Studying hallucinogenic plants in cultural anthropology

© 2013 M.O. Orlova

2013 – № 1 (5)

Key words: hallucinogens, ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus, ethnobotany, transcultural psychotherapy, transcultural psychiatry, South America

Abstract: This piece is a foreword to the translation of two chapters from Marlene Dobkin de Rios book “Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros, and Ethnobotanists” (2009). Both foreword and translation were carried out by M.O. Orlova, a graduate student at N.N. Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology RAS, who talks about the life and research of M. Dobkin de Rios, underlying the value of hallucinogens studies for the development of modern psychology and medicine.

The book “Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros, and Ethnobotanists” (2009) is a scientific autobiography, as well as memoirs and an overview of earlier works of the author. It was published in 2009; the book sums up the author’s experience at that point in time.

Marlene Dobkin de Rios was fighting with an oncological disease during the last years of her life. It seems that this fact is reflected in the contents of the book and the confidential tone with which the author shares her findings.

Research on psychedelics is a “hot” topic attracting esoteric seekers and psychoactive drugs’ users; the topic that ruined more than one career. However, Marlene Dobkin de Rios is committed to thorough investigation, being an anthropologist and psychologist, researcher with solid experience of fieldwork and historiographical analysis. Augmenting scientific knowledge about the place of hallucinogens in various cultures was per se the goal of the research carried out by Marlene Dobkin de Rios: “… I see the search for knowledge as a spiritual enterprise. It really feels good to know things and to respect diverse belief systems and to try to suppress one’s deeply socialized ethnocentrism…” (Dobkin de Rios, 2009, p. 171).

At present we see an emerging trend to carry out applied research in anthropology and ethnology (Barnard, 2009). To a large extent this is true for medical anthropology and research on hallucinogenic plants in particular. Anthropological findings may be an important source of development of the topical subfields of psychology and medicine, such as transcultural psychotherapy and psychiatry (Karvasarsky, 2002). These disciplines focus on adapting psychotherapeutic methods from other cultures, as well as on the challenges provoked by the use of such methods and their cultural adaptation. De facto hallucinogenic plants are involved in very different therapeutic contexts; they are successively used to treat substance abuse, affective and psychosomatic disorders (Mabit, 2002; Labate et al., 2011; Krupitsky et al., 2002).

Marlene Dobkin de Rios certainly considered possibilities of practical application of her findings. In the epilogue to her book she writes about reasons for studying psychedelics: “…We may wish to apply newly acquired wisdom to our own self-understanding, an understanding of the world we live in, and the lived worlds of others. Or we may wish to apply that knowledge to the betterment of humankind. For some of us, knowing in itself is sacred. For others it is merely a tool to participate in self-understanding, while still others are engaged in a focus on the need for social and cultural change and to learn from these traditions…” (Dobkin de Rios, 2009, p. 172).

In this issue of “Medical Anthropology and Bioethics” we publish two brief chapters from the book by Marlene Dobkin de Rios. Why were they selected? The key reason is that currency of plant hallucinogens research can be distinctly seen based on the example of these chapters. The data set forth in it provide the material for reflection on the role of psychoactive substances in traditional and in the modern cultures, as well as on opportunities and limitations of its practical use by modern man – in the context of medical practices and in connection with anthropological research on the psychoactive substances, including such legal stimulators as tobacco and alcohol, in everyday life.

In one of the given chapters the role of psychoactive substances in teenagers socialization in traditional societies is compared to western societies. The author’s conclusions are deplorable for the modern western civilization: while in traditional cultures psychoactive substances use ensures harmonious transition through age crises, socialization of teenagers and eventually the society integration, in the modern society, to the contrary, not being authorized by the cultural norms, beyond regulation provided by rituals, it affects destructively on users.

In the second given chapter two plant remedies with hallucinogenic properties widely used in Amazonas tribal cultures are taken into consideration – these are ayahuasca  and tobacco. The author raises a question of benefits vs. harm caused by these substances. It has to be noted that actually the text deals with exclusively its benefits – the role in human psyche regulation and in healing. Negative aspects of psychoactive substances use are considered in detail in other chapters of the book – the author is by no means advocate of psychoactive substances abuse and its popularization through mass media. At the same time the approach of Marlene Dobkin de Rios towards hallucinogens as the component of efficient medical practices seems to deserve consideration in the framework of medical anthropology.


Barnard, A. (2009), Social anthropology: studying the social life of humans, Moscow.

Karvasarsky, B.D. (2002), Psychotherapeutic encyclopedia, 2nd edition, Piter, Saint-Petersburg.

Dobkin de Rios, M. (2009), The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros, and Ethnobotanists, Park Street Press.

Krupitsky, E., Burakov, A., Romanova, T., Dunaevsky, I., Strassman, R. and Grinenko, A. (2002),“Ketamine psychotherapy for heroin addiction: immediate effects and two-year follow-up”, Journal of substance abuse treatment, Vol. 23, pp. 273–283.

Labate, B.C. and Jungaberle, H. (2011), The Internationalization of Ayahuasca, LIT-Verlag, Zürich.

Mabit, J. (2002),“Blending Traditions: Using Indigenous Medicinal Knowledge to Treat Drug Addiction”, MAPS, Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Vol. XII, No. 2, pp. 25–32.

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