SPECIES: Colubrina, Peregrina
COMMON NAMES: Cohoba, Hakudufha, Hataj, Kahhobba, Kahobba, Niopo, Parica, Yopa, Yopo, Yupa, Una de Gato (Spanish, ‘cat claw’), Villca
The Anadenanthera colubrina tree grows from three to eighteen meters and has black bark with thorns and knotty constrictions. The leaves are pinnate and quite long. A. colubrina and A. peregrina are very similar in appearance and are difficult to distinguish from each other. At night, the tree’s leaves fold together, opening up in the morning. Glands on the stems release a sweet nectar, which ants are very attracted to consuming. In turn, the ants destroy pests that might harm the tree. The pods, which are borne profusely on the yopo tree, are flat and deeply constricted between each seed. Gray-black when ripe, the seed pods break open, exposing from three to ten flat seeds, or beans. These are gathered during January and February, usually in large quantities and often ceremonially (Ratsch 1998, 54-55).
TRADITIONAL USE: A potent hallucinogenic snuff is prepared from the seeds of the A. peregrina tree. The snuff, now used mainly in the Orinoco basin, was first reported from Hispaniola in 1496, where the Taino Indians called it cohoba. Its use, which has died out in the West Indies, was undoubtedly introduced to the Caribbean area by invaders from South America (Safford 1916).
An early Peruvian report, dated about 1571, states that Inca medicine men were able to tell the future by communicating with the ‘devil’ through the use of vilca. In Argentina, the early Spaniards found the Comechin Indians taking sebil “through the nose” to become intoxicated, and in another tribe the same plant was chewed for endurance. Since these native cultures have disappeared, our knowledge of vilca snuffs and their use is limited (Hofmann et al. 1992, 116-117).
Villca seeds were added to chicha, a ceremonial maize beer. The juice of the seeds was squeezed into the chicha, which was taken by shamans to foretell the future. The shamans of the Wichi tribe in Argentina still use a snuff they call Hataj made from the A. peregrina, which allows them to penetrate other realities and influences those realms. Since the introduction of Christianity to these tribes, some individuals have equated the trees with the biblical Tree of Knowledge (Voogelbreinder 2009, 82-83).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The preparation of Anadenanthera varies from tribe to tribe. The pods are first moistened and rolled into a paste, which is then roasted gently over a slow fire until it is dried out and toasty. Sometimes, the beans are allowed to ferment before being made in to the paste. After the toasting, the hardened paste may be stored for later use (Hofmann et al. 1992, 119).
Some tribes toast the beans and crush them into a paste, grinding them on an ornate slab of hardwood made especially for the purpose. The resulting grayish-green powder is almost always mixed with about equal amounts of some alkaline substance, which may be lime from snail shells or the ashes of plant material. Apparently, the ashes are made from a great variety of plant materials: the burned fruit of the monkey pot, the bark of many different vines and trees, and even the roots of sedges. The addition of the ashes probably serves a mechanical purpose: to keep the snuff from caking in the humid rainforest climate (Hofmann et al. 1992, 119).
A note on the addition of lime or ash to entheogenic substances: this is a very widespread custom in both hemispheres. Lime or ash is often added to betel chew, pituri, tobacco, epena snuff, coca, etc. The basic nature of this substance often allows active alkaloids to more easily penetrate the system. In the case of yopo snuff, however, the alkaline admixture does not seem to be essential. Indeed, some tribes, such as the Guahibos, may occasionally take the powder alone. The explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who encountered the use of yopo in the Orinoco 175 years ago, mistakenly stated that “…it is not to be believed that the niopo acacia pods are the chief cause of the stimulating effects of the snuff…” The effects are due to freshly confined lime.’ In his time, of course, the presence of active tryptamines in the beans was unknown (Hofmann et al. 1992, 119).
MEDICINAL USES: A tea made from vilca seeds is used for digestive troubles. The seeds, when combined with a chicha brew, may also be used to help fever, melancholy, and unknown afflictions. Seeds are added to honey to increase female fertility and as a diuretic. However, the seeds are also abortifacients. The gum of A. colubrina is used to treat coughs, while the snuff is used to treat headaches, constipation and flu (Voogelbreinder 2009, 82-83).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The hallucinogenic principles found in A. peregrina seeds include N. N-dimethyltryptamine, N-monomethyltryphmine, 5-methoxydimethyltryptamine, and several related bases. Bufotenine is also present in A. peregrina seeds. Elucidation of the chemical make-up of the seeds of the yopo tree has only recently been accomplished. Future studies may increase our knowledge of the active principles of these seeds (Ott 1996).
Yopo snuff is inhaled through hollow bird-bone or bamboo tubes. The effects begin almost immediately: a twitching of the muscles, slight convulsions, and lack of muscular coordination, followed by nausea, visual hallucinations, and disturbed sleep. An abnormal exaggeration of the size of objects (macropsia) is common. In an early description, the Indians say that their houses seem to “be turned upside down and that men are walking on their feet in the air” (Hofmann 1992, 118).
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Ott, J. “Anadenanthera Peregrina”. Spagazzini, 1996.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Safford, W.E. “Identity of Cohoba, the Narcotic Snuff of Ancient Haiti.” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 6 (1916): 547–562.