The use of hallucinogenic plants in rituals was common in almost all of South America centuries before the arrival of the Spanish invaders. The plant species known to the Indians then were several and were considered sacred, just as today. The Natives ascribe to these the faculty of transporting the user into the world of spirits, and it is particularly the shamans who possess the knowledge to interpret the visions. That is why they prefer to call them “plants of knowledge”, and not hallucinogenic plants.
A powerful drink is made from a tree vine of the genus Banisteriopsis. To produce a more potent beverage, other hallucinogenic plants are sometimes added to the concoction, such as leafs of the genus Brugmansia —popularly called “borrachero”: the inebriant—and many others, to reach the desired effects. A snuff made from plants of the genera Anadenanthera or Virola is also common. It is blown directly into the nostrils to produce a quick and powerful effect.
But it is the vine of the botanical genus Banisteriopsis that has become legendary. Commonly known by its Quechua term ayahuasca in Ecuador and Peru, yagé in the Andes foothills and Putumayo, and caapi among the Tukano and other Amazonian groups, this beverage is a central component of Amazonian sacred ritual life, and also of the Andean highlands in Pre Hispanic times. Several hallucinatory stages are set in motion by the action of its psychotropic components over the central nervous system. Under its effect, the user sees shiny geometric designs known as phosphenes, and true hallucinations like monstrous anacondas, fiery jaguars, and other supernatural beings. The designs seen under the effect of the drug are commonly depicted in various objects made by the Indians, for example ceramic vases, dresses, façades of ceremonial houses, dancing batons, and facial painting.
In rituals where yagé is taken, shamans wear special headdresses of feathers, usually yellow, blue, green, and red. They also wear strands of feathers, beads, and rattles around the neck made from the seeds of trees, as well as feather crowns and necklaces made of jaguar and tapir teeth, sometimes carefully decorated with incisions. All these ornaments are indicative of power and protect the user from evil witchcraft sent by enemy shamans. Traditionally, the shamans sit on a low wooden stool that is a symbol of their predominant position in the community. The stool as a symbol of power was already present in pre-Hispanic times, as can be inferred from the ceramic figures recovered in archaeological excavations.