Understanding 5-MeO-DMT: Historical use

July 11, 2022
February 16, 2021

Part One: Plants

In a two-part blog series Beckley Psytech research scientist Anya Ermakova explores the history of indigenous use of 5-MeO-DMT, the psychedelic agent that is the focus of our lead research programme. In part one she looks at plants containing 5-MeO-DMT and the cultures that have used them for medicinal and spiritual purposes throughout history.

“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 plant product acquired directly from the gods”.

This is one of the many indigenous legends describing the origin story of the hallucinogenic snuff prepared from a mimosa-like tree called Anadenanthera peregrina. These snuffs are commonly known as cohoba or yopo (although there are almost as many names as the tribes using them), and their use originated around Orinoco basin (Colombia/Venezuela) and spread north-east, as far as Caribbean and Central America.

To prepare a snuff, the seeds of the plant are usually toasted and pulverized, and often mixed with lime from snail shells or ashes of certain plants. A closely related species, Adenanthera colubrina, grows in eastern Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Snuffs prepared from this plant are called vilca or cebil.

Ancient historical connections

Archaeologists found Anadenanthera plant material, together with snuff/smoking paraphernalia in burials dating back as far as 4500 years. The oldest findings were discovered in Puna, Argentina, and in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

It is important to not confuse these snuffs, as has been done repeatedly in many historical accounts, with the ones prepared from Virola trees. Many species of Virola trees (e.g. V. theiodora; V. calophylla; V. elongata) are used by the indigenous people in the Amazon region.

The blood-red resin from the inner bark is used for psychoactive preparations, which come in many forms: psychoactive snuffs, smoking mixtures, even pellets for oral ingestion - requiring a very particular method of preparation. Some tribes use 5-MeO-DMT containing snuffs along with Banisteriopsis caapi to increase and prolong the visionary effects, creating an experience like that of ayahuasca, or even add these plants to the ayahuasca drink.

Beware the death cup!

5-MeO-DMT is also found in other kingdoms. Its presence was confirmed in at least two fungi species: Amanita citrina and Amanita porphyria. Amanita citrina is also known as false death cup and we strongly recommend you don’t seek this mushroom out. First, the amount of 5-MeO-DMT it contains is negligibly small, and second, it is very easy to confuse it with a similar-looking and very lethal death cup!  

Today the use of plants containing psychedelic agents has of course changed dramatically from the historical and current use by indigenous tribes. We now live in a remarkable time where the properties of psychedelic compounds are being studied as part of some very exciting scientific research with the potential to transform a range of mental health and CNS illnesses. It’s a fast-moving space which we are very excited to be driving forwards.

Image: Amanita citrina, known as false death cup. Do not seek this mushroom: first, the amount of 5-MeO-DMT it contains is negligibly small, and second, it is very easy to confuse it with a similar-looking, and very lethal death cap.  Source: Wikimedia commons.

Read our next blog to find out more about 5-MeO-DMT in animals and the Beckley Psytech research programme.

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