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Tropical zones of South America, West Indies

Anadenanthera peregrina is a mimosa-like tree, mainly of open grasslands, attaining a height of 65 ft (20 m) and with a trunk 2 ft (60 cm) in diameter. The blackish bark is coarsely armed with conical mucronate projections.

The leaves have from 15 to 30 pairs of pinnae with many very small hairy leaflets. Many minute white flowers in spherical heads arranged in terminal or axillary clusters comprise the inflorescence. Flat, thin, glossy black, roundish seeds occur in rough, woody pods, from 3 to 10 in a pod.

A potent hallucinogenic snuff is made from the beans of Anadenanthera peregrina in the Orinoco basin, where it is called Yopo.

Its former use in the West Indies, under the name Cohoba, has died out, but it was reported as early as 1496. Preparation of the drug varies. A second species -similar in aspect- occurs in the southern part of South America: Anadenanthera colubrina.

Known as Viica or Huilca and Sebil, it is believed to have been employed by the Indians of Argentina and southern Peru in pre-colonial times. Although now rarely used, snuff is still prepared from A. colubrina by the Mashco Indians of northern Argentina as an hallucinogenic drug.


In the beginning the Sun created various beings to serve as intermediaries between Him and earth. He created hallucinogenic snuff powder so that man could contact supernatural beings. The Sun had kept this powder in his navel, but the Daughter of the Sun found it, thus it became available to man -a vegetal product acquired directly from the gods.

As far back as 1496, an early Spanish report mentioned that the Taino of Hispaniola inhaled a powder called Cohoba to communicate with the spirit world. It was so strong that those who took it lost consciousness; when the stupefying action began to wane, the arms and legs became loose and the head nodded, and almost immediately they believed that they saw the room turn upside-down so that men were walking with their heads downward.

Mainly because of the disappearance of aboriginal peoples in the West Indies, this snuff is no longer employed anywhere in the Antilles. In 1916, ethnobotanical research established the identity of this Cohoba -quite generally untill then thought to have been a very potent kind of Tobacco snuff- with the hallucinogenic snuff of the Orinoco called Yopo and derived from the beans of Anadenanthera peregrina, better known in the literature as Piptadenia peregrina. The center of use of this snuff is and probably allways been the Orinoco. The west Indian tribes are thought to have been, in the main, invaders from northern South America.

It is very probable that the custom of snuffing the drug, as well as the tree itself was introduced by invaders from the Orinoco area.

It is now suspected that Yopo was used much more widely in earlier periods. There is evidence that in pro-Hispanic times, this snuff was used by Chibchan tribes from the Colombian Andes east across the llanos or plains to the upper Orinoco.

In 1560 a missionary in the Colombian llanos wrote that the Indians along the Rio Guaviare "are accustomed to take Yopo and Tobacco, and the former is a seed or pip of a tree...they become drowsy while the devil, in their dreams, shows them all the vanities and corruptions he wishes them to see and which they take to be true revelations in which they believe, even if told they will die. This habit of taking Yopo and Tobacco is general in the New Kingdom."

Another chronicler wrote in 1599: "They chew Hayo or Coca and Jopa and Tobacco... going out of their minds, and then the devil speaks to them.... Jopa is a tree with small pods like those of vetches, and the seeds inside are similar but smaller."

Yopo was so important in preconquest Colombia that Indians of the highlands, where the tree will not grow, traded the drug up from the tropical lowlands: the Muisca of the Colombian Andes, according to an early Spanish historian, used the snuff: "Jop: herb of divination, used by the mojas or sun-priests in Tunja and Bogota.." The Muisca "will not travel nor wage war nor do any other thing of importance without learning beforehand what will be the outcome, or this they try to ascertain with two herbs which they consume, called Yop and Osca...."

Lack of careful botanical identification of the source of various snuffs has resulted in the assignment of Anadenanthera powder to a vast area of western Amazonia, an area where the tree is now totally lacking.

Yopo snuff may sometimes, as among the Guahibo, be taken daily as a stimulant. But it is more commonly employed by payés ("medicine men") to induce trances and visions and communicate with the hekula spirits; to prophesy or divine; to protect the tribe against epidemics of sickness; to make hunters and even their dogs more alert.

There has been a long and complicated confusion between the hallucinogenic snuff prepared from Anadenanthera and that from Virola and other plants. Consequently, the numerous distribution maps in anthropological literature showing immense areas of South America using Anadenanthera-derived snuff must be used with due caution.

In 1741, the jesuit missionary Gumilia, who wrote extensively on the geography of the Orinoco, described the use of Yopo by the Otomac: "They have another abominable habit of intoxicating themselves through the nostrils with certain malignant powders which they call Yupa which quite takes away their reason, and they will furiously take up arms... "

Following a description of the preparation of the snuff and a custom of adding lime from snail shells, he reported that "before a battle, they would throw themselves into a frenzy with Yupa, wound themselves and, full of blood and rage, go forth to battle like rabid jaguars."

The first scientific report of Yopo was made by the explorer Baron von Humboldt, who botanically identified the source and reported that the Maypure Indians of the Orinoco, where he witnessed the preparation of the drug in 1801, broke the long pods, moistened them, and allowed them to ferment; when they turned black, the softened beans were kneaded into cakes with cassava flour and lime from snails. These cakes were powdered when the snuff was needed. Humboldt, quite erroneously, believed that "it is not to be believed that the... pods are the chief cause of the...effects of the snuff.... These effects are due to the freshly calcined lime."

Later, Spruce offered an extremely detailed report on the preparation and use of Yopo among the Guahibo of the Orinoco. He collected a complete set of ethnographic material connected with the narcotic, and seeds which he collected for chemical study in 1851 were chemically analyzed only in 1977.

"A wandering horde of Guahibo Indians... was encamped on the savannas of Maypures, and on a visit to their camp I saw an old man grinding Niopo seeds, and purchased of him his apparatus for making and taking the snuff.... The seeds, being first roasted, are powdered on a wooden platter.... It is held on the knees by a broad thin handle, which is grasped in the left hand, while the fingers of the right hold a small spatula or pestle... with which the seeds are crushed.... The snuff is kept in a mull made of a bit of the leg-bone of the jaguar.... For taking the snuff, they use an apparatus made of the leg bones of herons or other long-shanked birds put together in the shape of the letter Y...."

A contemporary observer described the effects of Yopo snuffing as follows: "His eyes started from his head, his mouth contracted, his limbs trembled. It was fearful to see him. He was obliged to sit down or he would have fallen. He was drunk but only for about five minutes; he was then gayer."

There is appreciable variation from tribe to tribe and from one area to another in the preparation of Yopo. The seeds are usually toasted and pulverized. Lime from snails or the ashes of certain plants are normally added, but some Indians use the snuff without this alkaline admixture. It appears that other plant admixtures are never employed with Anadenanthera snuff.

Anadenanthera peregrina occurs naturally and sometimes apparently cultivated in the plains or grassland areas of the Orinoco basin of Colombia and Venezuela, in light forests in southern British Guiana, and in the Rio Branco area of the northern Amazonia of Brazil. It may occur also in isolated savanna areas in the Rio Madeira region. When it is found elsewhere, it may probably have been introduced by Indians.

There is evidence that, a century ago, it was cultivated in more localities outside of its natural range than at present.

In the southern part of South America, a snuff was formerly prepared from the closely related Anadenanthera colubrina. A report dated 1571 stated that Inca medicine men prophesied by contacting the devil through intoxication brought about by drinking Chicha reinforced with Villca, the common name of this species.

In northern Argentina, an intoxicating snuff was made from Cebil at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards.

Snuffing paraphernalia -which might also have been employed with Tobacco- is common among archaeological artifacts in southern South America. It has recently been reported that a group of Indians in northern Argentina, the Mashco, still use a snuff prepared from seeds of Anadenanthera colubrina; they also smoke the seeds. This species has the same chemical constitution as the more northern A. peregrina, and consequently, can be equally psychoactive.

"Beans of the Hekula spirit"

Taken from: "Plants of the gods, their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers" By Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann (Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont)

ISBN 0-89281-406-3