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Cross-Cultural ‘Encounter’ Experiences and Neurohormonal Transmission

By Joseph Durwin

Researched and written in cooperation with Karen Border, D.C.M., Anthropology Dept., Bekshire Community College

Thanks to Rick Strassman for his prompt and informative replies to my questions.














Throughout history, human witnesses have reported visitations from the sky, and encounters with tiny humanoid or semi-humanoid beings. This paper will explore cultural shapings of this mystery, from the primitive Yanomamo of the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon, the Celtic rural people of the British Isles, and the explosion of reports concerning UFOs, ‘Alien’ meetings and abductions that has arisen worldwide in the latter half of the twentieth century. This paper will also present evidence relating this experience to neurochemical states involving pineal gland functioning and the endogenous tryptamine psychedelic Dimethyltryptamine.


The Yanomamo, or Yanomami, number between 12,000 and 15,000 people, and occupy about 125 villages in Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil. They are at this time the world’s largest population or culture in (relative) isolation from the outside world. They are the only American Indian group who lack a mongoloid protein compound called the "Diego Factor" in their blood, and some researchers have suggested that the Yanomamo may be direct descendants of the first people to cross the Bering Strait, with all other Amerindians arriving in later groups (Plotkin, 1993).

The Yanomamo live in a village enclosure called a Shabono. The setup of the shabono represents the Yanomamo concept of the universe:

The Central Plaza is the celestial vault, and the low part of the roof is a replica of the low part of the sky (called the Hedu Ka Misi)-conceived of as a convex structure-where it meets the disk of the earth (Hei Ka Misi) . When a shaman goes on a trip between the different levels of the universe to recover a stolen soul, to "eat" a little child, or for any other reason, the dwelling is for him a convenient geometric representation where he can orient himself perfectly. (Lizot, 1985)

Among the Yanomamo, the practice of shamanism is a central part of the way of life, and in some villages, as many as 59% of adult males are practicing shapori, or shamans. There are several noteworthy points of uniqueness regarding Yanomamo shamanism.

The first is tobacco use. Whereas most shamanically oriented groups who have knowledge of the tobacco plant use it for ritualized religious purposes, the Yanomamo use it as it is used in the west, as a habitual recreational drug. Several anthropologists have remarked upon the widespread dependence among these tribes. "No adult would be without his or her wad or rolled tobacco leaves, which they carry between their teeth and lower lip." (Wilbert, 1987) Says Napoleon Chagnon, "The Yanomamo chew rather than smoke tobacco, although chewing is perhaps better described as sucking." He goes on to say, "Men, women, and children as young as ten are all addicted. Their word for being poor (Hori) means literally to be without tobacco." (Chagnon, 1992)

The second is another facet the Yanomamo has in common with western culture at large-an essential perceived difference between culture and nature. One example worth mentioning is the contrast between the Yanomamo perspectives on the jaguar and that of other, even neighboring, South American shamanic societies. Their nearest neighbors, the Tucano, consider the jaguar a mystical creature. The jaguar is seen as, as it is among many jungle cultures, as being man’s closest forest counterpart (Hugh-Jones, 1979). In their view, the shaman is an intermediary between human and non-human-there is close affinity between human and animal, especially shaman and jaguar (Jackson, 1983). The Yanomamo, by comparison, fear the jaguar, and do not want to become it. They see animals as devoid of culture and humans as possessing it. In their myths, the jaguar is consistently portrayed as a "stupid brute, constantly being outwitted by man and subjected to scathing, ridiculous, and offensive treatment." (Chagnon, 1992). These unique ideas no doubt play some role in the cultural shapings of their shamanic visions.

The central catalyst for all shamanic magic among the Yanomamo is the use of the hallucinogenic snuff powder Epena. Epena ("the semen of the sun") is also known as Nyekwana, Yakee, or Yopo to the Spanish. The Epena snuff originates from various species of Virola, a jungle tree of the myristacacae (nutmeg) family. The snuff is made from pulverizing shavings of its bark. It is administered by forcibly blowing it into each other’s noses by the men.

The Virola plant contains psychoactive tryptamine alkaloids, the chief being N, N- Dimethyltryptamine and 5-Methoxy-DimethylTryptamine, as well as beta-carbolines (Schultes, 1992). The beta-carbolines, such as tetrahydroxyharmaline, may act as weak monoamine oxidase inhibitors, slightly extending the effects of the otherwise short-acting tryptamines (Abbott, 1984). Justicia pectoralis, a sweet-scented weed, is often used as an admixture. J. pectoralis has been chemically tested, but alkaloid constituents have not yet been found. (MacRae, 1984).

The Yanomamo shamans use the snuff powder to come in contact with the hekura, tiny spirits that come down from the sky or mountains. Once the powder is forcibly blown into their heads, the effects begin nearly immediately. DMT and 5-Methoxy-DMT are absorbed through the nasal mucosa and enters the blood stream, crossing the blood-brain-barrier within seconds. Sensory distortions follow. Thick tendrils of black and brown mucus drip from the nose. This is usually considered to be the excrement of the hekura and is not wiped away. The intoxicated shapori begins to call to the hekura with chants and songs, summoning them from the sky.

Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin describes taking epena:

"…my field of vision had been greatly expanded; it was as if I were looking at the world through a wide angle lens. At theedge of my field of vision, the little figures began to dance. A few more blasts from the shaman’s pipe… the little figures at the edge of my field of vision multiplied in number as they danced faster and faster." (Plotkin, 1993)

Epena can be taken by any adult men, but is taken in huge doses by the shaman, and sometimes nearly every day, without apparent ill consequences. Although shapori are nearly always men, there have been cases in some villages of females allowed to take epena, and become very powerful shamans. (Biocca, 1970; Donner, 1982). When apprenticing to become shapori, the young men are given epena almost continuously, and they must wait and sing and chant to the hekura. They cannot have sexual relations while they are learning to call the hekura, or there will be disastrous consequences. (Biocca, 1970; Chagnon, 1992).

The Hekura are small, humanoid spirits. In Yanomamo mythology, The hekura are considered to be reincarnated from or otherwise derived from the no badabo, a term which, in the context of their cosmology, means "the original humans" or "those who were here in the beginning of time." The hekura can be as small as a few inches or even a few millimeters. They are often found in the hills, or high in trees (suspended in them). When called upon by shaman (via the effects of the epena) they arrive on "trails" leading down from the sky or even from "the edge of the universe" (Chagnon, 1992). The males wear glowing halos around their heads, called wadoshe. The females have glowing wands protruding from their vagina. Many of them have special weapons used to "strike or pierce souls" (Taylor, 1974).

Once called, the hekura come to implant themselves in the shapori’s body, often coming to reside in a house in his chest. Once the shaman has control of the hekura, he can send them to do his bidding. Their power is used to heal all manner of illness, and is used for long distance travel and "magical attack." Shamans often use their power to steal the soul or essence from children in some neighboring village. Nearly all childhood death is thought to be due to enchantment in some villages. As this paper hopes to demonstrate, the effects of the Epena snuff and the nature of the hekura spirits it brings on share many similarities to the effects caused by Dimethyltryptamine in more modern settings.

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