Shamans and scientists

By Jeremy Narby, anthropologist with Swiss NGO Nouvelle Plančte and author of The Cosmic Serpent, DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. From Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in the Context of Genetic Engineering (PDF)

In 1999, three molecular biologists travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to see whether they could obtain bio-molecular information in the visions they had in sessions orchestrated by an indigenous shaman. They had no previous experience of ayahuasca shamanism or of the Amazon, though they did have an interest in alternative healing traditions and shamanism. Their age ranged from the late-30s to mid-60s. One worked as a scientist in an American genomics company. Another was a professor at a French University and a member of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). The third taught in a Swiss University and was a director of a research laboratory.

None of the scientists spoke Spanish, and the indigenous ayahuasquero did not speak English or French, so I translated for them. The first thing to report is that the scientists and the shaman had many long conversations. They did not cease to have things to say to one another. The shaman had been studying plants, as an ayahuasquero, for 37 years. He answered the biologists' questions for days on end. He also conducted night-time ayahuasca sessions, in which the biologists took part. They saw many things in their visions, including DNA molecules and chromosomes.

The American biologist, who normally worked on deciphering the human genome, said she saw a chromosome from the perspective of a protein flying above a long strand of DNA. She saw DNA sequences known as "CpG islands," which she had been puzzling over at work, and which are found upstream of about sixty percent of all human genes. She saw they were structurally distinct from the surrounding DNA and that this structural difference allowed them to be easily accessed and therefore to serve as "landing pads" for transcription proteins, which dock on to the DNA molecule and make copies of precise genetic sequences. She said the idea that CpG island structure enables them to function as landing pads had not crossed her mind previously, and that genomic research would soon be able to verify this hypothesis.

The French professor had been studying the sperm duct of animals for many years, first in lizards, then in mice. When a sperm cell comes out of the testis and enters the sperm duct, it is incapable of fertilizing an egg. It only becomes fertile once it has travelled through the duct, where about fifty different kinds of proteins work on it. The professor and his team had spent years trying to understand which protein makes the sperm cell fertile. Understanding this could have implications for the development of a male contraceptive. He brought three questions to one of the ayahuasca sessions. First, was there a key protein that makes sperm cells fertile? Second, why had it not been possible to find the answer to that question after years of research? And, third, was the mouse the appropriate model for studying fertility in men? He received answers from a voice that spoke in his visions. In reply to the first question, the voice said: "No, it is not a key protein. In this organ, there are no key proteins, just many different ones which have to act together for fertility to be achieved." To the second question, it said: "I already answered that with your first question." To the third question, it said: "This question is not important enough for me to answer. The answer can be found without ayahuasca. Try to work in another direction."

The Swiss scientist wanted to consult the shamanic sphere about the ethics of modifying plant genomes. She wanted to know if it was appropriate to add genes to plants to make them resistant to diseases. It so happens that tobacco is an important plant for both genetic engineers and Amazonian shamans. Shamans from many different indigenous societies say they speak in their visions with the "mother of tobacco," or the essence of the plant. The biologist reported that she spoke during an ayahuasca-influenced meditation with an entity that the shaman subsequently identified as the mother of tobacco. This entity informed her that tobacco's fundamental role was to serve all living beings. It also informed her that manipulating tobacco's genome was not a problem in itself, so long as the plant could play its fundamental role in an adequate environment, and so long as it was in keeping with that environment. The biologist saw, in a vision, a resplendent plant growing in a desert thanks to an extra gene which allowed it to resist drought. She came away from this experience with the understanding that genetic manipulations were best gauged case by case, in a way that takes into consideration the scientist's intention as well as the way in which the modified plants will be used by society.

In interviews conducted in their respective laboratories four months after the Amazonian experience, the three biologists agreed on a number of points. All three said the experience of ayahuasca shamanism changed their way of looking at themselves and at the world, as well as their appreciation of the capacities of the human mind. They all expressed great respect for the shaman's skill and knowledge. They all received information and advice about paths of research they were on. The two women reported contact with "plant teachers," which they experienced as independent entities; they both said that contacting a plant teacher had shifted their way of understanding reality. The man said that all the things he saw and learned in his visions were somehow already in his mind, but that ayahuasca had helped him see into his mind and put them together. He did not think he had experienced contact with an independent intelligence, but he did think ayahuasca was a powerful tool for exploring the mind.

The scientific information and imagery accessed in ayahuasca visions by the three biologists were certainly related to the information and images already in their minds. They did not have any big revelations. "Ayahuasca is not a shortcut to the Nobel prize," the French professor remarked. They all said that ayahuasca shamanism was a harder path to knowledge than science, and as scientists, they found specific difficulties with it. For example, getting knowledge from an ayahuasca experience involves a highly emotional, subjective experience that is not reproducible. One cannot have the same ayahuasca experience twice, nor can somebody else have the same ayahuasca experience as oneself. This makes it almost contrary to the method of science, which consists of designing objective experiments that can be repeated by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The scientists said that more research was needed; and that this would require preparing questions carefully, and working with qualified shamans in well-defined conditions. And they are all planning to return to the Amazon at some point to continue working on this.

They conducted this preliminary experiment over two weeks. Afterward they visited a school for bilingual, intercultural education, where young women and men from fourteen indigenous societies are learning to teach indigenous knowledge and science, in their mother tongue and in Spanish. They are Aguaruna, Shipibo, Huitoto, Ashaninca and so on. The school's goal is to train indigenous primary school teachers. Each people has elected an old "indigenous specialist" to work at the school as the keeper and teacher of its knowledge, language and lore.

The scientists met with the school's director and with the old indigenous specialists. They spoke positively about their recent experience with an indigenous shaman. But several of the specialists warned them about the abuses that can occur with ayahuasca shamanism. They said that sorcerers worked with ayahuasca and shot darts into people to cause disease. They said ayahuasca was double-edged. "The plant can show you things that will harm you," said one. They emphasized that using ayahuasca required the presence of a well-trained and talented ayahuasquero.

The specialists asked the scientists about science: What was its nature? Where did its center lie? One of the scientists replied that science was fragmented into many disciplines and was practised in many countries. He went on to say that he thought it was very important that young indigenous people learned about science, because it was currently the dominant form of knowledge around the world. In reply, one specialist said he thought this was true, but he also thought that the scientists might consider sending their children to the Amazon to learn about indigenous knowledge. That way, he said, they too would benefit from a complete education.

Once everybody had spoken, the Aguaruna director of the school thanked us for our visit and said: "Here in the Amazon, our knowledge has been taken many times by others, but we have never received any benefits from it. Now we would like to see some returns." He said that an agreement regarding the compensation of indigenous knowledge should be established before any further research was conducted. This experiment seemed to show that scientists can learn things by working with indigenous Amazonian shamans. Some observers have suggested that shamanism, as classically defined, is reaching its end. But bringing shamans and scientists together seems more like a beginning.

Beings of the Vegetation by Pablo Amaringo from the Gallery of Usko-Ayar art