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Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives
by Marlene Dobkin De Rios
Prism Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by La Malice, 5/31/2006

Marlene Dobkin de Rios is an anthropology scholar who specialized in the relationship between primitive societies—essentially from the american continent—and mind-altering substances.

Her research is based on solid archeological and scientific references and supported by field work in various areas of Peru. She is one of the most visible and passionate scholars concerning South American ayahuasca brews in the English language.

In her book Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives, 11 traditional societies are examined, some of them long-gone and some still active. The ethnographies start with the Australian Aborigenes and their use of pituri (Duboisia Hopwoodii), a plant adapted to their desert nomadic life. It is used to facilitate social interactions and relieve them of their basic need to eat and drink. Follow, the Siberian reindeer herdsmen and their historic use of the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria mushroom), starting point of modern shamanic studies. Its role was central and extremely valued in their culture, facilitating comunication with the supernatural.

The list of traditional psychoactive using cultures continues with the Plains Indians of North America, who obtained some of their sacred substances through trade, mostly from South of the Mexican border. They primarily used tobacco, datura and the mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) in a ritual context based on natural and animal powers. The New Guinean highlanders represent an exception in the entheogens-using primitive societies, for they are the only ones not to restrict their use to a particular social class or situation. All members, regardless of their age or sex, eat certain psychotropic mushrooms (Psilocybe kumaenorum), that seemingly randomly lure them in very anti-social behaviours, but only during the dry season.

The Nazca fishermen from south coastal Peru had the coca bush and the San Pedro in their pharmacology. Their use is reflected in their very rich ceramic art works and the massive earthworks, the Nazca lines, only visible from an aerial point of view. The author links these lines to magical astral travels of the Nazca shamans.
The Mochica of Peru, of special interest to the author, reflected their use of San Pedro and Datura in their ceramic artwork. The use has survided to modern times as a treatment for magically-induced illnesses.

The Ancient Mayas of central america used psychotropic mushrooms, toad venom and waterlily roots in a highly mystical and ritual context. From their civilization originate the famous mushroom stones found mostly in Guatemala. Further north in Mexico are the Ancient Aztecs whose extremely stratified and complex civilization rivaled that of ancient Egypt. They had an extensive natural and botanical pharmacology perpetuated and supported by written knowledge. It included the peyote cactus, mushrooms, datura, and morning glory seeds. Follow the Inca of Peru whose life revolved around the use of Coca leaves. Interestingly the author points to the far anteriority of Coca to the establishment of their empire. Coca was central to their medicine and a sign of vigor and endurance and its cultivation areas were considered sacred.

We then switch to the African continent with the Fang of Zaire, which (re)discovered the use of Iboga as a cultural restructuring agent among the social chaos generated by the post-colonization period. THe religious revitalization movement Bwiti emerged as a consequence in all western Africa, with a strong emfasis on revealed knowledge.

The ethnographies end with the urban amazonian Mestizos of Peru, a very mixed society where city dwellers meets with jungle farmers and degenerating primitive groups. Folks healers are called ayahuasqueros in reference to the traditional ayahuasca brews that they elaborate. They create and embody an amalgam of traditional practices and modern medical science, both for magical and non-magical illnesses.

The second part of the book elaborates on all the ethnographies and points to cultural universals such as the holiness of the entheogens and their use, the cultural patterning of visions, the restricted and ritualized use, their healing, divination and teaching functions, and the lack of abuse.

The book, somewhat aged, emerged in the late 1970s and was first published in 1984. Its focus is definitely anthropological, grounded in the daily or occasional practices, uses, and rituals of those 11 societies, and in their historical developments. Belief systems are pointed to but not a central theme, sometimes leaving the reader with an unsatisfied curiosity. Showing a direct relationship between entheogen use and cosmologies seems to be strong intention of the author, though we could object that the use of enthogens is grounded in practicality for the studied people’s lives, and that the author tends to easily assume positions that fit with her argumentation.

The style is scientific and reflects a typically Western vision, caracterized by a lack of insider’s perspectives. An overall lack of poetry and flow in the style left me a bit disappointed. The book’s references are relatively old and in general it would greatly benefit from an updated edition.

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