The above clip, taken from the BBC series Weird Nature, shows a jaguar in the Peruvian rain forest eating the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, one of the major constituents of the shamanic brew ayahuasca. The caapi vine contains the chemical harmine as well as other monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that allow the hallucinogenic DMT in the other main ingredient in ayahuasca (often Psychotria viridis) to be orally active. The jaguar seems to be affected somewhat by the vine, though it’s difficult to tell how much of that is us forcing our own preconceptions on the clip. As noted though, there isn’t any DMT in the caapi vine, although it does have the harmala alkaloids that were originally labeled ‘telepathine’ by early researchers, on account of its supposed ability to enable telepathic contact between tribe members.
One of the many mysteries regarding the ayahuasca brew is how the indigenous people of South America came to mix the two main ingredients, out of all the millions of possible combinations of plants in that region. The video clip above raises the question of whether the use of the caapi vine might have been at least partly based on the observation of animals ‘self-medicating’ with the plant. The study of this phenomenon is known as Zoopharmacognosy.
To make things doubly interesting, one of the most commonly reported elements in ayahuasca visions are…jaguars! And these visions even seem to transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo administered harmaline to 35 white, urban volunteers, without telling them the substance they were taking, its origins, nor the expected effects. He was surprised to note that “strangely enough, tigers, leopards or jaguars were seen by seven of the subjects even though big cats are not seen in Chile”. Michael Harner, an expert in shamanism, described this result as “unexpected, and remains unexplained”.