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Remembering Antonio Montero Pisco

ISSUE:
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74-75

On March 24, 2020, Peruvian shaman Antonio Montero Pisco died after an accident in his home in northern Peru. Montero Pisco worked closely with the late ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD; the staff at the Explorama Lodge near Iquitos, Peru; and the nonprofit Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) to teach traditional Amazonian plant use to visiting scientists, health professionals, and ecotourists and preserve ethnobotanical knowledge for future generations. He founded several traditional Amazonian medicinal plant gardens to serve as outdoor classrooms and shared his knowledge of jungle medicine with researchers, pharmacists, and ethnobotanists in Peru and the greater international community.

From age four, Montero Pisco was raised by his grandparents in Lamas, Peru. His grandfather, also a shaman, gave him his first introduction to the world of shamanism at age nine, when Montero Pisco was left to fend for himself in the jungle for 30 days.

“The knowledge I have was sowed like seeds by my grandfathers,” Montero Pisco was quoted as saying.1 “Later, I continued to learn from my elders, but learned more from the plants themselves.”

Frequently referred to as “Don Antonio,” he began practicing as a shaman in his twenties and specialized in ayahuasca ceremonies. The psychoactive brew, made primarily with the ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae) vine and other native plant admixtures, induces hallucinations and an altered state of consciousness.Ayahuasca ceremonies traditionally are overseen by shamans who guide and comfort participants, and Montero Pisco refined his ayahuasca recipe to his own specifications.

University of Maryland (UM) adjunct assistant professor Andrea Ottesen, PhD, was mentored by Duke and started working with Montero Pisco in 1997, when she began leading medicinal plant tours in the Peruvian Amazon through the UM plant sciences department. “Don Antonio was a world-class plantsman and healer,” she wrote (email, July 15, 2021). “I am really grateful I had the opportunity to learn from both him and his protégé Don Guillermo [Rodriguez Gomez] in one of the most diverse forests on the planet…. I will always remember his melodic icaros [shamanic songs], the strong swishing pulse of his shacapa [a bundle of plant materials], and his cupped hand making a ‘whoop’ sound as he blew tobacco [Nicotiana spp., Solanaceae] smoke on my head to protect me on the spiritual journey ahead.”

American Botanical Council (ABC) Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal met Montero Pisco numerous times during ABC’s “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” ethnobotany ecotours in the Peruvian Amazon from 1994 to 2010. Blumenthal wrote (email, July 26, 2021):

One educational event that stands out for me … was Don Antonio’s mixing the traditional ceremonial ayahuasca brew. While standing near a large water-filled cauldron over an open fire, he would hold up a leaf of the ayahuasca plant and then leaves of other local plants in the admixture, while Jim Duke would provide the Latin scientific names of the plants, name some of the most characteristic chemicals that the plant parts contained, and speak about the traditional ritual uses of each plant as an individual botanical remedy and also how each plant contributed to the physiological or psychoactive effects of the ayahuasca mixture. Even though it was not part of the official schedule for the one-week educational course, I know that some participants secretly met with Don Antonio later that afternoon or evening to imbibe some of the ayahuasca and experience a journey with him as their guide.

ACEER Vice President Roger Mustalish, PhD, who served as president of ACEER from 1996 to 2020, worked with Montero Pisco to create ACEER’s ethnobotanical garden and canopy walkway systems in the Peruvian jungle. Mustalish wrote (email, July 9, 2021):

Prior to my ACEER appointment, I attended a number of workshops in the Peruvian Amazon that were organized by International Expeditions and ABC. At Explorama Lodge, late each afternoon, a worker went to each room to clean, fill, and light the kerosene lanterns that were the only source of light after sunset. My friends and I called him “The Man of Light.” I later learned that he was Antonio Montero Pisco.

In 1991, Antonio met founding ACEER board member and renowned expert on medicinal plants Dr. Jim Duke, and a decades-long friendship ensued. When I had the privilege of being appointed ACEER’s president, my first decision was to hire Antonio as curator of ACEER’s ethnobotanical gardens, and we as well embarked on a decades-long friendship. With Jim’s support, Antonio created the ReNuPeRu garden along the Napo River. [Antonio] went on to create other gardens in other nearby areas: Sucusari village, Cahuide village, the Los Amigos Biological Station, and Fondo Concepción. Thousands of local and international students, educators, researchers, and general citizens learned about the healing properties of Amazonian medicinal plants, often from Antonio himself, as he became a key instructor in ACEER workshops for over 20 years.

One feature of Antonio’s sessions during workshops was his preparation of a Bath of Tranquility made from aromatic medicinal plants and flowers. In a cherished ceremony, he would pour the bath over the heads of workshop participants while inviting the positive energy from the forest to protect the participants. Antonio would then demonstrate a brief shamanic practice using a shacapa, a brush-like collection of grasses [Pariana spp., Poaceae] that he used to remove negative energy from the recipient of the ceremony…. Antonio clearly had a special gift.

My most cherished memories of Antonio were not just associated with his ceremonies, garden tours, or lessons on medicinal plants along lodge trails. Rather, they were in quieter moments. Some afternoons, we walked alone in the forest, with Antonio sharing stories and giving me detailed instruction regarding medicinal plants. He was a brother, father, mentor, teacher, friend, and healer all at the same time. He made me a better man, a better president for ACEER, a better teacher, and a better friend. I still have the first shacapa Antonio ever made for me for my first ceremony with him. It is now more than 25 years old.

Antonio tirelessly continued to share his knowledge and ceremonies with ACEER workshop attendees right up to his passing. The last was in 2019 for a Neumann University workshop in Iquitos. Upon his passing, the ACEER Board of Directors unanimously awarded Antonio the ACEER Legacy Award, [which was] also awarded to Dr. Duke several years earlier, in recognition of Antonio’s lifelong commitment to rainforest conservation and fostering the healing power of Amazonian medicinal plants, as well as indigenous knowledge and wisdom. He remains, even now, the Man of Light.

Rodriguez Gomez, who Montero Pisco mentored for 25 years, wrote (email to A. Ottesen, June 14, 2021; translated by A. Ottesen):

Antonio was raised by his grandparents from age four in a small town … in northern Peru. He grew up paddling canoes, making nets, fishing, gathering fruits, digging yuca [Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae], caring for chickens, handling machetes, and learning the trees and plants of the forest.

When Don Antonio was nine years old, his grandfather, who was the shaman of the community, began his shaman training by bringing him to a giant lupuna [Ceiba pentandra, Malvaceae] tree, also known as “the Ceiba tree,” in the middle of the forest and left him there alone for a month. He was told to drill into the bark of the tree, put a calabash [Crescentia cujete, Bignoniaceae] gourd in the hole, cover it, and wait for eight days. After the eight days, the gelatinous tree sap became a meal to complement his fasting. No sugar, no salt: just a little dried fish, and no speaking to anyone.

“During the days that I was alone in the jungle, I saw things that I had never seen before, and I was scared,” Antonio said. “My grandfather said they were the spirits of the forest. I was so scared that I cried, I tried to run away.”

"He learned the shapes of plants during his teens, while he worked as a rubber tree scout for a rubber company. He also spent time working in the city of Iquitos as a baker. But he always came back to the jungle. At age 20, he became a practicing shaman.

Don Antonio was also shaman and friend to renowned ethnobotanist Dr. Jim Duke. The two spent many hours together listening to the plants, learning their secrets, and sharing information with students of many nationalities and backgrounds.

Antonio Montero Pisco is survived by his wife Asteria Vilchez and his children Marina, Mersy, Antonio, Nilton, Milieiv, and Odiseo.

Reference

  1. Ligon L. Peruvian Shamanism: A Different Kind of Medicine. Mother Earth Living. March 1, 1998. Available at: https://content.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/peruvian-shamanism-a-different-kind-of-medicine/. Accessed July 9, 2021.