The Hoasca Project

Ayahuasca is a brew of two or more pharmacologically active species that has been the crux of healing and spiritual life in the Greater Amazon Basin from time immemorial. In the 20th century, the techniques and ritual practices associated with ayahuasca spread from their indigenous roots to mestizo, or mixed-race cultural use. In the latter quarter of the century, ‘Westerners’ from the U.S. and Europe began to be pilgrims to South America, to partake in the phenomenon. The founders of Botanical Dimensions and some of its early funders were partially motivated by early ayahuasca experiences in Peru; the idea to form an organization to focus on healing plants and their attendant ceremonies and beliefs grew out of these experiences.

Hoasca is the Portuguese term for ayahuasca. In Brazil, hoasca use spread into the middle and professional classes, via several contemporary religious formats. In 1993, a biomedical investigation of long-term drinkers of ayahuasca was initiated by Dr. Dennis McKenna, ethnopharmacologist, by invitation of the Medical Studies section of the União do Vegetal (Centro de Estudos Medicos). This study, which was conducted by an international consortium of scientists from Brazil, the United States, and Finland, was financed through private donations to various non-profit sponsoring groups, notably Botanical Dimensions, which provided major funding; also the Heffter Research Institute, and MAPS (Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Through this very successful research project and its published results, the focus for the scientific study and understanding of ayahuasca shifted from the ethnographer’s field notes and the ethnobotanist’s herbarium specimens, to the neurophysiologist’s laboratory and the psychiatrist’s examining room. Sociological factors were also analyzed. With the completion of the first detailed biomedical investigation of ayahuasca, science had the basic corpus of data needed to ask further questions regarding the pharmacological actions, the toxicities and possible dangers, and the considerable potential ayahuasca has to heal the human mind, body and spirit. The Hoasca Project is acknowledged as the foundational study for other scientific studies that emerged later.

Several important papers arose out of the Hoasca Project, and much can be found about it online. Principal investigators were Charles S. Grob, MD (Department of Psychiatry, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center) and Dennis McKenna, Ph.D. (Professor at U. of Minnesota and Research Director at Botanical Dimensions). We are appreciative to the late Lawrence Rockefeller, among others, for supporting such groundbreaking research.