The Hunter in the Rye
Ergot, Sedges and Hunting Magic in the Peruvian Amazon
A banti draws the string of a palm wood bow all the way to his ear, aiming the razor-sharp bamboo tip of an arrow straight up into the rain forest canopy. Eighty feet above, a large spider monkey eats Pouteria fruits, unaware of the human predator below. Then the black silhouette flinches, a fruit drops, and the monkey leaps to another branch. "Wary. May have heard us," he whispers to his brother-in-law as he releases the tension on the bow in a smooth snap.
He steps quietly, bending back a few spindly palms that block his view, never taking his eyes off the monkey high overhead. Once again he takes up his stance, but this time he removes a small cluster of plant bulbs from a net bag slung across his back. The bulbs are the roots of an alkaloid-rich sedge variety used for the specific purpose of hunting spider monkey. Snapping off a piece, he chews the bitter, aromatic quid, then rubs the masticated root onto his bow and arrow. Still watching the monkey, he spits a fine, turpentine-smelling spray upward. "Straight up, straight to the heart, no branches, fly straight and fast," he mumbles to the bow, to the arrow, to the monkey, to himself.
For a moment, the muscles across his back stand out in relief as he draws and aims the taut bow. With a soft grunt and a snap of the string he releases the arrow. The monkey lets loose an almost human scream as the arrow strikes it square in the chest. Anything but a perfect shot and the monkey might have fled with a flesh wound for a long and exhausting chase. The slightest glance off a branch and the arrow could have missed altogether. But this arrow hit its mark and the monkey wobbles, loses its grip, and plummets to the forest floor in a shower of blood. Abanti barely looks at his prey as his brother-in-law removes the arrow and returns it. Ripping a few thin vines from a nearby tree, his brother-in-law binds up the monkey and shoulders the bundle while Abanti leads the way back home: a true hunter avoids touching the animal he has killed, so as not to sully himself with its blood.
The Matsigenka people of Manu National Park in southern Peru still hunt with bow and arrow, since the park prohibits firearms and munitions. They maintain a rich repertoire of traditional hunting lore. Matsigenka boys learn to craft and shoot bows and arrows almost as soon as they can walk. Beginning at age three with tiny toy contraptions good for impaling butterflies and frogs, a Matsigenka boy at about ten graduates to a half-size palm wood bow, shooting small birds on hunting trips with his father and uncles. By sixteen, a young Matsigenka man has the skills and physical stamina required to hunt serious game, especially monkeys, peccaries, tapir, and forest birds.
Does a Matsigenka man become a great hunter through years of daily practice with bow and arrow since childhood? Or is hunting skill some natural talent inherited from a father with exceptional vision or athletic ability? If you ask a Matsigenka, the answer to both questions is no: there is no such thing as a good hunter, good practice, good luck, or good genes. There is only good hunting medicine. And the best hunting medicines are the medicinal sedges: a dazzling variety of cultivated varieties of the genus Cyperus, known as ivenkiki in the Matsigenka language and ‘nut grass’ or ‘ryegrass’ in vernacular English.
According to Matsigenka mythology, the harpy eagle, Pakitsa, long ago walked the earth in human form and taught shamans its own hunting secrets: special toxic plants to sharpen vision, cleanse the body and purify the soul. To this day, Matsigenka shamans ascend to the heavens in hallucinogenic trance [see "Return of the Secret Shaman"] to obtain novel varieties of sedge, manioc and other crops and medicines from the spirits.1 The Matsigenka recognize four general kinds of hunting medicines: 1) aromatic sedges used to steady the hands and guide the arrow; 2) caustic eye drops to improve vision and heighten the senses; 3) purgatives and emetics to flush impurities from the body; 4) and hallucinogens and narcotics to transport the soul to other dimensions where the hunter communes with spirit beings.2
The medicinal sedges used by the Matsigenka (Cyperus spp.) belong to the same botanical family and genus as papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). Though widely used in the Old World as an early source of paper, the sedge or papyrus family (Cyperaceae) is not generally known for medicinal properties outside of South America. And yet for the Matsigenka and other Amazonian peoples, cultivated sedges are among the most important of all plant medicines, used for a spectacular diversity of ailments and other conditions. Matsigenka men grow dozens of sedge varieties in their gardens as hunting remedies, each one prized for its ability to enhance skills for tracking and killing a specific game animal—spider monkey, woolly monkey, various game birds, certain types of fish. Other sedge varieties are rubbed on the hands while planting certain crops to make them more hardy. Women, too, have their own sedge varieties—to bathe babies, soothe fevers, staunch hemorrhages during childbirth, to treat infertility or, on the other hand, as a natural form of birth control. Other sedges are used to treat common health complaints such as headaches, fevers, cuts and diarrhea. Still others are used to treat snakebite, to ward off ghosts and vengeful spirits, to treat depression and nightmares3, or to cure insanity. Some dangerously potent cultivars are believed to cause insanity. There are even sedge varieties to give one a beautiful singing voice, to become a better weaver, to calm a belligerent drunk, or to pass through military check points and park guard posts without hassles.
Many sedge varieties appear to be nearly identical. Only the grower is able to distinguish one type from another. Botanical identification is exceedingly difficult since fruit and flowers are almost never present. When I first learned that sedges were used for such a wide variety of ills and conditions, I wrote this off as magic, folklore, or superstition. With time, however, I have come to appreciate the Matsigenka's extensive knowledge about the rain forest and its plant and animal inhabitants. Almost everything they have ever told me, whether it appeared at the time to be factual or superstitious in nature, has turned out to be true.
And so one day I had a splitting headache and asked someone to bring me the proper sedge from their garden. It relieved my headache almost instantly, but it had an astonishing side effect: it instilled in me a remarkable, albeit temporary, ability to juggle grapefruits. To amuse people who invariably hang around my tent, I sometimes pick up a few fruits and begin a clumsy juggling act, only to give up amidst laughter and a shower of fruits splattering on the ground. After taking the sedge for my headache, I happened to repeat the juggling act, but surprised myself as I noticed that all the fruits stayed in the air without thought or effort, no longer drifting frantically about as in prior performances. To my amazement, I was able to perfect a number of tricks and variations I had never mastered before. My Matsigenka friends laughed, but I was intrigued. Somehow, the sedge plant had improved my hand-eye coordination, turning a clumsy, hack juggler into a polished showman, at least temporarily: I repeated the performance the next day without the benefit of the sedge root, to the usual disastrous effect.
Returning from Peru I contacted Keith Clay, leading researcher into the pharmacology of sedges, and learned about laboratory studies on this fascinating plant. The Matsigenka word for sedges, ivenkiki, refers to the curious grayish-white mass, the color and texture of a store-bought button mushroom, that grows where the flower would normally be in a wild sedge. It turns out that this button is, in fact a mushroom: a parasitic fungus known as Balansia cyperi4 that belongs to the Clavicepitaceae, the same family as rye ergot (Claviceps purpurea) from which LSD and other medically important ergot alkaloids were extracted. Wild sedges are infected with the same ergot-like fungus, not enough to harm the plant's flowers, but enough to harm cattle: cows and sheep in the U.S. may fill up on ryegrass and get high on the alkaloids, becoming disoriented and shaky, sometimes falling down, breaking bones or even drowning from this condition known as "cattle staggers" or "ryegrass staggers."
Indigenous peoples of the Amazon apparently cultivated sedges (commonly known as piri-piri in Peru and priprioca in Brazil) from their wild counterparts by selecting for higher and higher concentrations of fungus to the point where the parasite infects the entire plant, infusing the root bulbs with ergot alkaloids and destroying the fruits and flowers and rendering the plant entirely dependent on human cultivation. Preliminary laboratory studies succeeded in extracting eight previously unknown ergot-like compounds from a single sedge plant collected in Ecuador.5 Since sedges and their fungal parasites are reproduced by vegetative propagation, a kind of cloning, it is likely that different sedge-fungus clones contain different cocktails of ergot alkaloids. This would explain the diverse physiological effects attributed to different sedge varieties by the Matsigenka and other Amazonian peoples. Though botanically unrelated to ginseng (Panax spp., in the Araliaceae), Cyperus could be considered a kind of "ginseng of the Amazon" for its multifaceted, panacae-like medicinal uses.
Ergot alkaloids constrict blood vessels, alter uterine contractions, and at high enough doses cause convulsions and hallucinations. In medieval times, epidemics of spontaneous abortions and the gangrenous infection known as "Saint Anthony's fire" were attributed to witchcraft. By the late 17th century, physicians identified ergot smut, which infects rye and other grains, as the culprit. Some modern scholars blame ergot intoxication for the mysterious convulsions and Satanic hallucinations that culminated in the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts.
The Matsigenka's use of different sedge varieties to treat wounds and snakebites, to staunch birth-related hemorrhaging and to control fertility are coherent with the physiological properties of ergot alkaloids. Indeed, Albert Hoffman first discovered LSD after investigating ergot extracts for treating headache, controlling obstetric bleeding and inducing uterine contractions.6 The Matsigenka headache remedy that improved my juggling prowess has its pharmaceutical analog in Cafergot, a migraine drug that contains caffeine plus an ergot-derived compound. Apparently "magical" or "superstitious" uses of certain Matsigenka sedge varieties to improve singing or weaving skills, dispel nightmares and demonic apparitions, pacify drunks, slip through army checkpoints, and to both cause or cure insanity, may owe their psychoactive properties to ergot alkaloids like LSD.
So when a Matsigenka hunter rubs a bit of chewed sedge root over his arrow before firing, telling it to avoid branches and fly straight to the monkey's heart, he is not merely focusing his attention, indulging superstition or brandishing a magical charm. He is also giving time for the sedge's ergot alkaloids to work their very real magic on his body and mind. But if you ask the hunter himself, he will give a different explanation, as simple as it is eloquent: sedges, brought by powerful shamans from the heavens since mythical times through the present, infuse the hunter with the spirit of the harpy eagle, the greatest predator of the forest.
This text was abridged and revised from an article first published as Gift of the harpy eagle: Hunting medicines of the Machiguenga. The South American Explorer 51 (Spring 1998): 9-21.
All photos, except where noted, by the author
1 G.H. Shepard Jr. (1999) Shamanism and diversity: A Matsigenka perspective. In Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, edited by D. A. Posey. London: United Nations Environmental Programme and Intermediate Technology Publications, 93-95.
2 G.H. Shepard Jr. (2002) Primates in Matsigenka subsistence and worldview. In Primates Face to Face: The Conservation Implications of Human and Nonhuman Primate Interconnections, edited by A. Fuentes and L. Wolfe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 101-136.
3 G.H. Shepard Jr. (2002) Three Days for Weeping: Dreams, emotions and death in the Peruvian Amazon. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16 (2): 200-229.
5 T.C. Plowman, A. Leuchtmann, C. Blaney and K. Clay (1990) Significance of the fungus Balansia cyperi infecting medicinal species of Cyperus (Cyperaceae) from Amazonia. Economic Botany 44 (4): 452-462.
6 A. Hoffman (1980) LSD - My Problem Child. New York: McGraw-Hill.