A Different Drummer

By Harner, Michael | Natural History, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Different Drummer

Harner, Michael, Natural History

While on an anthropological expedition to the Peruvian Amazon for the American Museum of Natural History in 1960-61, I lived for the better part of a year in a village of Conibo Indians on a remote lake near the lower Rio Tamaya. After I had spent months in a relatively futile effort to learn about their spiritual beliefs, the Conibo finally advised me that there was only one way to learn, and that was to take ayahuasca, the consciousness-changing brew their shamans used to reach the hidden worlds of the spirits. Ayahuasca is a boiled mixture that contains a particular species of Banisteriopsis vine, along with one or more other components, such as Psychotria leaves or the leaves of another species of Banisteriopsis.

At the time I first took the brew, I was unacquainted with psychedelics. Timothy Leary was only just having his first psychedelic experience, and knowledge of LSD was not yet a part of American culture. I also believed myself to be an atheist. I was simply taking the ayahuasca potion in the interests of anthropology because participant observation is one of the cornerstones of serious research.

The Conibo were right, for when I finally drank the potion one night, the results astonished me. Not only did I enter amazingly real, unknown worlds, but in later describing them to a Conibo shaman, I discovered he was already familiar with them, even volunteering details I had not yet had a chance to tell him. I realized anthropology had underestimated the seriousness of shamanic knowledge and that I had entered a reality far deeper than human culture.

The same shaman encouraged me to continue to work with ayahuasca so that I could become initiated into full-fledged shamanic practice. As we worked night after night in an altered state of consciousness, I learned much more about the nonordinary worlds of the shaman, especially that in them one can find and merge with compassionate spiritual powers to help heal the sick and suffering of our ordinary world. I also learned techniques of shamanic divination, methods of obtaining spiritual anwers to difficult questions.

Following this experience, I received similar initiations into Amazonian shamanism from the Untsuri Shuar (Jivaro) people of eastern Ecuador, with whom I had previously lived for a year as an ethnographer. I also started to search the cross-cultural literature, expecting to find evidence of the use of indigenous psychedelics in shamanism worldwide. I eventually concluded, however, that the Amazonians' use of psychedelics was a minority practice. The much more common method to enter the shaman's altered state of consciousness was monotonous percussive sound, achieved especially through drumming.

With experimentation, I learned what the shamans already knew: monotonous drumming, in a frequency of four to seven beats per second, was another valid doorway to the other reality. This "sonic driving" is in approximately the same frequency range as the brain's own theta waves, and its effectiveness is probably partly due to its stimulation of the brain in that range. Compared with drugs, such drumming was also safe, and its effects were short term.

My research among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and the peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America reinforced my conclusion that most of the world's shamans use drums or other percussion instruments as "horses" or "canoes" that transport them into the hidden reality of the spirits. Among the Sami (Lapps) of northern Scandinavia, who retained shamanism longer than any other culture in Europe, a few households still have what they call the magic drum.

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