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Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America
by Constantino Manuel Torres & David Repke
Haworth Herbal Press 
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 2/16/2009

Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America by Constantino Manuel Torres and David B. Repke is an exhaustive overview detailing the botany, geography, history, mythology, archeology, chemistry, and pharmacology of this widely used entheogen. Although there has been some debate regarding the nature of the effects of bufotenine (the primary constituent in Anadenanthera-based snuffs), as Sasha Shulgin remarks in his foreword, “This book neatly summarizes all [the] earlier published data and brings it up to date. The inescapable conclusion — bufotenine is indeed a psychoactive alkaloid.”

Following a taxonomic overview, presenting botanical synonyms and indigenous names for the genus Anadenanthera (which contains two species and two subspecies), Torres and Repke jump into the history of Anadenanthera preparations. They draw from early colonial writings chronicling entheobotanical rituals and/or recording assorted cultures’ myths related to such use, paraphernalia (snuff tubes and trays, pipes, enema syringes, and vessels still containing snuff powder), and artistic depictions of snuffing implements or of Anadenanthera plants. An appendix provides references related to archeological evidence for 57 indigenous groups who have used Anadenanthera, mostly as a snuff, occasionally smoked, and rarely as an enema or potion. Specifics for numerous groups known or believed to have used Anadenanthera seeds are discussed, relating geographic details where each group resided. (Since my knowledge of geography is lacking, I appreciated the four maps that the authors included.)

The book is considerably enhanced by 59 high quality black & white plates, 41 of which contain photographs. Many of the remaining plates are attractive pen-and-ink drawings by Donna Torres. The plates are collected together in the center of the book, and this arrangement (while no doubt practical for printing reasons) provokes my first minor complaint. References to the images were so frequent throughout the text that I was forever flipping back and forth to view what was being discussed. Nevertheless, the inclusion of so many wonderful images was particularly appreciated during the speculations related to how specific iconography and mythos could have transferred between groups in different geographic areas that may have traded in snuffs or seeds.

One ethnographic tale explained how the Taíno (living on the north cost of Hispaniola) were instructed, by taking snuff, on the proper manner in which to carve wooden idols of zemís, the supernatural beings central to their spiritual lives. Certainly, when one sees some of the imagery decorating the paraphernalia and sculpture of the cultures who used tryptaminic snuffs, it is easy to suspect that the visionary states they entered impacted the art they produced. Some of the weird little dudes and patterns depicted seem to be straight out of my own DMT visions (or those of the psychedelic artist Keiichi Tanaami). Near the end of the book, a trip report from Christian Rätsch echoes this idea. Regarding his bioassay of a snuff made from Anadenanthera colubrina var. cebil, Rätsch remarks: A rushing tumult of patterns poured across my visual field. Every point was the source of streams and rivers of braided ropes of light. These braided and unbraided themselves in a vast tangle. All this took place at breakneck speed. A panorama of flowing designs — the exact patterns depicted in the nimbus surrounding the head of the Chavín deity! I marveled for minutes at the interlocking tessellation of these geometric shapes. They possessed a multiple interlocking penetrated arrangement which matched the characteristic style of Tiahuanaco artwork. At that moment I was convinced that the Tiahuanaco artists used this snuff to inspire their work.

Some accounts of ethnographic use quaintly reflect the biases of their authors, such as this excerpt from La Condamine, who explored the Amazon in 1743, and described snuff use by the Omagua. Discussing the ground, roasted Anadenanthera seeds, Condamine remarked:

They cause inebriation lasting 24 hours, during which it is pretended that [the Omagua] have strange visions. […The snuffing], followed by a violent inspiration, causes them to make diverse grimaces.

Similarly, I smiled on reading the following words written by the Jesuit priest Pedro Lozano, sometime in the early 1700s, who described the use of cebil by the Lule:

…these powders are so potent, that [they] deprive [the Lule] of their judgment, inebriated they begin to jump and bounce in an open space, screaming and howling, and singing with dissonant voices…

The book presents a brief accounting of commercial applications for Anadenanthera (the bark and seed pods contain tannins used for treating leather, and the tree itself is a source of lumber), and then moves into a discussion of the difficulties inherent in chemotaxonomy. The reader is presented with the history of chemical analyses of the plant, the sometimes conflicting findings, and speculations related to the biosynthesis of secondary metabolites in plants (and the challenges of precursor loading and radiolabeling techniques in determining routes of biosynthesis).

Torres and Repke close out their presentation of this genus with an in-depth look at the pharmacology of bufotenine, starting with animal experiments. I was intrigued to learn that a study of assorted psychedelics on rats and mice showed that bufotenine reduced aggression, while ibogaine increased muricide (rat murder). I was also surprised to learn that bufotenine is one of several compounds produced in the leaves of the mandarin orange that contribute to egg-laying behavior in swallowtail butterflies, who feed on this plant’s leaves. This situation seems to fly in the face of the idea that plants might create bufotenine as an antifeedant, which is one theory as to why plants produce alkaloids in the first place. Many other animal studies related to bufotenine are covered, and the problems of extrapolating data from rat studies to humans are explained, before the authors move on to describe the known human pharmacology of bufotenine. Within a discussion of the evolution of receptor site theory, Torres and Repke caution that the same problem of synonymy encountered in botany can be found with names of receptors. They also remark that, “Although receptor-mediated events may be part of the spectrum of the action of these drugs, it is more likely that they precipitate a series of neurochemical events that might be called a neuronal cascade.” Then they pony up some evidence supporting such a viewpoint.

Roles that bufotenine may have within mental disease are noted. Although I had previously read about the theory regarding bufotenine’s possible role in schizophrenia (due to it being excreted in the urine of schizophrenics), I had somehow missed more recent work from 1995, that reported bufotenine being consistently found at higher levels in the urine of autistic patients. Past and recent human bioassays are described, including the ethically dubious experiments conducted on prisoners and mental patients. The authors muse over the impact that such studies, as well as the speculation that bufotenine could be an indigenous psychotoxin, had on the public perception of bufotenine (describing bufotenine as the ‘black sheep’ of the tryptamine family”). In their conclusions, they mention Jonathan Ott’s bioassays of bufotenine free-base. And a description of the effects that Torres obtained from snuffing 100 mg of this compound confirms, without question, the psychoactive nature of bufotenine.

I’ll admit that my eyes glazed over a bit while reading that part of the text dealing with receptor site binding. And I suppose that I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few photographs of the assorted indigenous people in South America who still employ visionary snuffs, to add some human faces to the groups being discussed. Yet, as I look out my office window at the Anadenanthera tree in my front yard-only five feet tall, thin and bent, struggling to survive in a too-cold climate-perhaps the only thing that I really felt was missing in Torres and Repke’s otherwise comprehensive book was a map that presented the natural habitat for each of the Anadenanthera species. All in all, this is as solid a reference book as I can possibly imagine, and one which should grace the shelves of every entheophile’s library.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review. Winter Solstice 2008;16(4):166-167.

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