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Friday, May 13, 2005

Tarahumara Indians and Medicine

Excerpts taken from The Forbidden Fruit Archives:

This list of cacti comprises many of the know genera and species of cacti that are considered narcotic, hallucinogenic, medicinal, or that are considered forms of peyote among numerous tribes and peoples of Mexico. Though 30 cactus species are known as peyote not all have a history of recorded usage as narcotics or hallucinogens. Some seem to be called peyote in name only, while others may have purely medicinal uses. Also included are 16 non-cactaceae peyote species and a number of species that are known to have been used as narcotics, hallucinogens, or medicines, but which do not bear the title peyote.

Though Lophophora williamsii is the cactus most associated with the name "peyote" many others carry this or other similar titles. This may be due to their use as inebrients in their own right, or their use in combination with, or as replacements for, Lophophora williamsii. This name may also be simply the result of their having some superficial resemblance to L.williamsii, such as Astrophytum asterias. But in some cases the resemblance is not apparent, such as in the many Ariocarpus and Mammillaria known as peyote. Some might conjecture that resemblance to L. williamsii alone dictates many being called peyote, but this makes it more likely that those lacking resemblance are species that have common effects, whether that be narcotic, hallucinogenic, or medicinal. The fact that some of these cacti have physical features similar to L. williamsii (such as O. denegrii, S. disciformis, and T. pseudomacrochele) makes it all the more probable that the indians either through accident or intention experimented with a number of them. L. williamsii is commonly known as a medicinal panacea and it is likely that some of these other species are called peyote not for their effectiveness as hallucinogens, but rather for their effectiveness as medicinal agents.

Many of these species are carriers of powerful Tetrahydroisoquinoline (THIQ) and Phenethylamine (PEA) alkaloids, but it would be wrong to assume that the psychological effects would mimic that of L. williamsii, a species which carries upwards of 60 different alkaloids. L. williamsii is also the only chemically analyzed species, besides many Trichocerei, whose major psychoactive alkaloid is mescaline. With the exception of Aztekium ritterii, Lophophora diffusa, and Pelecyphora aselliformis, all which contain very minimal amounts of mescaline, no other peyote species have been found to contain mescaline (Shulgin & Starha, personal communication). What must be taken into consideration in regards to the possible psychological effects of these various alkaloids is the religio-magical use of these cacti in traditional Shamanism. Practitioners of Shamanism have been known to employ numerous methods to alter their state of awareness and these would likely be employed in conjunction with the ingestion of these cacti, thereby altering the overall psychological experience produced by the alkaloids themselves.

Unfortunately the people most associated with the use of the many peyote species, the Tarahumara of Mexico, are rapidly disappearing before further ethnological and ethnobotanical studies can be done. One thing left undocumented is how these species were selected, prepared, or what quantity was used. This makes any future use of these cactus a hazardous affair, a danger which should not be understated. The inert powers of many of these species will go unknown until modern experimenters begin the search again, this time without the help of countless years of native knowledge.

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