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Although many South American indigenous societies employ ayahuasca preparations for shamanic and social purposes, a recent journal article describes some unique ways that the Piaroa use the plant mixtures. Robin Rodd, the author, points out that portions of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are used in combination with other compounds by peoples throughout the Amazon region of South America to release and control desired hallucinogenic properties.

The article had to review the technical details first. Evidently, a number of societies prepare preparations of B. caapi, along with other plant compounds containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), to form hallucinogenic drinks. Compounds called harmala alkaloids, the active ingredients in the B. caapi plant samples, help to denature gut enzymes, and the DMT provides the active hallucinogenic properties.

Ayahuasca is probably the best known name for drinks prepared by shamans in the South American societies, but they also make drinks such as yagé and natéma. Rodd focuses his article on the unique ways the Piaroa prepare and use the compounds as hallucinogens—and for other purposes.

The Piaroa shamans use four different psychoactive plants for different situations, but the one they call tuhuipä (B. caapi), colloquially called capi in Spanish, is one of the most important. Their other major psychoactive compound, called yopo, is derived from the pulverized seeds of a leguminous tree, Anadenanthera peregtrina. Several hours after they drink the capi, the shamans use the yopo preparations, which include some B. caapi, as a snuff.

The Piaroa, unlike other South American societies, use the cambium layer in the elbow portions of the vine, a bulbous part of the plant that only occurs on mature specimens. Shamans in certain areas of Piaroa territory believe that these portions of the plants provide the strongest possible hallucinogens. They describe the flavor as very strong and acrid. They consider it to be the “father of all capi,” and so strong that “it gives you visions all night.”

After gathering the proper amounts of the plants, they scrape off the outer bark from the stems and heat the remaining portions next to a fire for a few minutes. The heat makes it easier to separate the cambium layer on the stems from the piths. Rodd argues that other societies which prepare ayahuasca are not so fanatical as to use only the cambium in making their preparations.

The shamans then use the B. caapi in two different ways. They may suck on a wad for several hours, or they may prepare an oral drink from the shavings. They consume the capi without inhaling the yopo snuff afterwards in order to help perceive the motivations, feelings, desires, and mental states of other people.

On the other hand, they will prepare especially strong oral potions when they want to use the yopo afterwards—in order to experience powerful visions. Since the success of a shaman depends on his ability to maintain social harmony, he must be able to perceive the needs of other people and figure out the contexts of their desires. The hallucinogens seem to help. The extra-strength drugs may be used for especially important events, such as divinations, preventive rituals, sorcery battles, and initiations. Group ceremonies—funerals, rites of various sorts, and increase festivals—may also require the shamans to use strong hallucinogens.

The two compounds, capi and yopo, allow the shaman to predict the future and to divine solutions to individual problems: whom to marry, where to hunt, where to clear a food plot, how to make a spouse happier, and the like. When a shaman is asked by someone how to get along better with family members, he will prepare his hallucinogens to divine the answers.

The shamans assess the health of their communities based mostly on what they perceive about people rather than what they say. In other words, the shaman sucks on B. caapi in order to see the truth better. A shaman can often be identified as the man with a big wad in his cheek.

The capi has other uses in addition to its hallucinogenic properties. Piaroa hunters use it before going on hunting trips to provide extra strength, to fend off evil spirits, and to suppress hunger during long journeys. They believe that it aids their night vision. It gives the hunter, in the words of one shaman, the “eyes of a jaguar,” which is famed for its night-hunting ability. Rodd has even found literature suggesting that jaguars may eat B. caapi and become intoxicated by it. Capi is also used as a stimulant in some communities.

The author indicates that he has personally consumed capi, both as a beverage and as a wad on which he has sucked “on numerous occasions and in a range of contexts concordant with traditional [Piaroa] use (p.305).” He was able to verify that Piaroa shamans derive stimulation from the drugs for varying periods of time, depending on the ways they consumed it and how large the dosages were. “High doses produced sensations of heightened empathy and the ability to reason about these feelings (p.305),” he reports.

He concludes that consuming capi both within and outside the context of rituals may help the Piaroa maintain positive emotional social settings. The long term use of the drug, particularly in non-ritual situations, “may have coordinated group affect and produced antidepressant-like effects (p.305).” It is thus an indigenous, socially-approved, group anti-depressant that helps keep the people peaceful.

Rodd, Robin. 2008. “Reassessing the Cultural and Psychopharmacological Significance of Banisteriopsis caapi: Preparation, Classification and Use Among the Piaroa of Southern Venezuela.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 40(3): 301-307