The World Ayahuasca Diaspora

Reinventions and Controversies

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Beatriz Labate, Clancy Cavnar, Alex K. Gearin
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume gathers together contributions from academics who participated in an interdisciplinary conference entitled AYA2014, The World Ayahuasca Conference, held in Ibiza in September of 2014. The conference itself demonstrates the wide-ranging interest in ayahuasca that has recently begun to emerge, in that, as the introduction notes, the participants included “650 people from 60 countries, including 40 scientific, legal and public policy experts; some indigenous shamans; key figures from nodes of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions; neoshamans and therapeutic ‘facilitators’; and representatives from ... NGOs with interests in ayahuasca and psychedelic substances” (2).

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drink that, at least traditionally, is brewed from two species of plants found in the Amazonian rainforest—the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of a (DMT-containing) shrub Psychotria viridis. Until fairly recently, the use of ayahuasca was primarily concentrated in the Amazonian regions of South America, predominantly appearing in indigenous or mestizo ritual formats, or (beginning in the middle of the 20th century), in the ceremonies of the two main Brazilian ayahuasca religions, the União do Vegetal (the UDV) or the Santo Daime. In the past few decades, however, interest in ayahuasca (both spiritually and academically) has increased dramatically. Hundreds of thoughtful scholarly articles on ayahuasca have been published; thousands of people are registered members of various Internet forums and social media sites; ayahuasca lodges in the Amazon have flourished, catering to a massive influx of international participants; indigenous shamans are traveling around the globe offering ceremonies; various forms of neo-shamanic/New Age ayahuasca workshops are thriving; and the Brazilian ayahuasca religions now have churches/centers throughout Australasia, Europe, North America, and South America. This volume therefore focuses on the numerous ways in which the use of ayahuasca has expanded and consequently has been transformed, as it has entered numerous new cultural and social settings throughout the globe. 

As is appropriate for such an interdisciplinary area of study, the articles in the volume, which are primarily anthropological/sociological in orientation, cover a lot of ground. After a lucid introduction to some of the central issues that arise when researching the reinvention of ayahuasca as it has spread throughout the globe, the text offers a theoretical discussion of the tensions that exist in various ayahuasca contexts between detraditionalization and retraditionalization; examines the shifting symbolic understandings and ritual forms of the Santo Daime and the UDV; explores the ways in which drinking ayahuasca promotes cultural critiques and environmental appreciation in Australia; offers an intriguing discussion of the at-times-difficult-to-discern identity of ayahuasca itself, especially when examined through the lens of various ayahuasca “analogs”; contributes several chapters on the complex interplay between ayahuasca and various economic forces; and ends with important discussions of the complicated legal and political decisions that have taken place in various countries in the 21st century regarding the use of ayahuasca. 

The text also does not shy away from investigating some of the more controversial topics that have emerged in the field of ayahuasca studies, underscoring the ideological conflicts and legal battles that have arisen as ayahuasca has entered into the global marketplace; looking carefully at the rivalries created by the economic disparities brought about by the influx of ayahuasca tourists into the Amazonian region; emphasizing the need for a close and careful assessment of episodes of sexual harassment and harmful drug interactions that have taken place in different contexts in which ayahuasca is consumed; as well as touching upon the tendency (at least at times) to over-romanticize the indigenous use of ayahuasca, making it difficult to acknowledge the traditional, and ongoing, ways in which ayahuasca has been linked to sorcery and witchcraft.

The text itself also, admirably, discusses the ways in which the field of ayahuasca studies itself inevitably creates rather porous disciplinary borders, leading to creative and fruitful interactions between the personal/spiritual uses of ayahuasca and the academic study of ayahuasca (a study in which multiple sub-fields interact, where researchers in the social sciences and the humanities—with scholars in religious studies as an important and necessary interlocutors—are often in close conversation with experts in governmental and drug policy as well as those who study the neuroscientific and chemical basis of ayahuasca). This multitude of voices may at times seem like a cacophony, but hopefully with thoughtful volumes such as this one, the field of the study of ayahuasca will continue to contribute to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of this emergent and important global phenomenon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

G. William Barnard is Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Beatriz Caiuby Labate is Visiting Professor at the Center for Research and Post Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), in Guadalajara, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Drug Policy Program of the Center for Economic Research and Education (CIDE) in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Clancy Cavnar is currently a licensed clinical psychologist working with dual diagnosed clients. In 2011, she received a doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, California, with a dissertation on gay and lesbian people's experiences with ayahuasca. She is Research Associate of the Nucleus for Interdisciplinary Studies of Psychoactives (NEIP), and co-editor, with Beatriz Caiuby Labate, of three books: The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca (2014); Prohibition, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights: Regulating Traditional Drug Use (2014) and Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond (2014).

Alex K. Gearin's doctoral dissertation involves an ethnographic study of ayahuasca use in Australia and focuses on sensory, medical, and ethical themes of ritual practice and social organisation. He currently lectures in anthropology at the University of Queensland and works in the UQ Anthropology Museum, Brisbane, Australia.


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