Ancient Medicine in Today’s World

Taylor Dysart, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, probes modern science’s enthrallment with the powerful Amazonian intoxicant ayahuasca.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

By Karen Brooks

Taylor Dysart, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, is currently conducting fieldwork in Brazil, interviewing and exploring the research archives of dozens of scientists. (Photos by Felipe Augusto Ribeiro, Taylor Dysart)

Used for healing, religious ceremonies, coming-of-age celebrations, and other rites of passage, ayahuasca has been a central component of sacred ritual life for indigenous groups across the Amazon basin for thousands of years.

Recently, however, the traditional plant-based brew—made by combining a rare rainforest-grown vine and shrub that produce vivid hallucinations and disorientation, and often enhanced with other plants known for their psychotropic effects—has become a so-called “it” drug for Westerners seeking relief from countless afflictions, from trauma, depression, and addiction to arthritis, diabetes, and cancer. Formal studies of ayahuasca as a treatment for these conditions is in the early stages, and its surging popularity as a newfound “miracle medicine” troubles Taylor Dysart, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science.

“The speed at which the clinical sciences move, especially in conjunction with business ventures, can be alarming,” says Dysart, whose dissertation traces the Latin American history of ayahuasca, particularly since the mid-19th century. “In the history of medicine, we spend a lot of time unpacking this idea of a ‘magic bullet’—as if there’s a panacea, a quick fix for all types of ailments, whether they’re social or physiological or psychological or emotional. Hearing talk of ayahuasca in this way makes me nervous because of the potential for the kinds of fallout we are already seeing.”

That includes the overharvesting of ayahuasca around tourist sites throughout Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador; the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, thrives only in the thick of the jungle and takes four years to grow, so natural reserves are limited. The poaching of jaguars, a critically endangered species, has also increased, as “charlatan shamans” disingenuously claim that jewelry and other trinkets made from jaguar body parts enhance the ayahuasca ceremony experience. And the foreign ownership of many tourism lodges often prevents economic benefits from reaching local communities and spurs rising ayahuasca costs that can restrict natives’ access to their own healing traditions.

Supported by a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation and a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Dysart is currently conducting fieldwork in Brazil and will continue next in Colombia and then Peru, interviewing and exploring the research archives of dozens of scientists including naturalists, botanists, geographers, ethnographers, folklorists, psychiatrists, cultural and medical anthropologists, and neuroscientists.

“I have a motley range of actors, but they’re all centrally concerned with bringing ayahuasca into what we would consider modern science—in seeing whether ayahuasca can be used as a therapeutic in psychiatry or in biomedicine more broadly—and they have all worked in this orbit for some time,” she says. Dysart says she wishes she could have added Marlene Dobkin de Rios to that list. The anthropologist, who passed away more than a decade ago, is the “mother of ayahuasca research” whose pioneering studies of psychedelics inspired Dysart’s dissertation topic in the first place. Dysart contributed a chapter about Dobkin de Rios in the book Women & Psychedelics: Uncovering Invisible Voices, edited by medical historian Erika Dyck and published in Spanish in 2022, with an English version to follow this year.

Like Dobkin de Rios, Dysart backs the efforts of people from all backgrounds to seek out treatments that can improve health conditions unsolved by conventional Western medicine. She also remains wary of some outsiders’ profit-turning motives and their failure to honor ayahuasca’s sacredness or to protect the safety and best interests of its users.

“One of the main arguments in my dissertation is that folk and indigenous knowledge, practices, and relationships are really important for the development of psychedelic science,” she says. “As we move into a moment where there’s an increasing possibility that psychedelics will become more mainstream, whether recreationally or clinically, we need to have ongoing conversations about whose practices these are, what types of repatriation efforts are important, and the harmful consequences that can emerge from this melding of modern science with folk and indigenous knowledge.”