If you are reading this, you probably turn to a doctor with a reputable medical degree when you get sick. Most people, however, do not have access to the kind of health care that you do. Going to a doctor and obtaining drugs is a luxury that many people around the world cannot afford, so they build their own healthcare systems with what they have. Rural communities in South America often have healers that are trained in native practices. They have come to be known as shamans.
Traditional shamans are not often spoken about in the modern healthcare space. Shamans are healers who practice the ancient medicine systems of their people. They sometimes go by different names, and they exist all around the world. Some native medicine systems that have influenced the west have come out of Peru’s Shipibos and Q’eros, the Mexican Mazatecas, and Native American Tribes. Native medicine systems out of Mexico, South America, and the United States have been crucial in bringing psychedelics into mainstream western culture.
When mentioned, shamans are usually dismissed as “woo-woo” practitioners who do not have a place in the scientific community. However, psychedelics would not be at the forefront of mental health treatment if not for shamans who have shared their traditional healing tools with some of society’s most influential figures.
The History of Shamanic Influence in the West
Apart from a few synthetic psychedelics (LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine), most psychedelic medicines were introduced to the west by shamans and native healers in the US, Mexico, Peru, Columbia, and West Africa. North America and Europe had no knowledge of magic mushrooms, DMT, iboga, mescaline, or 5-MeO-DMT until a few early pioneers ventured out into the rural areas of (primarily) Central and South America to discover them and bring news of their experiences back home.
In 1957, American author Gordon Wasson published his account of a psychedelic mushroom ceremony in Life Magazine. The article was titled “The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions.” He had gone with his wife to a rural village in Mexico and convinced a Mazatec Curandera– Maria Sabina– to allow him participation in a magic mushroom ceremony. Maria Sabina became famous in the psychedelic community. Renowned artists such as John Lennon and Bob Dylan visited this rural community to partake in mushroom ceremonies.
Other well-known writers in the 60s and 70s shared their experiences working with shamans and helped spread interest in psychedelic medicines. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs wrote The Yage Letters about their accounts of yage– commonly known as ayahuasca– in the amazon jungle. This helped start a pilgrimage of psychonauts to South America in search of their own profound experiences. The Doors of Perception tells of Aldous Huxley’s experience with mescaline. All of these writings, and more, were instrumental in bringing Shamanic work into western culture.
Shamans act in their communities as doctors act in ours. They are highly esteemed and tasked with maintaining the health of their people. Rather than go to medical school, these types of healers are trained directly by the elder, more experienced shamans. Knowledge about the human mind, body, and spirit is passed down from one generation to the next. They may not be studying molecules under a microscope and performing double-blind placebo studies, but the information that shamans have been able to collect over thousands of years of working with psychedelics and plant medicines is significant.
The Shaman’s Role in Today’s Psychedelic Culture
Western science holds the double-blind placebo study model as the pinnacle of truth. This study design, although not perfect, helps scientists assess the safety and efficacy of medicines and drugs. Traditional medicine systems do not follow this model, so their findings are not often acknowledged as facts. Unlike western healthcare, ancient medicine systems have been developed over thousands of years– many of them before written history. These systems lack the written data that scientists require to acknowledge their findings as facts, so they are largely dismissed instead of respected and embraced. Scientists would benefit from working with Shamans to discover the aspects of psychedelic experiences that they should be studying. Valuing the wisdom of native communities who have developed and passed down their knowledge over thousands of years will only strengthen the base of information that scientists are building in the field of psychedelic medicine.
Psychedelic research is still in its juvenile stage. Initial research was shut down shortly after it began in the 50s, and it has only reemerged with full force over the last few years. Using the knowledge of shamans as a roadmap for the type of research that should be conducted could help expedite the growth of information that scientists have on psychedelics. No one knows psychedelics better than a shaman who has dedicated their life to them– so why not gather their knowledge and put it to the test? Because psychedelic research is so new, scientists are only starting to build a foundation of knowledge on the subject. Shamans could aid in quicker growth by guiding the focus on which aspects of psychedelics are being studied. Scientists may not be embracing traditional healers, but many individuals who advocate for psychedelic medicine have.
A major driving force in destigmatizing psychedelics in the eyes of society has been people of influence speaking publicly about their own experiences. More celebrities and people at the top of all industries are talking about how psychedelics have helped them heal from mental health issues and excel in their field. It has not been uncommon over the past 50 years for artists and musicians to publicize their use of psychedelics, however, it is a fairly new phenomenon for entrepreneurs, executives, and athletes to voice their support. Many of the most successful people in society have benefited from the ancient wisdom of shamans, and scientists researching psychedelic medicines could too.
Recently, Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, shared how taking Ayahuasca in the Amazon Jungle helped him become the NFL MVP two years in a row. He sat down with Aubrey Marcus– a well-known psychedelic advocate– for a two-and-a-half-hour discussion on how their experiences with traditional Peruvian shamans have contributed to their success and quality of life. Aubrey Marcus has become a well-known podcast host, author, and founder/CEO of the ‘total human optimization’ company Onnit. His fascination with psychedelics began in the Amazon Jungle where he took ayahuasca with a native shaman whom he recently released a documentary about.
These are just a few examples of leaders seeking health and knowledge through traditional psychedelic ceremonies. Some of society’s biggest and brightest have benefited from the knowledge and grace of traditional healers. There is no denying that shamans have a major role in the psychedelic renaissance. Psychedelics would not be as prominent in the media without the work that shamans have done to share psychedelics with people outside their communities. They have taken a quiet and hidden place among psychedelic influencers. The scientific community has yet to embrace this face of the psychedelic realm. That is not surprising given that the west has never been too keen on embracing the cultural heritage of non-western societies. However, if these two schools of thought were able to work together, it would benefit the people who all of this is really for– people suffering from mental health and neurological issues that need effective treatments.