An Anthropological Look at How the Environment and the Use of Select Psychotropic Plants Influence Indigenous Religious Beliefs in the New World

Open Access
Hanson, Rachel Amanda
Area of Honors:
Interdisciplinary in Anthropology and Religious Studies
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Timothy Michael Ryan, Thesis Supervisor
  • Catherine Wanner, Thesis Supervisor
  • Timothy Michael Ryan, Honors Advisor
  • On Cho Ng, Honors Advisor
  • hallucinogen
  • indigenous religion
  • kava
  • peyote
  • virola
  • altered states of consciousness
  • religion
  • psychotropic
  • psychoactive
  • plant drugs
  • drugs
  • intoxication
Psychotropic plants are those which alter the mood, behavior, or perception of the user. These types of intoxicating plants are used worldwide and serve many different purposes. Religious rituals are one of the most common venues for psychoactive drug ingestion, and are also among the most interesting. Religious hypnotic and hallucinogenic experiences induced by plants are critical to understanding the spirituality and ideology of the cultures they are found in, especially in the New World (primarily consisting of the Americas and Australia), where the use of psychotropic drugs is most developed. This is why I have decided to examine three popular New World psychotropic plants which hold central places in the native religions of those who use them. The three psychotropic plants I have chosen to explore are kava (Piper methysticum), a shrub native to Oceania, Virola (Virola theiodora), a South American tree, and the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) native to the Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico. Each of these plants has been used by a particular group of indigenous peoples of the New World seeking an extraordinary experience for centuries. To better understand the role and function of these plants, I will first briefly examine the chemistry of each and how the plants relate to the particular environments in which they are found. I will then delve into the religious use of these plants in specific communities as described in various ethnohistorical records, focusing on shamanistic traditions, and then conclude with an analysis of the interactions between the environment, subsistence strategies, worldview, use of psychoactive drugs, religion, and culture in general.