This article originally appeared in PSYCHEDELIC REVIEW, Issue Number 2, 1963
This article is a composite of two lectures (“Native narcotics of the New World” and “Botany attacks the hallucinogens”) delivered in the Third Lecture Series, 1960, College of Pharmacy, University of Texas, and published in the Texas Journal of Pharmacy 2 (1961) 141-185. Slight changes from the original text have been made in several places, and additional information has been added to bring the treatment of the subject up to date.
Botanical Sources of The New World Narcotics
By Richard Evans Schultes
Man has learned to rely upon the plant kingdom not only for life’s necessities but also its amenities and ameliorants, in virtually every part of the world. None of the ameliorants has had a more absorbing history nor better shows man’s cleverness and ingenuity than those which we call the narcotics.
The very word “narcotic” has taken on a sinister meaning in American culture. There is probably no field—save perhaps religion and politics—so replete with popular misinformation and purposeful misrepresentation. This condition is general, yes, even universal, insofar as the public is concerned. But its paralysis has invaded even our technical circles. The misuse of the terms “habit-forming” and “addictive,” for example, is found even amongst our students. It is a fact that there are but two plant narcotics known to cause addiction and to be physically, morally and socially so dangerous that they must be strictly controlled—this fact is lost to most people, for whom it is enough that a substance be called a narcotic to draw away aghast.
I use the term “narcotic” in its classic sense. It comes from the Greek “to benumb” and, therefore, broadly applies to any substance (howsoever stimulating in one or several stages of its physiological activity) which may benumb the body.
The use of narcotics is always in some way connected with escape from reality. From their most primitive uses to their applications in modern medicine, this is true. All narcotics, sometime in their history, have been linked to religion or magic. This is so even of such narcotics as tobacco, coca and opium which have suffered secularization — which have come out of the temple, so to speak, have left the priestly class and have been taken up by the common man.
It is interesting here to note that, when problems do arise from the employment of narcotics, they arise after the narcotics have passed from ceremonial to purely hedonic or recreational use. This historical background can explain much, especially when we realize that there are still some narcotics used by primitive peoples only in a religious or magic context; peyote is a good example. This is why the botanist who goes out to search for new narcotics in primitive societies must be versed in and sympathetic to anthropological or ethnological fields—and we have come to refer to this type of scientist as an ethnobotanist.
None of the New World narcotics, save tobacco and coca, has assumed a place of importance in modern civilization, and many are still rather unfamiliar even to our botanists, chemists and pharmacologists. It is for this reason that I have chosen, even at the risk of seeming rather superficial, to say a few words about each of the native New World narcotics, with almost all of which I have had personal experience in the field over a long period.
By doing this, I hope to give you an overall picture of what we may term the “narcotic complex” of New World peoples. For sundry of these, the literature, though recondite, is extensive, covering many fields of research; but for the greater number, bibliographic sources are few and pertain to only one or two fields of investigation. Reference to tobacco and alcohol, both native American narcotics, will be omitted from this brief article.
The identification of the source plants of American narcotics has interested me since 1936. Consequently it is natural, I suppose, that my remarks should be heavily botanical. That the final and complete understanding of narcotic plants rests solely and fundamentally on a knowledge of their botanical sources makes it obvious that the first step must be made in the direction of botany or ethnobotany. Convinced of the importance of this step, I have studied narcotic plants among North American Indians in Oklahoma, have made several trips into the Mazatec, Chinantec and Zapotec Indian country of northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico, and lived almost without interruption, from 1941 to 1953, in the northwest Amazon and the northern Andes of South America.
For some of the plants mentioned, there are no chemical, much less pharmaceutical, data, For some, even, there are still serious problems concerning their botanical source or sources. Here, then, lies one of the most promising their botanical source or sources. Here, then, lies one of the most promising fields for research, for we know that tropical America still holds secrets in connection with narcotic plants.
For general purposes, there is probably no more serviceable classification of the plants man uses in his striving for temporary relief from reality than that proposed by the German toxicologist, Louis Lewin.
Of Lewin’s five categories, ie, Excitantia, Inebriantia, Hypnotica, Euphorica, Phantastica, none has stirred deeper interest through the ages, and none has foretokened a greater field for discovery for the present and future, than the Phantastica. There have recently been proposed very learned and intricate words to distinguish the several kinds of narcotics. Our modern terminology has come to call these the hallucinogens, the psychotomimetics, or the psychedelics.
Differing from the Psychotropic drugs, which normally act only to calm or to stimulate, the hallucinogens or psychedelics act on the central nervous system to bring about a dream-like state, marked (as Hofmann points out) by extreme alteration in the “sphere of experience, in the perception of reality, changes even of space and time and in consciousness of self.” They invariably induce a series of visual hallucinations, often in kaleidoscopic movement and usually in rather indescribably brilliant and rich colors, frequently accompanied by auditory and other hallucinations and a variety of synesthesias. Notwithstanding this mushrooming new nomenclature, it seems to me difficult to find a simpler and more serviceable classification than that of Lewin.
It is of interest that the New World is very much richer in narcotic plants than the Old and that the New World boasts at least 40 species of hallucinogenic or phantastica narcotics as opposed to half a dozen species native to the Old World.
It is clear that medical and psychological research into these strange agents, at a painfully embryonic state at the present time, promises more than we are able fully to comprehend. Powerful new tools for psychiatry may be only one of the results of such investigations. But research into the effects of these substances on the human mind must be carried out carefully, without haste or superficiality and, above all, by the most qualified personnel, for what may be one of the most promising fields for progress ever within man’s grasp can easily be jeopardized or utterly destroyed by irresponsible and inadequately planned research or by the manipulations of dilettantes.
Ayahuasca, Caapi, Yajé
One of the weirdest of our phantastica or hallucinogens is the drink of the western Amazon known as ayahuasca, caapi or yajé. Although not nearly so popularly known as peyote and, nowadays, as the sacred mushrooms, it has nonetheless inspired an undue share of sensational articles which have played fancifully with unfounded claims, especially concerning its presumed telepathic powers.
In spite of its extraordinarily bizarre ability to alter man’s physical and mental state, this narcotic drink finally disclosed itself to prying European eyes only about a century ago. And it remains one of the most poorly understood American narcotics today.
The earliest mention of ayahuasca seems to be that of Villavicencio in his geography of Ecuador, written in 1858. The source of the drug, he wrote, was a vine used “to foresee and to answer accurately in difficult cases, be it to reply opportunely to ambassadors from other tribes in a question of war; to decipher plans of the enemy through the medium of this magic drink and take proper steps for attack and defense; to ascertain, when a relative is sick, what sorcerer has put on the hex; to carry out a friendly visit to other tribes ; to welcome foreign travellers or, at least, to make sure of the love of their womenfolk.”
A few years earlier, in 1852, that tireless British plant explorer, Richard Spruce, had discovered the Tukanoan Indians of the Uaupes in Amazonian Brazil using a liana known as caapi to induce intoxication. His observations were not published until the posthumous account of his travels appeared in 1908.
One of Spruce’s greatest contributions to science was his precise identification of the source of caapi as a new species of the Malpighiaceae which was called Banisteria Caapi. The correct name is now Bamisteriopsis Caapi since it has been shown to be not a true Banisterta.
The natives of the upper Rio Negro of Brazil use it for prophetic and divinatory purposes and also to fortify the bravery of male adolescents about to undergo the severely painful yurupari ceremony for initiation into manhood. The narcosis amongst these peoples, with whom I have taken caapi many times is pleasant, characterized, amongst other strange effects, by colored visual hallucinations. In excessive doses, it is said to bring on frighteningly nightmarish visions and a feeling of extremely reckless abandon, but consciousness is not lost nor is use of the limbs unduly affected.
Two years later, in 1854, Spruce encountered the intoxicant along the upper Orinoco, where the natives chewed the dry stem for the intoxicating effects. Again, in 1857, he came upon ayahuasca in the Peruvian Andes and concluded that it was “the identical species of the Uaupés, but under a different name.”
Later explorers and travellers—Martius, Orton, Crévaux, Koch-Grunberg and others—referred to ayahuasca, caapi or yajé but in an incidental, even casual, manner. All agreed, however, that the source was a forest liana.
In the years following the early work, the area of use of Bamisteriopsis Caapi was shown to extend to Peru and Bolivia, and several other species of the genus with the same use were likewise reported from the western Amazon. Of outstanding interest was the work in 1922 of Rusby and White in Bolivia and the publication by Morton in 1931 of notes collected by Klug in the Colombian Putumayo. Similarly, the work of the Russians Varonof and Juzepczuk in the Colombian Caqueta in 1925-6 added information of interest to the whole picture.
Serious complications, however, early entered the story of the correct identification of ayahuasca, caapi and yajé. Back in 1890, Magelli, a missionary in Ecuador, through a misuse of the native names for Jivaro intoxicants, confused our malpighiaceous vine-narcotics with one of the tree-species of Datura. The effects of the two psychotomimetics differ widely. This comfusion, fortunately, did not enter the pharmacological or chemical literature.
A complication which has, however, sorely plagued both the botanical and the chemical literature, even as recently as 1957, stems from the days of Spruce. This meticulous observer noted, when he discovered caapi and identified its source, that another kind called caapi-pinima or “painted caapi” in the Rio Negro area might be “an apocynaceous twiner of the genus Haemadictyom, of which I saw only young shoots without any flowers.” “The leaves,” he wrote, “are of a shining green, painted with the strong blood-red veins. It is possibly the same species... distributed by Mr. Bentham under the name of Haemadictyon amazonicum. It may be the caapi-pinima which gives its nauseous taste to the caapi ... and it is probably poisonous, but it is not essential to the narcotic effect of Banisteria...”
I have consulted Spruce’s unpublished notes at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and find that he stated that the caapi drink is made from the lower parts of the stems of Banisteriopsis Caapi “beaten in a mortar with the addition of water and a small quantity of the slender roots of the Apocynac (apparently Haemadictyon) called caapi-pinima. May not the peculiar effects of the caapi,” he queried, “be owing rather to the roots of the Haemadictyon than to the stems of the Banisteria? The Indians, however, consider the latter the prime agent, at the same time admitting that the former is an essential ingredient.”
It is clear that Spruce suspected that the apocynaceous vine might play a role in causing the intoxication. But he was not sure. Nor did he make any definite statement, being careful to point out that Banisteriopsis alone could produce hallucinogenic effects.
Recent botanical work has shown that the genus Haemadictyon is not distinct from Prestonia. Haemadictyon amazonicum, therefore, is now correctly called Prestonia amazonica. It is a species known from only one collection, that made by Spruce along the lower Amazon in Brazil. We must assume, consequently, that it is a very strict endemic.
Now, I have previously pointed out that the narcotic species of Banisteriopsis bear different vernacular names. In the northwestern Amazon of Brazil and in adjacent parts of Colombia, it is termed caapi; in Amazonian Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, ayahuasca; along the eastern foothills of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador, it is yajé.
For some unexplained reason, writers usually have assumed that ayahuasca and caapi refer to Banisteriopsis but that yajé refers to Prestonia amazonica, notwithstanding the fact that this apocynaceous species is not known in the region where yajé is prepared.
It was apparently the anthropologist, Reinberg, who, in 1921, first suggested that in Peru the source of ayahuasca and of yajé were different plants. He suggested tentatively that yajé might be Prestonia or a related genus. The following year, the Belgian horticulturist, Claes, said that the yajé of the Koregwahes of Colombia “might be” Prestonia amazonica. I have found no voucher specimens of Reinberg or of Claes’ collections, but the pharmacologists Michiels and Clinquart, who worked on Claes’ material, reported that it seemed to belong to Prestonia amazonica.
Another and an unnecessary complication arose when the Colombian chemist, Fischer, while admitting that no botanical identification of his material had been made, referred yajé to Aristolochia; and the French pharmacologist, Rouhier, at first accepted this determination. Later, however, Rouhier pointed out the similarity of the narcosis from ayahuasca and doubted the possibility that yajé could be Prestonia amazomca.
At about the same time, Barriga-Villalba and Albarracin, a Colombian chemist and pharmacologist, respectively, described yajé, on which they worked, as a “climbing shrub.”
In 1927, two French pharmacologists, Perrot and Hamet, published an extensive review of what was then known botanically and chemically of this complex of intoxicants. Botanically, they pointed out that:
1) yajé, ayahuasca and caapi referred to one species of plant—Banistertopsis Caapi and that
2) no apocynaceous species is at all concerned with this narcotic complex.
In reply to Perrot and Hamet, the German botanist, Niedenzu, published several observations made from herbarium material, His specimens, of course, are no longer extant, for they were burned in the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden during the last war, but his observations bear the stamp of authority, since Niedenzu was the outstanding specialist in the Malpighiaceae. His studies indicated that ayahuasca in Peru and Ecuador ought to be considered Mascagnia psilophylla var. antifebrilis, Banisteriopsis quitensis and B. Caapi. This introduced into the puzzle another genus, Mascagnia, albeit one closely allied to Banisteriopsis.
Another attempt to make order out of chaos came in 1930, when the French botanist, Gagnepain, stated 1) that ayahuasca was probably Banisteriopsis Caapi, but yajé could not be referable to this species; 2) that yajé seemed to approach Prestonia amazonica; 3) that material sent in from divergent regions by Reinberg and by Rivet seemed to represent the same mal-pighiaceous species. Gagnepain felt that yajé of Colombia was the same species as caapi of Brazil but that yajé of Ecuador was a different species of Banisteriopsis.
Hammerman, in 1929, basing his observations on the field studies of Varanof and Juzepezuk in Colombia, reported that Colombian yajé seemed to comprise several species of Banisteriopsi, though most of it was probably B. quitensis. Perhaps the greatest single advance since Spruce’s contribution occurred in 1931 when Morton described a new species of Banisteriopsis from southern Colombia, naming it B, inebrians. On the basis of meticulous field work at observations of the German plant explorer, Klug, Morton reported that at least three species are employed in this region: Banisteriopsis Caapt, B. inebrians, and B. quitensis and that B. longialata and B. Rusbyana may sometimes enter as additional ingredients,
During my 12 years of plant exploration in the Amazon Valley, I encountered ayahuasca, caapi and yajé and was able to partake of the hallucinogenic drink on a number of occasions with the natives. In all cases save one, the beverage was Prepared with Banisteriopsis, regardless of the vernnacular name that was employed for the drink.
Along the eastern foothills of the Andes in Colombia, yajé is prepared as a concentrated decoction from day-long boiling of the rasped bark of Banisteriopsis inebrians. I saw no admixture with any other plant, yet the drink had a very strong psychotropic effect. Its intoxication had an initial stage of giddiness and nervousness, followed by profuse sweating and nausea. Then began a period of lassitude, during which a play of colors, at first mainly a hazy blue, increased in intensity. This eventually gave way to a deep sleep, interrupted by dreams and accompanied by a feverishness. No uncomfortable after-effects, save a severe diarrhea, were felt on the next day.
My studies indicate that the Kofan, Inga and Siona Indians of the Putumayo area do often employ the leaves of Banisteriopsis Rusbyana, known locally as chagro-panga or oco-yajé, as an admixture with the bark of B. inebrians. I collected Banisteriopsis Rusbyana several times, when natives pointed it out as the plant employed to make yajé stronger. The botanist, Cuatrecasas, has likewise found both species used together in the Putumayo.
Klug reported that these Indians “added to the yajé (Banisteriopsis inebrians) the leaves and young shoots of the branches of the oco-yajé or chagra-panga (No. 1971) (B. Rusbyana), and it is the addition of this plant which produces the ‘bluish aureole’ of their visions.” The Colombian botanist, Garcia-Barriga, noted their use of two admixtures, one of the amaranthaceous Altenanthera Lehmanii, the other an unidentified plant; he reported that the Altenanthera, when added to native beers or chicha, increased their intoxicating properties.
It is, I think, quite significant that the relatively intensive, though sporadic, botanical work in the Putumayo has not turned up Prestonia in connection with yajé. And I think we are justified in doubting that the yajé of this area is wholly or partly made from this apocynaceous vine. Nevertheless, we must not dismiss the possibility for other regions.
There have been several serious intimations that Prestonia enters the narcotic complex. And, in 1957, the chemists Hochstein and Paradies analyzed ayahuasca from Peru, calling it Banisteriopsis Caapi, and, from the same region, yajé which they attributed to Prestonia amazonica, I have been unable to check the voucher herbarium specimens upon which, apparently, the Peruvian botanist, Ferreyra, made his determination. These chemists stated that the natives of the Rio Napo “com-
monly consume a mixed extract of the B. Caapi and P. amazonica leaves in the belief that the latter suppress the more unpleasant hallucinations associated with the pure B. Caapi extracts.”
Much of my field work was done in the eastern part of the Colombian Amazon, near Brazil. Here Banisteriopsis Caapi is usually used alone, but sometimes the leaves of B. Rusbyana are added. I noted a few reports of admixtures, such as powdered tobacco or dried tobacco leaves and the crushed leaves of an apocynaceous tree, the toxic Malouetia Tamaquarina. The drink is invariably prepared as a cold water infusion in this region.
As far as I was able to judge from six or seven experiences with caapi, the effects differ little from those from the boiled concoction used in the Putumayo. The intoxication is longer in setting in, and much more of the drink must be taken, but the symptoms of the intoxication and their intensity seem to me to be very similar.
It was my good fortune in 1948 to be able to witness the preparation and to partake of a narcotic caapi-drink amongst the nomadic Makus of the Rio Tikié near the Colombian boundary in Brazil. This is the same area in which Spruce worked a century ago. From the bark of a forest liana, a definitely hallucinogenic drink in the form of a cold water infusion, yellowish in hue and exceedingly bitter, is made. The liana represented an undescribed species of the malpighiaceous genus Tetrapterys, which I named T. methystica.
In summary, we may state that:
a) the narcotic known in the western Amazon as caapi, yajé and ayahuasca is made basically from species of Banisteriopsis or from closely related malpighiaceous genera;
b) the most widely employed species of Banisteriopsis are B. Caapi, B. inebrians and B. Rusbyana, but B. quitensis appears also to be a major source;
c) the genus Tetrapterys is employed along the Colombia-Brazilian boundary, where only one species, T. methystica, is known to be used;
d)Mascagnia psilophylla var. antifebrilis has been suggested as a source of ayahuasca, but the evidence is not strong;
e) the identification of yajé as an Aristolochia is without foundation;
f) Prestonia amazonica has frequently been named as a source of yajé; but there is little or no reliable evidence that it is ever employed, at least, as the prime ingredient, in preparing the narcotic;
g) non-malpighiaceous plants are known occasionally, but apparently not frequently, to be added as admixtures together with Banisteriopsis,
If there be confusion in the botanical field, there is chaos in the chemical. This stems in great part, to be sure, from uncertainty as to precisely what the plants involved may be. The problem consequently is basically an ethnobotanical one.
An alkaloid was isolated from yajé in 1923 by Fischer who named it telepathine, but he gave neither structure nor other pertinent data, At the same time, Barriga-Villalba and Albarracin reported two alkaloids from specimens of yajé: yajeine and yajeinine, Later, in 1926, Michiels and Clintet isolated yajeine; and Reutter reported yajeine and yajeinine from samples of yajé which, without herbarium specimens, he identified as Prestonia amasonico, In 1928, Lewin isolated what he called banisterine; this alkaloid, incidentally, was tried clinically in mental cases at that time.
In the same year, Wolfes, as well as Rumpf and Elger, claimed that both yajeine and banisterine were actually harmine, one of the indole derivatives found in the seeds and roots of Peganum Harmala of the family Zygophyllaceae. This Point of view has been generally accepted. Although pharmacological similarities between the activity of these alkaloids and harmine are close, Hamet, while agreeing that telepathine, yajeine and banisterine are identical, felt that evidence was not yet sufficient to identify them with harmine.
Working, so far as I am aware, for the first time with accurately identified botanical materials, Chen and Chen demonstrated that the alkaloid of Banisteriopsis Caapi is harmine and that telepathine, yajeine, and banisterine are superfluous synonyms.
Recent chemical investigation has, however, apparently reopened the whole question. In 1953, working with material of Banisteriopsis inebrians which I collected in the Colombian Putumayo, O’Connell and Lynn found harmine in the stems and, in the leaves, “an alkaloid which was partly identified as harmine.”
Mors and Zaltzman, however, in 1954, questioned that harmine and yajeine were the same. Most recently, in 1957, Hochstein and Paradies, likewise on the basis of botanically determined materials, found that Banisteriopsis Caapi contains, in addition to harmine, the alkaloids harmaline and d-tetrahydroharmine, the three differing only in their state of oxidation and therefore of considerable biogenetic interest. They conclude that “in view of the low degree of psychotomimetic activity reported for harmine and the effectiveness ascribed to B. Caapi extracts, it seems likely that the harmaline or d-tetrahydroharmine may have substantial psychotomimetic activity in their own right.”
This is how far 100 years has brought us. How much farther is there to go? Should we not step up the speed of our studies before time blots out much of the native lore of the western Amazon?
Datura and Other Solanaceous Plants
The well known intoxicating solanaceous genus, Datura, has two New World centers of aboriginal use. In the American Southwest (California, Arizona, New Mexico) and adjacent Mexico, several herbaceous species, chiefly D. meteloides and D. inoxia (the toloache of Mexico), have been a part of religious and magical rites from earliest times. They are still so employed. Toloache, reported as a narcotic by all of the early chronicles, is still widely
employed in rural parts of northern and central Mexico.
In the Andes, from Colombia to Chile, and along the Pacific Coast of South America, where the Daturas are trees, a number of species are known to have been of extreme importance in some of the ancient civilizations, including the Incas and Chibchas, and are still valued in magico-religious and divinatory rites in isolated areas of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. There is even a report of witch-doctors of the Ecuadorian highlands taking lessons recently from Jivaro medicine-men and re-introducing the use of Datura into the populous and now civilized Andean tribes. The important economic species are Datura candida, D. sanguinea, D. aurea, D. dolichocarpa, D. suaveolens and D. arborea. A recently discovered species, Datura vulcanicola, may also have been used.
The preparation and use of Datura differ widely. It is most generally taken in the form of pulverized seeds dropped into beverages such as chicha or native beers. Many South American Indians thus bring on the intoxication which is marked by an initial state of violence so furious that the partaker must be held down pending the arrival of the deep, disturbed sleep during which visual hallucinations, interpreted as spirit visitations, are experienced. This narcosis enables the witch-doctor to diagnose disease, to discover thieves and to prophesy the outcome of tribal affairs and hopes. The Jivaro value Datura in correcting very refractory children who are given the seeds in the hope that the spirits of their forefathers may come to admonish them. The Chibchas anciently gave women and slaves potions of Datura to induce stupor prior to their being buried alive with departed husbands or masters.
Accurate identification of the species used by the tribes for special purposes leaves much to be desired, but since most species are known to contain similar alkaloids — hyoscyamine, scopolamine, atropine — this is not such a serious problem as it is in the case of some other narcotics.
In one high mountain-girt valley in southern Colombia, inhabited by Kamsa and Ingano Indians, I collected in 1942 what, after 13 years of field and herbarium study, I decided was a new solanaceous genus, closely akin to the tree-Daturas. Apparently a strict endemic, this tree has 12-inch flowers and long slender leaves from which an infusion is made for use similar to that of the Datura species. Methysticodendron Amesianum, for that is what I called it, is stated to be more potent and more dangerous than the Daturas. Its chemical composition includes l-scopolamine and hyoscyamine, with evidence of the presence of very minor amounts of other alkaloids.
The Indians of this isolated Valley of Sibundoy may possess the most intricate narcotic consciousness of any peoples of the New World. In addition to several species of tree-Daturas and Methysticodendron, they recognize and keep through vegetative reproduction clones of Daturas which are variously atrophied as a result of virus infection.
Some of these “races” are such monstrosities that it is difficult to discover the species to which they belong. The natives have special names for each clone. Since they are reputedly stronger, weaker, or in other ways different from healthy Daturas in their effects, they are conserved for very special uses by the witch-doctors. Here is an excellent problem never investigated but well worthy of research —
are they really chemically different and, if so, is the difference associated with the virus infection?
The alkaloidal family Solanaceae is so excessively rich in genera and species in the Andean area that there would seem to be every probability that additional plants of the family may be found to be or to have been utilized as native narcotics. Only further field research will tell.
In Texas and other southwestern states and in adjacent Mexico, one of the characteristic plants of the drier areas is the shrubby Sophora secundiflora. The pods of this leguminose species bear dark red seeds known locally as mescal beans or, in Mexico, as frijolitos.
The genus Sophora is rich in alkaloids. The seeds of Sophora secundiflora have been found to contain cytisine, known also as sophorine, a crystalline alkaloid belonging pharmacologically to the same group as nicotine. Cytisine is highly poisonous. Its intoxication is characterized by nausea and convulsions, and death occurs as a result of respiratory failure.
In spite of its toxicity — or perhaps because of it — the seed of Sophora secundiflora was used formerly by Indian groups, especially in Texas and northern Mexico, as the basis for the Red Bean Dance. Various groups of the Plains Indians likewise employed the mescal bean in distinct patterns of use: as an oracular or divinatory medium, to induce visions in initiation rites
and as a ceremonial emetic and stimulant. Its use today amongst the Kiowa and Comanche Indians as part of the ornamental dress of the leader of the peyote ceremony may point to its earlier employment as a narcotic, a role which it lost with the sweeping arrival of peyote which was so much safer and so much more spectacularly hallucinogenic.
References to the mescal beans go back to 1539, when Cabeza de Vaca spoke of them as objects of trade amongst the Indians of what is now Texas. They were mentioned in the mission literature of Texas as an oracular seed, and the Stephen Long Expedition in 1820 reported that the Arapaho and Iowa Indians used large red beans as a medicine and narcotic.
What interests us especially about Sophora secundiflora is how, in such a short period of time, its use has disappeared so completely that we have but a fragmentary knowledge of the whole picture. The same fate lies in store for other native narcotics, and it behooves us to act before aboriginal folklore be completely lost to us forever.