Anthropophagy Unites Us! But Can It Heal Us?

From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival

Serotonin. Image by Kelsey Brooks.

We had justice as codification of vengeance. Science as codification of Magic. Anthropophagy. The permanent transformation of Taboo into totem.
—Oswaldo de Andrade

Ingesting plants in the Peruvian Amazon, particularly the sensational psychoactive tea ayahuasca, for health and wellness is en vogue this decade. Then again, when has it not been a popular practice to seek the mysteries of the Other in the far corners of the world? Whether these mysteries reveal precious knowledge, eternal life, enhanced beauty, or “superfoods” for becoming superhumans, the phenomenon of shaman-seeking for ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru is linked to a long history of resource extraction, colonization, cultural exchange, and assimilation. Rather than assimilation, however, I follow the likes of other anthropologists and scholars who perceive this as an ingestion, or as Oswald de Andrade would say, a form of cultural cannibalism: anthropophagy.

Brazilian polemicist José Oswald de Sousa Andrade first published the Manifesto Antropófago in the initiatory edition of Revista de Antropofagia in 1928 as a response to the modernist movement (de Andrade 2009). Drawing on the sensationalist reports of indigenous acts of cannibalism, the term is grounded in the conviction that colonial-era Brazil gains its strength from the ability to ingest cultural, technological, political, and religious material from the “civilized” colonizers and transform it into something distinctly Brazilian. This is a process of anthropophagy, or the productive cannibalism of ideas (such as socialism) and things (like technologies) at the collective level that leads to their transformation into something distinctly local. The manifesto begins by stating, “Only anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.” As a concept to think with, anthropophagy refers to the universal tendency to consume—or cannibalize—features of the Other. This is a process of transformation, much like the concept of shamanism. And anthropophagy, like shamanism, has both productive and destructive potential.

How does anthropophagy unite us? Anthropophagy was conceived to describe the relationship between the excluded and marginalized with the dominant and the colonizing (Garcia 2018). Anthropophagy unites people globally as a form of ingestion and transformation, juxtapositions, rejections, assimilations, and assemblages. It unites us in the human predilection for consuming, digesting, and excreting the products of the other. De Andrade highlights the “productive” or “transformative” consumption of the marginalized, as opposed to the wasteful or “base” consumption of a gluttonous colonizing culture:

The Indian didn’t devour due to gluttony, but as a symbolic and magical act, upon which lies his whole understanding about life and man. (Osvaldo de Andrade quoted in Amaral 1992, 160)

Anthropophagy unites us as “the world’s one and only law,” in that all societies cannibalize aspects of each other to an extent (de Andrade 2009). Yet there is a contrast between symbolic ingestion for transformation as a magical act—productive cannibalism—and what de Andrade calls “base cannibalism,” what the colonizers commit as forms of destruction and violence. Productive cannibalism is creative, it has the potential to invert or transform power relations. Base cannibalism, conducted by the “civilized” nations, reproduces hierarchies of power alongside violent acts of extraction and appropriation, promoting “cadaverized” ideas and putting a stop to dynamic thinking (de Andrade 2009).

When Westerners drink ayahuasca in the jungle, they are ingesting more than the elaborate mixture of the psychoactive chemical components DMT (dimethyltryptamine) and harmala alkaloids. They are ingesting ayahuasca and chacruna, popularized Quechua-language terms for the main plant components of the ayahuasca tea. Through ingestion, they develop relationships with the spirits of the plants, all the while transforming human–spirit relationships and ceremonial practices through consumption and digestion.

Ayahuasca has become a sensational topic in the media over the last decade. Most discussion attends to potential therapeutic properties, particularly its ability to relieve symptoms of depression, PTSD, and anxiety. We drink the tea, gluttonous for the new super-substance from the rainforest that will heal our souls, mend our stressed bodies and hyperstimulated psyches. De Andrade (2009) notes that “science has codified magic” by transforming Taboo (the plant spirit) into totem (psychedelic drug). The colonizers’ science cannibalizes indigenous science, transforming spirit into molecule, plant into pill. Science cannot tell us what a plant spirit can do, and would rather not assume such a task, but it has recently been very productive in providing evidence for the efficacy of ayahuasca in treating treatment-resistant psychiatric conditions. Whether or not this is base cannibalism is indicated in the ways that it reproduces neocolonial power dynamics through science and medicine, sterilizing spirits and ritual from ayahuasca traditions.

Apart from the chemical effects, does participation in Amazonian rituals and ceremonies alter perceptions of mental health and well-being? I suggest that the ingestion of a different cosmovision potentiates healing experiences with ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon. Inherent to this healing experience is a process of transformation, both key features of anthropophagy and shamanism. In this way, anthropophagy of ritual beliefs is just as important as the consumption of the plants themselves. Something happens when ceremonial participants drink ayahuasca in the rainforest under the palm-thatch covering of a maloca, bucket in hand as the sultry air is cut only by the booming melody of icaros cast against the roar of cicadas, a rushing river, and perhaps an evening rainstorm. Anthropologists have long inquired into the psychophysiological effects of healing rituals (Prince 1982), and psychologists have similarly acknowledged the role of religion and spirituality in psychotherapy (Kleinman 1988; Griffith 2011). The healing effects of ayahuasca shamanism in Peru must be inclusive of the journey, the setting, and the relationships forged with the shaman as well as the other-than-human participants in the healing ritual. Whether anthropophagy can heal us if we reject or “black box” the ceremonial context may be discovered in the laboratory. Perhaps belief in spirits can be sterilized from ayahuasca treatments, and the idea of a ceremony will be cadaverized as outmoded technology. However, in my fieldwork I have found that those who anthropophagize—meaning that they transform their perceptions after ingestion of local cosmovision—are those with the most positive healing results. Ayahuasca shamanism is about commitment to relationships and dynamic evolution of practice. Shamans who incorporate new plants, new ideas, new or foreign technologies often find success. Clients who find the will to commit to their relationship with a shaman and to the plant spirits through dedication to ritual preparation and lifestyle constraints learn and heal. Their health “outcomes” may be measurable by standard psychiatric instruments, but these do not well capture the role of a transformation of worldview—anthropophagy—in the healing process.


Amaral, Aracy. 1992. “Oswald de Andrade and Brazilian Modernism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Avant-Garde Visual Arts in the Twenties.” In One Hundred Years of Invention: Oswald de Andrade and the Modern Tradition in Latin American Literature, edited by K. David Jackson, 155–73. Austin, Tex.: Abaporu.

de Andrade, Osvaldo. 2009. “Anthropophagic Manifesto.” Sibila: Revista Poesia e Crítica Literaria, March 24. Originally printed in 1928, Revista de Antropofagia 1, no. 1.

Garcia, Luis Fellipe. 2018. “Only Anthropophagy Unites Us: Oswald de Andrade’s Decolonial Project.” Cultural Studies 34, no. 1: 122–42.

Griffith, James L. 2011. “Psychotherapy, Religion, and Spirituality.” In Psychotherapy of Hope, by Renato Alarcón and Julia B. Frank, 310–25. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kleinman, Arthur. 1988. Rethinking Psychiatry. New York: Free Press.

Prince, Raymond. 1982. “Shamans and Endorphins: Hypothesis for a Synthesis.” Ethos 10, no. 4: 409–23.