The cosmic serpent, p.1
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       The Cosmic Serpent, p.1

           Jeremy Narby
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The Cosmic Serpent

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page





  Chapter 4 - ENIGMA IN RIO

  Chapter 5 - DEFOCALIZING






  Chapter 11 - “WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?”









  The Cosmic Serpent reads more like a mystery novel than a standard anthropological study. I was particularly impressed by the honesty of the account, the cross-disciplinary nature of the argument, and the courage and reasoned conviction with which the author makes his argument.

  Much is written lately about “indigenous knowledge,” especially in the field of traditional plant and medical knowledge. The vast number of indigenous societies in the Amazon region have received much fame recently in this area because of their knowledge and use of hallucinogenic materials. Modern pharmaceutical companies are especially interested in this knowledge, and many indigenous leaders and organizations have spoken about the need to protect their intellectual and cultural property rights, as well as to capture some of the economic benefits of such knowledge.

  Jeremy Narby’s book places the discussion of indigenous knowledge in a deeper philosophical and cosmological framework, arguing for an epistemic correspondence between the knowledge of Amazonian shamans and modern biologists. The argument which Narby makes mines and reinterprets many of the sources in anthropology and biology on the subject. Some may argue that what Narby has found is mere chance or metaphoric correspondence, while others will appreciate the subtleties and truth value of the argument.

  —Shelton H. Davis, Senior Sociologist World Bank

  There is superstition in avoiding superstition, as Bacon once remarked, and I honor Jeremy Narby for finding his way through the numerous thickets that scientific reason has left behind in its attempts to turn plain truths of experience into the superstition it avoids. The Cosmic Serpent deals with the visionary experience that comes from taking ayahuasca, and Mr. Narby finds the claim that a plant means what it looks like is no superstition but a fact of experience: moreover, that the images of snakes and ladders that accompany the experience refer not only to the appearance of the ayahuasca vine but to that of the DNA spiral. To affirm this likeness he marshals the evidence of molecular biology and leaves the reader with the stunning intimation that the ayahuascan view of the world is none other than the scientific view seen from another perspective, that of selfhood rather than of no self at all.

  Self is one topic that science is always superstitiously avoiding, and its biological origin has been called a veritable enigma. Narby’s book is a most intriguing and informative essay in restoring self to its proper place in the scheme of things, and makes the enigma look more like an open secret. It confirms my belief that the new paradigm we have come to expect will have the heart of the old one to give it life, and I see the book’s cosmic serpent as the herald of this wonderful moment.

  —Francis Huxley, social anthropologist Author of The Way of the Sacred


  Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam

  a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

  New York

  Note on the translation: The author wrestled the text from French

  into English with the assistance of Jon Christensen.

  Most Tarcher/Putnam books are available at special quantity discounts for bulk

  purchases for sales promotions, premiums, fund-raising, and educational needs.

  Special books or book excerpts also can be created to fit specific needs.

  For details, write Putnam Special Markets,

  375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

  Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam

  a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, NY 10014

  First Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam trade paperback edition 1999

  Copyright © 1998 by Jeremy Narby

  All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not

  be reproduced in any form without permission.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Narby, Jeremy.

  [Serpent cosmique. English]

  The cosmic serpent : DNA and the origins of knowledge / by Jeremy Narby.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-49435-6

  1. Indians of South America—Drug use—Peru. 2. Shamanism—Peru. 3. Hallucino-

  genic drugs—Peru. 4. Knowledge, Theory of—Miscellanea. 5. Molecular biology.

  6. DNA. 7. Ethnology—Peru—Field work. 8. Ashaninca Indians—Drug use.

  9. Ashaninca Indians—Ethnobotany.

  I. Title.

  F3429.3.D79N-36344 CIP












  Rachel, Arthur,

  Loïk, and Gaspar

  Chapter 1


  The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly snake. “One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca,” he said. But he was not smiling.

  It was early 1985, in the community of Quirishari in the Peruvian Amazon’s Pichis Valley. I was twenty-five years old and starting a two-year period of fieldwork to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University. My training had led me to expect that people would tell tall stories. I thought my job as an anthropologist was to discover what they really thought, like some kind of private detective.

  During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros, or shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when they said this.

  I had read and enjoyed several books by Carlos Castaneda on the uses of hallucinogenic plants by a “Yaqui sorcerer.” But I knew that the anthropological profession had largely discredited Castaneda, accusing him of implausibility, plagiarism, and fabrication. 1 Though no one explicitly blamed him for getting too close to his subject matter, it seemed clear that a subjective consideration of indigenous hallucinogens could lead to problems within the profession. For me, in 1985, the ayahuasqueros’ world represented a gray area that was taboo for the research I was conducting.

  Furthermore, my investigation on Ashaninca resource use was not neutral. In the early 1980s, international development agencies were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the “development” of the Peruvian Amazon. This consisted of confiscating indigenous territories and turning them over to market-oriented individuals, who would then deve
lop the “jungle” by replacing it with cow pastures. Experts justified these colonization and deforestation projects by saying that Indians didn’t know how to use their lands rationally.2 I wanted to argue the contrary by doing an economic, cultural, and political analysis showing the rational nature of Ashaninca resource use. To emphasize the hallucinatory origin of Ashaninca ecological knowledge would have been counterproductive to the main argument underlying my research.

  After two months in the field, I experienced an unexpected setback. I had left Quirishari for ten days to renew my visa in Lima. On returning to the community I was met with indifference. The following day, during an informal meeting in front of the house I was staying in, people asked whether it was true that I was going to return to my country to become a doctor. The question surprised me, as I usually described my future profession as “anthropologist,” rather than “doctor,” to avoid any confusion with “medical practitioner.” It turned out that several employees of the government’s development project, the Pichis-Palcazu Special Project, had come to Quirishari in my absence and inquired about my activities. In answer the people showed them my file containing samples of medicinal plants. The project employees then scolded the inhabitants of Quirishari for being naive Indians—did they not realize that I was going to become a doctor and make a fortune with their plants?

  In fact I had been classifying these plants to show that the tropical forest, which seemed “unused” to the experts flying over it in airplanes, represented a pharmacy for the Ashaninca, among other things. I had explained this to the inhabitants of Quirishari at the beginning of my stay. However, I knew that any further explanation would only confirm their suspicions, as I was truly going to become a “doctor.” I therefore proposed to put an immediate stop to the collection of medicinal plants and to entrust the contentious file to the community’s primary school. This settled the matter and dissipated the tension in the air—but it also removed one of the empirical bases on which I had been hoping to build a thesis demonstrating the rational nature of Ashaninca resource use.

  After four months of fieldwork I left Quirishari to visit the neighboring community of Cajonari, a seven-mile walk through the forest. The inhabitants of Cajonari had let it be known that it was not fair for Quirishari to have the exclusive monopoly on the anthropologist who was giving “accounting” classes. These were actually informal arithmetic lessons that I had started to teach at the community’s request.

  People in Cajonari gave me a warm welcome. We spent several evenings telling stories, singing for my tape recorder, and drinking manioc beer, a milky liquid that tastes like cold, fermented potato soup. During the day we did arithmetic, worked in the gardens, or listened to the songs taped the previous evening. Everyone wanted to listen to their own performance.

  One evening in front of a house half a dozen men and I were drinking manioc beer and chatting in the twilight. The conversation veered to the question of “development,” a daily subject in the valley since the arrival of the Pichis-Palcazu Special Project and its $86 million budget. In general the Ashaninca expressed frustration, because they were continually being told that they did not know how to produce for a market, whereas their gardens were full of potential products and everyone dreamed of making a little money.

  We were discussing the differences between Ashaninca agriculture and “modern” agriculture. I already understood that, despite their apparent disorderliness, indigenous gardens were polycultural masterpieces containing up to seventy different plant species that were mixed chaotically, but never innocently. During the conversation I praised their practices and ended up expressing my astonishment at their botanical mastery, asking, “So how did you learn all this?”

  A man named Ruperto Gomez replied, “You know, brother Jeremy, to understand what interests you, you must drink ayahuasca.”

  I pricked up my ears. I knew that ayahuasca was the main hallucinogen used by the indigenous peoples of Western Amazonia. Ruperto, who was not turning down the calabashes of beer, continued in a confident tone: “Some say it is occult, which is true, but it is not evil. In truth, ayahuasca is the television of the forest. You can see images and learn things.” He laughed as he said this, but no one else smiled. He added, “If you like, I can show you sometime.”3

  I replied that I would indeed be interested. Ruperto then launched into a comparison between my “accounting” science and his “occult” science. He had lived with the Shipibo, the northern neighbors reputed for their powerful medicine. He had followed a complete ayahuasquero apprenticeship, spending long months in the forest eating only bananas, manioc, and palm hearts and ingesting huge quantities of hallucinogens under the watchful eye of a Shipibo ayahuasquero. He had just spent eight years away from Cajonari, over the course of which he had also served in the Peruvian army—a source of personal pride.

  On my part, I had certain prejudices about shamanism. I imagined the “veritable” shaman to be an old wise person, traditional and detached—somewhat like Don Juan in the Castaneda books. Ruperto the wanderer, who had learned the techniques of another tribe, did not correspond to my expectations. However, no old wise person had stepped up to initiate me, and I was not going to be choosy. Ruperto had made his proposal spontaneously, publicly, and as part of a bargain. In return I was to give him a special “advanced” accounting course. So I accepted his offer, especially since it seemed that it might not materialize once the effects of the beer had worn off.

  Two weeks later I was back in Quirishari, when Ruperto appeared for his first private lesson. He told me before leaving, “I will return next Saturday. Prepare yourself the day before, eat neither salt nor fat, just a little boiled or roasted manioc.”

  He returned on the appointed day with a bottle full of a reddish liquid that was corked with an old corncob. I had not followed his instructions, because, deep down, I did not really take the matter seriously. The idea of not eating certain foods before an event seemed to me a superstition. For lunch I had nibbled a bit of smoked deer meat and some fried manioc.

  Two other people had agreed to take ayahuasca under Ruperto’s direction. At nightfall, the four of us were sitting on the platform of a quiet house. Ruperto lit a cigarette that he had rolled in notebook paper and said, “This is toé.” He passed it around. If I had known at that point that toé is a kind of datura, I would perhaps not have inhaled the smoke, because datura plants are powerful and dangerous hallucinogens that are widely recognized for their toxicity.4 The toé tasted sweet, though the cigarette paper could have been finer.

  Then we each swallowed a cup of ayahuasca. It is extremely bitter and tastes like acrid grapefruit juice. Thirty seconds after swallowing it, I felt nauseated.

  I did not take notes or keep time during the experience. The description that follows is based on notes taken the next evening.

  First Ruperto sprayed us with perfumed water (agua florida) and tobacco smoke. Then he sat down and started to whistle a strikingly beautiful melody.

  I began seeing kaleidoscopic images behind my closed eyes, but I was not feeling well. Despite Ruperto’s melody, I stood up to go outside and vomit. Having disposed of the deer meat and fried manioc remnants, I returned feeling relieved. Ruperto told me that I had probably eliminated the ayahuasca also and that, if I wanted, I could have some more. He checked my pulse and declared me strong enough for a “regular” dose, which I swallowed.

  Ruperto started whistling again as I sat down in the darkness of the platform. Images started pouring into my head. In my notes I describe them as “unusual or scary: an agouti [forest rodent] with bared teeth and a bloody mouth; very brilliant, shiny, and multicolored snakes; a policeman giving me problems; my father looking worried. ...”

  Deep hallucinations submerged me. I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet long. I was terrified. “These enormous snakes are there, my eyes are closed and I see a spectacular world of brilliant lights, and in the middle of th
ese hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me without words. They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. It is profoundly true that I am just a human being, and, most of the time, I have the impression of understanding everything, whereas here I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed. I feel like crying in view of the enormity of these revelations. Then it dawns on me that this self-pity is a part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed that I no longer dare feel ashamed. Nevertheless, I have to throw up again.”

  I stood up feeling totally lost, stepped over the fluorescent snakes like a drunken tightrope walker, and, begging their forgiveness, headed toward a tree next to the house.

  I relate this experience with words on paper. But at the time, language itself seemed inadequate. I tried to name what I was seeing, but mostly the words would not stick to the images. This was distressing, as if my last link to “reality” had been severed. Reality itself seemed to be no more than a distant and one-dimensional memory. I managed nonetheless to understand my feelings, such as “poor little human being who has lost his language and feels sorry for himself.”

  I have never felt so completely humble as I did at that moment. Leaning against the tree, I started throwing up again. In Ashaninca, the word for ayahuasca is kamarampi, from the verb kamarank, “to vomit.” I closed my eyes, and all I could see was red. I could see the insides of my body, red. “I regurgitate not a liquid, but colors, electric red, like blood. My throat hurts. I open my eyes and feel presences next to me, a dark one to my left, about a yard away from my head, and a light one to my right, also a yard away. As I am turned to my left, I am not bothered by the dark presence, because I am aware of it. But I jump when I become aware of the light presence to my right, and I turn to look at it. I can’t really see it with my eyes; I feel so bad, and control my reason so little, that I do not really want to see it. I remain lucid enough to understand that I am not truly vomiting blood. After a while I start wondering what to do. I have so little control that I abandon myself to the instructions that seem to be coming from outside me: now it is time to stop vomiting, now it is time to spit, to blow nose, to rinse mouth with water, not to drink water. I am thirsty, but my body stops me from drinking.”

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