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Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America
Anadenanthera: Visionary Plant of Ancient South America by Constantino Manuel Torres and David B. Repke. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press; 2006. Hardcover; 256 pages, illustrated. ISBN-13: 978-0789026415. $59.95.

This book represents a fine example of the benefits of collaborative research, combining the respective efforts of an art historian with vast archeological experience and that of an organic chemist with long-term expertise in medicinal plants. The result is an extremely informative and worthwhile effort that represents a paradigm for ethnobotanical documentation with its comprehensive and multidisciplinary text.

The subject is certainly not without controversy. In a modern era where political conservatism on psychopharmacology confronts a resurgence of research into the mind’s mechanisms, there is not even agreement on the proper term for such plants and compounds: psychedelics, hallucinogens, entheogens, etc. Each term seems to harbor value judgments that are not universally recognized or shared. Notwithstanding the debate, the authors have clearly succeeded in combining an unusually broad historical context to the genus Anadenanthera. With expert analysis and reasoned explanations of the evidence, they’ve brought unparalleled clarity to what has previously been a murky topic with contrary conclusions.

The authors have sorted through the usual detours and dead ends of botanical nomenclature to expound on the 2 species/ strains of greatest interest: the psychoactive Anadenanthera peregrina var. peregrina and A. colubrina var. cebil, found mostly in savanna settings but also in the Orinoco rainforest of South America. As “arborescent legumes” of the family Fabaceae, these magic beans have been utilized by humans with a documented 4000-year history, primarily as a snuff, but also taken via smoking, enemas, and fermented as the beverage known as chicha. The snuff has been employed by numerous tribes as a divinatory tool and an integral part of their cosmology. It has sported many names, with the most prominent being cebil, cohoba, vilca and yopo. The archeological record described in the book and illustrated via many handsome monochrome plates documents the rich assortment of devices employed to administer the beans, mostly through parenteral methods. The brilliance and versatility of the indigenous pharmacologists is amply evident in their combinations of this material with lime from burned snail shells to increase bioavailability, or with Banisteriopsis caapi (aka ayahuasca), most likely to increase potency and duration of action through inhibition of monoamine oxidase. These empirical insights were all achieved without benefit of modern pharmacology or chemistry, and boldly illustrate human potential for ingenuity and insight, perhaps aided by visionary attributes of the plant itself.

The rich narrative continues by relating the first descriptions of the plant’s use in European literature by Columbus, on his second voyage to Hispaniola (the Caribbean island now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the observations of many of the great South American explorers: Alexander von Humboldt, Richard Spruce, Charles-Marie de la Condamine, and Richard Schultes. The broader ethno- and economic botany of the genus is described along with its use in dogs as a hunting aid, the wood as pulp and provider of tannins for leather-making, and utility of its angico gum as a source of unique amino acids and even a snuff for headaches.

Latter portions of the book analyze the available data on Anadenanthera phytochemistry and assign the main psychoactive role to bufotenine, a ubiquitous alkaloid also noted in toad secretions, fungi, and even endogenously in humans, as a trace compound in urine. That bufotenine itself is psychoactive is no longer in doubt, as thoroughly documented in a review of the available laboratory and clinical literature. The integration of this material to current theories on serotonin receptor subtypes and their functions is masterfully presented and practical. Should anyone question the pertinence of ethnobotanical research to modern life and human biochemistry, the answers are evident in this book.

Aside from a few typographical errors and a perfunctory index, the book is quite well-written, engaging, nicely organized and abundantly referenced. The book is well bound, and printed on acid-free paper with Haworth Press’ usual care. Given all this, plus the bonus of a Foreword by noted consciousness explorer and pioneer in research on psychoactive plants, Alexander Shulgin, it is certainly a bargain at the price. The authors are to be applauded for their efforts and have provided a worthy template for future monographs on medicinal plants.

—Ethan Russo, MD Senior Medical Advisor, GW Pharmaceuticals Vashon, WA