of expansion of Paleo-Indians into the Americas, it can be suggested that the initial settlement of Panama occurred fairly rapidly after the initial colonization of the American continent. These data fully support the hypothesis that the Pacific coast was the major entry point and diffusion route for the earliest human settlers. Moreover, the antiquity and high frequency of subclade A2af provides evidence of the existing mitochondrial DNA legacy between modern Panamanians and America’s first inhabitants” (Perego et al. 2012:7).

This suggests that the arrival of the ancestors of the Bribrí occurred fairly rapidly after the initial arrival of humans to the Americas. We also know that maize (corn) cultivation did not begin in the area until roughly 5,000 years ago. For example, Arford and Horn obtained a radiocarbon date of 4760 years before present of charcoal within an interval of maize pollen from Laguna Martinez, Costa Rica (2004). We also have evidence of a stratified, complex society in existence soon after this in the Talamancan area of Costa Rica where most Bribrí currently reside. The Rivas Site, located in Western Talamanca north of the town of San Isidro, is described as a ceremonial and trade center, due the existence of elite burials nearby which contain gold artifacts and fancy polychrome pottery, some originating from areas south in Panama and east on the other side of the Talamancan Range, in addition to monumental architecture and petroglyphs (Quilter and Vargas 1995). The oldest radiocarbon date obtained from the site is 3,380 years before present. This puts the possible initial construction of Rivas soon after the earliest known dates of maize cultivation in the area. The presence of large open mouthed bowls as much as a meter in diameter was also found at Rivas; perhaps these were made for the consumption of the fermented corn beverage, chicha, in ceremonial contexts.

So, thinking about the Bribrí creation story and taking into account the archaeological data presented in Arford and Horn and Quilter and Vargas, I was wondering, “How can you explain that Sibö created the Bribrí from maize seeds when the ancestors of the Bribrí were in the area fully 5,000 years before maize?” I have two opposing hypotheses: first, the creation story developed over time soon after a group of migrants traveling from Beringia by way of the Pacific coast settled in Talamanca. To account for the conundrum of the time lag in the arrival of maize I suggest that initially the story stated that Sibö used a different seed, perhaps cacao, to create his people. The story was then transformed as maize became a more important part of the culture 5,000 years later. This change over time of “myths” is common. For example in the Creek Narrative, The Orphan and the Origin of Corn, the use of the word “corn” initially increases over time and then dramatically decreases (Swanton 1929). My second hypothesis is that the current Bribrí creation story only became popular after the beginning of maize cultivation, perhaps signaling the coalescing of hunter gatherer groups into a small scale agricultural society based on the mundane and ritual production and consumption of maize. Could Sibö have been an actual person, perhaps a shaman, who brought corn to the area or was instrumental in its introduction as a crop?

I am a firm believer in the idea that “myths” originate from actual happenings or describe actual people (or the cultural beliefs concerning them). My undergrad professor, Dr. Buys, and I would often discuss the possibility that many of the different “gods” found in cultures throughout the world (my Odin included) were actual shamans who over time were described not as exceptional leaders who brought something essential to the people, but rather as supernatural beings-gods. This is one of the reasons I pursued graduate degrees in anthropology instead of psychology; the unique combination of biology (DNA analysis), archaeology (material remains), and cultural anthropology (studying living peoples) offers the researcher a multitude of tools to address some of these (to me) fascinating puzzles concerning human history and cultural evolution.

Arford, Martin R. and Sally P. Horn (2004) Pollen Evidence of the Earliest Maize Agriculture in Costa Rica. Journal of Latin American Geography 3(1)108-115.

Perego, Ugo A., Hovirag Lancioni, Maribel Tribaldos, Norman Angerhofer, Jayne E. Ekins, Anna Olivieri, Scott R. Woodward, Juan Miguel Pascale, Richard Cooke, Jorge Motta, and Alessandro Achilli  (2012) Decrypting the Mitochondrial Gene Pool of Modern Panamanians. Plos One 7(6):1-10.

Quilter, Jeffrey and Aida Blanco Vargas (1995) Monumental Architecture and Social Organization at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica. Journal of Field Archaeology 22:203-221.

Swanton, John (1929) Three Versions of the Creek Narrative, “The Orphan and the Origin of Corn.” In Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 88:10-17.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dispatches From the Field #3

It was a Friday afternoon and we were putting the finishing touches on the new office building we were constructing for the community. We were listening to the local Talamancan radio station, which was broadcasting on site in Amubri where there was a festival going on. I discovered that the next day there would be an activity called “Jala de Piedra” which involves a bunch of men carrying a big rock somewhere, some kind of Bribrí ritual. I also discovered there is a cantina in Amubri which serves cold beer. Technically, there is no alcohol sold on the reserve but there are two cantinas which existed before the law and they were grandfathered in. I decided, hell yeah, I gotta see this.

The journey to Amubri first involves the 2 to 2 ½ hour walk from Yorkín to Bambu, crossing the Telire River in a canoe to get to Bambu. From there you catch a bus further up the Telire River and again cross in a canoe to get to the other side were another bus picks you up and takes you to Amubri. The festival appeared much like any other, booths set up where people sold crafts and others sold food and chicha (a fermented corn drink, kinda like a batch of homebrew that has been contaminated). After getting some food and milling around for a bit, I noticed people beginning to walk down the road outside of town. I followed. I found out they were going to be starting the Jala de Piedra. The ritual begins with the men tying a big round boulder onto hand cut beams with vines. The contraption is set up in a somewhat rectangular fashion with the beams extending outward so people can grab onto them. The men then tied a long vine leading out from the front of the boulder and its frame. A group of women grabbed onto the vine and the men hoisted the contraption up on their shoulders, accompanied by a bunch of hooting and hollering. The women led the men out of the forest and onto the road leading into town. There were about 15 men supporting the boulder and perhaps as many women leading the way with the vine. When the women decided that the men were tired they would stop, the men would set the boulder down, and the men would take a drink of chicha. After everyone had their drink there would again be a bunch of hooting and hollering and the men would again lift the boulder with the women leading the way down the road. There was a group of people surrounding the men and women as they made their way down the road, taking pictures and videos and trying not to get trampled. After about four stops, in which the men drank chicha, they made it to the Plaza and set the boulder down on the grass. Then an elderly man and two young adults sang a Bribrí ritual song while drumming on tambores. Bribrí ritual songs are interesting in that they contain words that are not part of the Bribrí language. I talked to a few people and none of them knew exactly what the translation was. I was however able to ascertain basically what the ritual meant. The round boulder symbolizes the earth that Sibö made so that he could plant corn kernels in the soil and grow the indigenous people of the world. Sibö instructed the Bribrí to take care of the world. This is why the men carry the boulder symbolizing the world on their shoulders with the women leading the way. This ritual exemplifies the Bribrí kinship pattern in which traditionally the family name is passed down through the women and new husbands go to the homes of their new wives to live. A Bribrí woman can marry an outsider man and he and their children will be considered Bribrí and retain all the clan rights. However, if a Bribrí man marries an outsider woman the same is not true. It also illustrates how the Bribrí have traditionally conceptualized their relationship with the planet; being chosen by Sibö to carry the burden of protecting and caring for all of the natural resources that Sibö created here on earth. Later, I was able to contemplate and discuss this Bribrí ritual with some locals over cold Pilsens in the cantina.

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