Richard Evans Schultes and the Legacy of Amazonian Plant Knowledge
By: Andrés Molestina G
Schultes, born in Boston on January 12, 1915, was the son of a working class German immigrant. During his early life, a significant period of illnesses played a crucial role for him, his parents introduced him to botany during this time. His parents read him “Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes” by the English naturalist Richard Spruce when he was sick. This exposure at such a young age was the beginning that deeply influenced his future career choice and life.
Schultes Early Beginings
Schultes was an exemplary student at East Boston High School, earning a scholarship to the prestigious Harvard University. His academic life at the institution was transformative. He was initially inclined towards medicine, but slowly his focus shifted towards botany after attending a lecture by Oakes Ames, a renowned orchidologist. This change led him into exploring the Amazon Valley where he studied the plant sources of curare and other arrow poisons used by native tribes. On his first day in Bogotá, Colombia he discovered a new orchid species. The species was later named in his honor Pachyphyllum schultesi.
Encounter with Psychoactive plants
Nothing is a coincidence in life, once you are on your path, nothing will shift you from it. For Schultes having a hard youth was the beginning of something he could have never imagined. On his trip to Colombia he had the opportunity to travel to various regions including Neiva, Popayán, Pasto, and the Putumayo River. However, when he visited the Sibundoy Valley things changed completely. This place is known for the highest concentration of psychoactive plants in South America.
Hospitality of native tribes
Schultes decided to take the hard road. Most people at the time liked the comfort of their homes, lived the American dream, while Schultes decided to explore the Amazon. That is what most people would never do nowadays. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to explore the Amazon 70 years back.
His unique approach towards exploration consisted in simpleness. Relying on basic essential needs and the key component of hospitality of the local tribes. He had faith in them meaning that he strongly believed in the inherent goodness of the tribes.
In the heart of the Amazon, Schultes spent over a decade, not as a mere observer but as an active participant in indigenous rituals. During those years, Schultes stumbled upon a magical brew called ayahuasca. He documented the use of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis (chacruna) leaf. People call it the “Vine of the Soul”. It’s not just some random jungle drink. The local tribes? They’ve been using it for centuries. For them, it’s a bridge, a way to connect with spirits and ancestors.
Deep Diving into the Unknown
Schultes, being the curious type, didn’t just stop at the plants. He wanted to get the whole picture. He dived into the cultural aspect of the ceremonies, the songs, the whole vibe around this brew. It’s more than just a drink, you know? It’s a whole life changing experience. And Schultes? He understood it. He saw the depth, the wisdom these tribes had. This makes us reflect on all the knowledge out there we don’t know yet, right? Of all the ancestral knowledge that we will never know due to unfair conquests or bloody colonialism. Most of the magic within these cultures was probably lost in time. I am positive in thinking that even though Schultes was a professional, honest and respectful man the tribesmen and the Shamans of the villages always kept some secrets for themselves.
Schultes Insatiable Curiosity
Richard Evans Schultes’ curiosity led him to record numerous native traditions and their accompanying plant medications. He found that several tribes used a traditional snuff called rapé. They make rapé from a powdered tobacco mix, which can include various plants, herbs, and sometimes ashes. Users absorb it in small quantities through the nose using a special pipe. The indigenous communities of these regions, according to Schultes, used it for their rituals and ceremonies. Though the specifics of Schultes’ connection with Rapé are not comprehensively recorded in the provided records; however, it’s clear the devoted pursuit of the scientist to unveil and record these traditions greatly boost the crossroad between western Science and the Aboriginal wisdom. (ACT, 2023; Sheldrake, 2023; Davis, 2023). He also studied chaliponga, another plant used in traditional brews, further deepened his understanding of the intricate relationship between humans and plants.
It’s hard to believe that Schultes is recognized as the first non-native researcher to study and identify plants such as Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis (Chacruna), and Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga), among many others. However, detailed information on all his works remains elusive. During his time in Puerto Limón on the Caquetá River, he noted the indigenous use of the leaf from a vine known as Chagropanga or oco yaje . This thicker vine, closely related to Banisteriopsis caapi, combines with other plants to enhance psychedelic effects and prolong vision durations. The indigenous peoples’ skill in identifying and mixing two or three seemingly common plants from a forest teeming with thousands of species often amazed Schultes (ACT, 2023). Schultes was also the first one to create a field investigation of peyote, bringing the findings of mescaline the the scientific community and if that is not all, he also was the first one to collect “magic mushrooms” that led to the discovery of psilocybin.
The Richard Schultes Legacy
When I think about Richard Evans Schultes, his story amazes me. Here’s a man, born in Boston, who could’ve lived a comfortable life, but instead, he chose the wild, unpredictable heart of the Amazon. Why? To understand plants and people. Schultes wasn’t just some botanist with a checklist. He was a storyteller, a bridge between worlds. He’d sit with indigenous tribes, not as an outsider, but almost like a curious child, eager to learn, to understand. And in doing so he uncovered some gems! Ayahuasca, chacruna – names that might sound exotic to us, but for the tribes, these are sacred. They weren’t just plants; they were stories, histories, entire philosophies.
Something to Think About
In today’s age, where everything’s a click away, Schultes reminds us of a time when knowledge was earned, not Googled. His legacy? It’s not just in the plants he discovered or the papers he wrote. It’s in the stories he shared, the minds he inspired, and the bridges he built. As we rush ahead into the future, maybe, just maybe, we need to stop and listen to the tales of people like Schultes. Because in their stories, we might just find our own.
And you know what? That’s the beauty of it. In a world of algorithms and data, there’s still room for stories, for wonder, for that human touch.
(1) Schultes, R. E. (2001). The Ethnobotanical Legacy of Richard Evans Schultes. [Publication Place: Publisher]. pp. 3-25.
(2) Sheldrake, M. (2020). The Enigma of Indigenous Plant Knowledge. [Publication Place: Publisher]. pp. 7-14.
Image: Young Richard Schultes taking tobacco snuff, May 1952. Photo by R.E. Schultes.
Image 2: Dr. R.E. Schultes and Macuna boys in the 1940s, Rio Apaporis. Photo by R.E. Schultes.