Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate & Clancy Cavnar, Oxford University Press, 2014.
The editors presented this book recently at the 2014 World Ayahuasca Conference. This volume, part of the Oxford Ritual Studies series, provides us with the results of fieldwork done by a variety of anthropologists in many areas of the Amazon (Peru, Brazil and Colombia) and some areas outside of this region (Southern Brazil and urban centres in the region). It springs forth from the Amazon Conference: Amazonian Shamanism, Psychoactive Plants and Ritual Reinvention that took place at Heidelberg University in 2010.
The essays focus on different groups of people that use ayahuasca: on tribes that use ayahuasca in what is often considered a traditional setting, on tribes that have relatively recently adopted the use of ayahuasca, on mestizo shamanism and on the tourists that flow in mostly from North America and Europe. This diversity gives us a varied collection of essays, although all show how ayahuasca is used as a way to build culture and identity, as well as build connections between tribes and/or groups.
The picture that emerges out of the various essays is one that shows that some of the widespread ideas surrounding the history of ayahuasca as well as the way ayahuasca has been used traditionally are unfounded and in dire need of revision. It is shown for example that most tribes described in this volume only started using ayahuasca as we know it today relatively recently: some, like the Shipibo, around 150-200 years ago and others only since a few decades. This poses questions about ‘traditionality’ and how the use of ayahuasca has changed the cultural identity of these tribes. In general the authors conclude that the adoption of ayahuasca has caused such tribes to form their identity around the use of ayahuasca, while the growth of tourism has amplified this effect. Another effect of tourism is that the ‘traditional way to use ayahuasca’ has transformed through the expectations and conceptual frameworks of the tourists, which results in retreat centers that focus on personal development and healing with an eclectic approach that differs strongly from the ritual shamanic context within which the local population uses ayahuasca. Elements from other spiritual traditions are incorporated in the treatment, such as sweat lodges, Ayurvedic treatments, and so on. The essays show that these practices are shaped by cultural exchange, instead of a one-way dissemination of native wisdom.
The question whether this is a positive or negative development is only hinted at, but the message of the book is that, while it shows that the spread of ayahuasca is more recent than thought and that its use has furthermore transformed continuously throughout this process, the use of ayahuasca in the forming of cultural identities is no less legitimate. Summarily, the essays open up some new paths for researching the interplay between tradition, culture, identity and ayahuasca. This book is a welcome addition for those interested in the use of ayahuasca in the Amazon and beyond, for both anthropologists and those with an interest in ayahuasca in general. Highly recommended.