Pioneers and Hallucinogens

Anthropological inquiry seems to be driven primarily by curiosity about some aspect of the human condition, and the early investigation of drug use by anthropologists was no exception. The true pioneers in this area of inquiry were Richard Schultes and Weston La Barre, both of whom began their studies in the 1930s, in an era when North America was advocating for prohibition of specific drugs throughout the world. Schultes was in the process of accumulating information on the uses of a vast array of plant species (e.g., Schultes, 1938, 1940, 1963) in the course of establishing the larger sub-discipline of ethnobotany (Schultes & von Reis, 1995). La Barre began a career-long inquiry into the uses of peyote for religious purposes (cf. La Barre, 1938a, 1960). These specialized studies became models for the work of anthropologists who focused on drug use in ethnographic research.

Furst (1990), Dobkin de Rios (1968, 1970, 1971), and Harner (1974) exemplify the next generation of studies that focused on the use of hallucinogens in non-Western cultural contexts. Single-mindedly seeking evidence of drugs in far-flung cultural materials, these anthropologists found representations of drugs and their uses in artifacts (Furst, 1970) and monumental structures (Dobkin de Rios, 1977). They also conducted edifying ethnographies, reporting on how the use of specific drugs interacted with specific cultural traditions (cf. Dobkin de Rios, 1970; Furst, 1990). A contemporary of these earnest students of non-Western drug use, Carlos Castaneda (1969), published accounts of his "research" on Yaqui drug use as "elicited" from a shaman, spawning a series of books on the relationships among personal power, spirituality, and ingestion of hallucinogens. The widespread popularity of these books made them vehicles for teaching the public about the process of learning about a cultural "other," but further examination led to the conclusion that they were works of fiction (De Mille, 1976, 1990). Still, the message that drug use in ritual applications could lead to positive, life-affirming experiences remained consistent in both the ethnographic and fictional works on non-Western drug use.

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