Lecture: Dennis McKenna about Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic beverage that is utilized by indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon, and it has also found a place in metizo folk medicine in the Amazon. The antiquity of its use is a matter of speculation but it’s likely that it has been known since pre-Columbian times. It first came to Western attention in 1858 in early reports of botanists and explorers, notably Richard Spruce, though formal descriptions and taxonomic identification were published decades later. It has been a subject of scientific curiosity throughout the 20th century and investigations of its botany, chemistry, ethnobotany, pharmacology, and cultural significance have been an on-going thread in South American ethnobotany ever since.

Many significant discoveries in natural products chemistry can be traced to early investigations, and the work of R. E. Schultes in the 40’s and 50’s has filled in the botanical and ethnobotanical picture over time. The latter half of the 20th century, since about 1969, has witnessed a slowly accelerating level of investigation that persists to the present day. Beginning in the early 90’s, news of ayahuasca’s properties began to diffuse into mass consciousness and a robust ‘ayahuasca tourism’ industry has resulted, primarily near its epicenter of mestizo use near the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru.

Religious use of ayahuasca by several syncretic Brazilian churches have also had an impact, and have given ayahuasca a global presence. It is now used by increasing numbers of people throughout the world over in the context of religious and neo-shamanic practices. At the same time the potential therapeutic uses of ayahuasca have received increased attention and efforts continue to develop medically valid therapeutic uses for the treatment of illnesses such as alcoholism and PTSD. This talk will review some of the historical milestones that have contributed to ayahuasca’s current status on the global stage and will speculate on some of the possible future directions in its continuing co-evolutionary relationship with humanity.

BIOGRAPHY: Dennis McKenna is an ethnopharmacologist who has studied plant hallucinogens for over forty years. He is the author of many scientific papers, and co-author, with his brother Terence McKenna, of The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching, and Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. He holds a doctorate from the University of British Columbia, where his research focused on ayahuasca and oo-koo-hé, two hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon. He received post-doctoral research fellowships in the Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology, National Institute of Mental Health, and in the Department of Neurology, Stanford University School of Medicine.
In 1990, he joined Shaman Pharmaceuticals as Director of Ethnopharmacology, and in 1993 became the Aveda Corporation’s Senior Research Pharmacognosist. Dennis has been an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota since 2001, where he teaches courses in ethnopharmacology and botanical medicine. He has taught summer field courses in Peru and Ecuador, and has conducted fieldwork throughout the upper Amazon. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit organization focused on the investigation of the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic medicines.

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