Snorting Yopo with the Yanomamo Indians

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“[The shaman] takes a certain powder called cohoba snuffing it up his nose, which intoxicates them so they do not know what they do…” Friar Ramón Pané in a report to Columbus on the customs of the Taíno Indians of the island of Hispaniola.

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Image: Hands Around the World

It makes snorting cocaine look like jelly and blancmange. Two indigenous South Americans squat down in the earth ready for what is destined to be a powerful visionary experience. One of the men inserts a long tube into his nose, while the other places the opposite end into his mouth – and blows. The blast of hallucinogenic powder hits the first man like a shot, a puff of residue exploding around his face. Within seconds the plume will begin to distort and changer colour; nausea and vomiting may follow. The next three hours will be some trip – a trance state beyond the reach of words.

Preparations in the Yanomamo Yopo ceremony…
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Image: Hands Around the World

A far cry from the decadent recreational use of drugs in Western societies, this ceremony holds deep ritual significance for various South American tribes, one of which is the Yanomamo of present day Venezuela and Brazil. The intake of the substance, known as Yopa, causes blinding pain, but tribesmen find themselves able to communicate with the spirit world, and attempt to relate what they see in dancing and indecipherable chanting. The bodies of those under the influence contort into bizarre shapes like those of men fitting, but Yopa is said to help cure illnesses.

…And using the hallucinogenic powder
Yanomamo_Yopo_ceremonyPhoto:
Image: Hands Around the World

The Yanomamo are a people whose first contact with the outside world was not until 1929. These hunter-agriculturalists of the deep tropical forests of the Amazon Basin have cultural traits dating back thousands of years. They are tribespeople who still hunt with blowpipes, bows and arrow, and who wear little more than loincloths and decorative feathers and flowers, with face paint and painful-looking piercings through their noses and cheeks. The Yanomamo might be regarded as an almost stone-age people; yet stripped of the artifices of modern society, who is to say how they see the world.

Yopo ceremony in full effect
Yopo_ceremony_in_full_effectPhoto:
Image: Hands Around the World

Yopo, also known as Jopo, Cohoba, Mopo, Nopo and Paric, is typically blown up the user’s nostrils by the person assisting through bamboo tubes, or is sometimes snorted using tubes made of bird bones. The blowing method looks more extreme, but while it is certainly a lot more effective, allowing more powder to enter the nose, it also causes less discomfort to the person affected.

A man affected during the Yopo ritual
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Image: Hands Around the World

The powder is made by toasting the seeds of the Anadenanthera peregrina tree over the fire until they pop like popcorn as their cases split open. Their husks removed, the cooled beans are ground into a fine powder with a pestle and mortar, and mixed with ashes or snail shells. This mix is then moistened to a consistency similar to bread dough with some water and kneaded into a ball, before being left for several hours or days – depending on how long local customs dictate – until less caustic.

Yanomamo villagers at the river
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Archaeological evidence shows that Anadenanthera beans have been used as hallucinogens in rituals and ceremonies for thousands of years. 4000 years ago, pre-Colombian Americans were smoking this stuff in pipes made of puma bones dug up at Inca Cueva in Argentina, the pipes having been found to contain DMT, one of the active chemical compounds in the beans. Snuff tubes similar to those used today were also discovered in the central Peruvian coast, suggesting that the breath-propelled method of taking Yopo is a more recent phenomenon.

All in all, it goes to show that mind-altering substances are nothing new, and ancient cultures have been expanding their consciousnesses in ways inconceivable to modern Western minds for millennia.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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