South America

South America – Many of the most significant developments in the study of shamanism in recent decades have come from those interested in Amazonia. Similarly, the influence of South American shamanism on neo-shamanism and Cyberian shamanism is considerable. While much of the popular interest has been in the use of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or vision-inducing plants, the more fundamental role played by tobacco has not received sufficient attention. It is notable, for example, that among the Araweté, a nonshaman is called a “noneater of tobacco.”

Shamanism in South America is divided, broadly speaking, between Amazonian practices and those of the Andes. Juan Ossio usefully details the major differences. In the Andes, shamans are healers hired by clients, and they largely attempt to purify and “raise” (levantar) their patients by means of instruments displayed on a table. These include elements drawn from indigenous cultures and others associated with Christianity, and they are set out in an organizational pattern that replicates the “recurrent Andean representation of order, in which complementary opposites are mediated by a unifying principle.” Trance is used to identify and expel “evil forces,” to aid “journeying” toward sources of power, and to facilitate communication with the tabled objects. In Amazonia, by contrast, shamans enforce law and order, especially by combating sorcery or witchcraft and other assaults on or within communities. Amazonian shamans heal using tobacco and “sucking cures.” In both areas, shamans may be aided by powerful plants, particularly ayahuasca in Amazonia and San Pedro in the northern Andes, but further south in the Andes hallucinogens are replaced by coca.

Ossio also notes that these performative and ideological differences arise from the nature of their broader cultures. The highly differentiated societies of the northern coast of Peru, with economies and modes of subsistence that generate trade surpluses, have developed hierarchical and bureaucratic political systems. “Social control was, and continues to be, a basic responsibility of the state more than that of ritual specialists.” Amazonian societies are “politically stateless and less differentiated” and “depend basically on shamanism to keep social control.” In both areas, shamans are present not only in small villages but also in the cities. This illustrates the ability of shamanism to evolve in relation to broader cultural, political, economic, and epidemiological contexts. For example, Neil Whitehead argues that “dark shamanism” or kanaimà is “an authentic and legitimate form of cultural expression and is mimetically linked to the violence of economic and political ‘development.’” It is also entangled with experiences of waves of disease that have resulted from European colonization. Shamanic vitality may also be illustrated by the inclusion of outboard motors among the other-than-human persons or powers with whom animist shamans may now engage. Further, it is significant that shamanic knowledge and practices have influenced the evolution of local forms of Christianity in South America, including the development of groups that use ayahuasca and similar plants sacramentally.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007