The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications



Other Names


Polvo alucinogeno, polvo psicoactivo, rapé, rapé dos Indios, rapé halucinogênico, schnupfdrogen, schnupfpulver, sternutators


A number of substances are traditionally ingested via the mucous membranes of the nasal passages by snuffing or inhaling for medicinal, ritual, shamanic, or hedonistic purposes. It is difficult to determine when humans first began the practice of snuffing. It probably originated around the time that milling stones or other milling techniques were being invented. Usually, very finely ground powders are used.

In the Old World, we know of only the occasional use of “sneezing powders”459 (sternutators) (cf. Veratrum album). In India, various plants, including hemp (see Cannabis indica), are used as medicinal snuffs. The same is true in Africa (see Mesembryanthemum spp.Sceletium tortuosum).

In North America, a shamanic-ritual use has been demonstrated for only a few snuffs. In the Pacific Northwest, powders from polypores were snuffed during shamanic healing ceremonies (cf. “Polyporus mysticus”). In the forest regions of the Northeast, the ritual use of a snuff made of calamus roots was widespread (cf. Acorus calamus). We have no evidence indicating that tobacco was snuffed in North America. Although the practice of snuffing tobacco is now known throughout the world, it is actually seldom practiced.

South America is the center of the use of psychoactive snuffs, although such use has also been confirmed for many Caribbean islands (Hispaniola, Greater Antilles). Christopher Columbus was the first to describe the use of cohoba among the Taino Indians. Taino healers placed the powder on the heads of the cenis, the wooden figures of their deities. From there, they would use a tube to draw it into their noses, after which they would question the gods about the origins of diseases (Torres 1998; Torres n.d.). The first mention of the use of snuff powders in the Amazon came from the missionary Fray Pedro de Aguado in 1560 (Torres et al. 1991, 645).

Numerous objects that were used as snuff trays are known from the South America Andes region (Wassén 1985). Most of these are carved from wood, but some are made of such exotic materials as (fossilized or partially fossilized) whale bones. Most of these two-thousand-year-old snuff trays were found in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), located at an altitude of 2,450 meters, and in neighboring areas. To date, the excavations of approximately five thousand graves have yielded 612 snuff kits. These usually consist of a woolen bag with a four-sided snuff tray, a snuffing tube of wood or bone,460 a small spoon, a small mortar with a pestle, and one or more leather bags containing snuff (Torres et al. 1991, 641; Cornejo B. 1994; Núñez A. 1969). In addition to the snuff, many of the leather bags contained a tiny bag of crushed malachite. The snuff has usually been preserved as an amorphous mass, although one bag yielded seeds that clearly belong to the Anadenanthera family. Chemical analyses of two samples of the amorphous masses verified the presence of the tryptamines N,N-DMT5-MeODMT, and bufotenine (Torres et al. 1991, 643). These findings suggest that the snuff was produced from Anadenathera colubrina var. cebil.

“I felt how every single grain shot up through my nostrils and then exploded in my skull. Gradually, a wonderful weariness spread through my body. I turned my gaze to the river and nearly expected to see a mythical creature there rising from the depths.”







This pre-Columbian snuff tray from San Pedro de Atacama is decorated with a jaguar, the most important shamanic animal, and fits nicely in the hand for snuffing. (Universidad del Norte Museum, San Pedro de Atacama)



Snuff tools, consisting of a tray and a snuff tube decorated with a “psychedelic” llama. (Universidad del Norte Museum, San Pedro de Atacama)



The Atacameños (Kunza) used the stems of the plant called soronaperil, or brea (Tessaria absinthioides [H. et A.] DC.; Compositae) as snuff tubes. (Wild plant, photographed in the San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile)


The ritual use of psychoactive snuffs appears to have spread north from South America, a fact attested to by both the age and the geographic concentration of the archaeological finds of snuff tools (Torres et al. 1991). The oldest known snuff device dates to 3000 B.C.E., while the oldest snuff tray found thus far has been dated to 1200 B.C.E. The iconography of this snuff paraphernalia incorporates all the elements of a shamanic worldview, including animal spirits, chimeras, erotic scenes, deities, winged beings, et cetera (Torres 1987a, 1987b, 1988). The iconography is strongly reminiscent of that of the later Tiahuanaco (= Tiwanaku) culture, where the use of snuffs is well documented (Berenguer 1987; Torres et al. 1991, 646; Wassén 1972). Snuff paraphernalia in the Tiahuanaco style appears in the region of the southern Andes and has been dated from 300 B.C.E. It can thus be assumed that the use of psychoactive snuffs was closely interwoven with the cultural development of this region (Torres 1993; cf. also Boetzkes et al. 1986, 62). The snuff trays from the late phase (Incan period) are nothing more than crude imitations of the tools from the archaic period. However, in the eighteenth century the art of the snuff tray flowered in Brazil once again (Wassén 1983).

The manner in which these snuff tools are used is clear. The powder is laid out in lines on the tray and snuffed into the nose through a tube. In general, the snuff powders are used to make contact with the higher reality and with beings that are ordinarily invisible. Sometimes hunters will take snuff in order to see where the game is hiding. The hunter will transform himself into an eagle, a condor, a jaguar; in this form, he will fly through the air or pace through the primordial forest and see the game.

The shamanic use of psychoactive snuffs is also widespread among the Indians of the Amazon and Orinoco regions. Here, snuff trays are not used; instead, many different kinds of tubes are used through which a person blows the powder into his own nose or into another’s nose. There are also Y-shaped snuffing tubes made from hollow plant stalks that a person can use to snuff powder through both nostrils at the same time. Snuff tubes made from snails are a special invention. These are made from the shells of large land or freshwater snails (e.g., Ampullaria sp., Strophocheilus spp., Poulimus gallina Sultana, Helix terrestris) (Zerries 1980, 174, table 86; Wassén 1965, 62 ff.; Wassén 1967, 119). The apex (= tip, embryonic spire) of the snail shell is removed. The resulting opening is extended with a bone tube or hollow plant stalk. The powder is placed in the orifice of the snail shell, and the tube is then placed in a nostril and the snuff inhaled. Snail shells are also used to store snuff. Numerous snails from the genus Strophocheilus have been found in graves at San Pedro de Atacama (Llagostera et al. 1988, 93). Since these snails are from the tropical Chaco region, this may indicate that the shells were imported along with the seeds of Anadenanthera colubrina.


In ancient times, the black hellebore or Christmas rose (Helleborus niger L.; Ranunculaceae) was used to prepare a medicinal sneezing powder. However, these ancient Helleborus snuffs were likely not psychoactive. (Woodcut from Fuchs, Kreüterbuch, 1543)


“The ingestion of the hallucinogens had begun: gray-, green-, and khaki-colored powders waltz from one nostril to the next. Several people stand up, suddenly gripped by nausea, and vomit in the central plaza; emaciated dogs then come over and lick up this unexpected manna. Others have tears in their eyes, they spit out thick spittle that they can expel from their mouths only with great effort. Kremoanawe is dizzy. He sees fantastic landscapes dipped in orange, red, carmine, or scarlet. The round house, shaken by spasms, bends grotesquely. All at once a tornado of blood rises and floods everything, beings and things. Strange and horrifying people appear and dissolve again.”






(1982, 118)


The Desana, a Tukano-speaking tribe in Colombia, call their snuff powder vihó. It is usually produced from various species of Virola. According to the mythology of the Desana, the sun created Vihó-mahse, “snuff-powder being,” at the beginning of time so that it could establish contact between humans and the creator (the sun god) through hallucinations. The actual snuff was the property of the sun god himself, who kept it hidden in his navel (from whom was his umbilical cord separated?), until his daughter scratched him there and discovered the powder. Vihó-mahse normally dwells in the Milky Way, the “blue zone” of hallucinations and visions, and is in a permanent trance. Using the earthly snuff, the shaman (payé) is able to reach this place and contact Vihó-mahse (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971*).

The use of powerful psychedelic snuff powders is widespread among the Yanomamö (= Waika) of the Orinoco region and northern Brazil (Brewer-Carias and Steyermark 1976; Chagnon 1977; Chagnon 1994; Donner 1985; Lizot 1982). Most of the men—and not only the shamans—take epena or ebene daily. Even five- to six-year-old boys are allowed to snuff the powder, in accordance with the motto: Practice early if you wish to become a master. Women are not allowed to use snuff. The Yanomamö believe that spirit beings (hekura or hekula) dwell in their chests, as well as under cliffs and in mountains, and that the snuff aids them in contacting these beings (Brewer-Carias and Steyermark 1976, 63; Goetz 1970, 45; Henley 1995).

The shamans of the rain forest often take snuff before they treat a patient; this enables them to better see the origins of a disease. Sometimes (for example, among the Sanama), snuff is ingested collectively during funerals (Prance 1970, 62*).

An Amazonian snuff plays a central role in the novel The Emerald Forest, which was made into a motion picture by John Boorman. Both the novel and the film show the cultural significance of the visions or journeys to other realities facilitated by the psychoactive snuff (Holdstock 1986, 117 f., 152, 163 ff., 190 f.).

Peter T. Furst has proposed the theory that psychoactive snuffs were used in pre-Hispanic Mexico, but that the knowledge of their use had disappeared by the time of the Conquest (Furst 1974). The actual functions of the archaeological objects Furst draws upon to support his theory are disputed. The snuff expert Manuel Torres has called Furst’s theory into question on the grounds that, for example, the size of the objects in question made it impossible for them to fit them into a person’s nostril. But according to Torres (pers. comm.), an object from Guerrero that is now housed in the Museo Nacionál de Antropolgía e Historia (Mexico City) may be a snuff tray. The discovery of a hollow ceramic figure from Colima first established proof that snuffing (of whatever substances) must have been known in Meso-america. In addition, certain Olmec pieces possibly were used as snuff trays (Furst 1996, 77, 78*). Furst regards the following plants as candidates for Mesoamerican snuffs: peyote (Lophophora williamsii), ololiuqui (Turbina corymbosa), Piptadenia flava (Spreng.) Benth., Piptadenia constricta (Mich. et Rose) Macbride, Mimosa spp.Acacia spp.Psychotria spp., and Justicia pectoralis (Furst 1974, 3 f.). It is also conceivable that Virola guatemalensis was used.

Today, the snuffing of more or less pure cocaine is a worldwide phenomenon. Other psychoactive substances are also snuffed, including the synthetic phenethylamine 2-CB,461 MDMA (ecstasy or XTC), DMTscopolamine, and crystallized ketamine (cf. Höhle et al. 1986, 65*; de Smet 1985, 102). As part of the “back to nature” movement, herb sellers have even begun blending psychoactive snuffs from legal ingredients. For instance, a mixture sold under the name Storm’s Breath consists of kava-kava (Piper methysticum), cola nut (Cola spp.), guaraná (Paullinia cupana), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum); its effects are mildly stimulating and, surprisingly, not especially irritating.

Traditional Snuff Recipes


Amazonian Snuff Powder


Roasted seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina are ground very fine with tobacco and ash. Most people who try this powder experience extremely strong (allergic) reactions or pain. No one who has tried it has expressed a desire to try it again.

Shinã or Tsinã


This snuff powder is produced by the Jamamadis and Denís of the Brazilian Amazon. It consists of equal parts of roasted Nicotiana tabacum leaves and ashes from the bark of Theobroma subincanum Mart. and other Theobromaspecies (known as cacau). Both are ground fine and snuffed in the evening (Prance 1972b, 221*).



The word means “deer snuff.” This snuff is made from a lichen (Pyrenocarpus) that grows on trees. The effects are more like those of a sneezing powder than those of a psychoactive shamanic drug (Prance 1972a, 16*; 1972b, 227*).

Yanomamö/Waika Snuff


Epena, Ebena, Ebene


The Yanomamö make a potent psychoactive snuff from the bark of Virola theiodora or Virola elongata and the leaves of Justicia pectoralis. The active constituent is the Virola; the Justicia leaves impart a more pleasant aroma to the powder and also appear to make it easier for the snuff to be absorbed through the nose (Prance 1972, 234 f.*). The ashes of the magnificent Elizabetha princeps tree are sometimes added to this blend (Brewer-Carias and Steyermark 1976, 60).






The Yanomamö (Waika) of northern Brazil use the bark of the Virola theiodora tree (also known as epena) to make a snuff and add ashes from the bark of Elizabetha princeps, which they call amáama-asita, or chopó (Brewer-Carias and Steyermark 1976, 63; Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 239*; cf. also Chagnon et al. 1970).

The Yanomamö do not consider Elizabetha princeps to be in and of itself hallucinogenic, but they believe that it potentiates the effects of the active constituents (VirolaAnadenanthera) (Brewer-Carias and Steyermark 1976, 63).

They also make a snuff from the ground, roasted seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina (Prance 1972, 234 f.*).

Active Constituents


The main constituents of most South American snuffs used for shamanic purposes are the tryptamine derivatives N,N-DMT5-MeO-DMT, and bufotenine. Some powders contain all three substances, while others contain only two or even just one (see the table on page 789). The sources of these tryptamines are species from the genera Anadenanthera and Virola (Holmstedt 1965). All other plants (e.g., ElizabethaJusticiaManihotPiperTheobroma) are only additives or substitutes and often have no psychoactive effects of their own. However, it is entirely possible that certain, as yet unknown synergistic activities may play an important role. Only the nightshade plants (BrugmansiaBrunfelsiaDaturaNicotiana) contain potent psychoactive alkaloids. Chemical studies of some of the plants used as snuffs (MaquiraPagamea), to the extent that they have been carried out at all, have not yet uncovered any definitive active constituents (Schultes 1980, 274). They may serve only as symbolic elements in the rituals (Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 389*). It would be interesting to conduct further research into the use of Banisteriopsis as a snuff (ingredient?).



Berenguer, José. 1987. Consumo nasal de alucinógenos en Tiwanaku: Una aproximación iconográfica. Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolumbino 2:33–53.


Bernauer, K. 1964. Notiz über die Isolierung von Harmin und (+)–1,2,3,4-Tetrahydro-harmin aus einer indianischen Schnupfdroge. Helvetica Chimica Acta 47 (4): 1075–77.


Boetzkes, Manfred, Wolfgang Gockel, and Manfred Höhl. 1986. Alt-Peru: Auf den Spuren der Zivilisation. Hildesheim: Roemer-Museum.


Brewer-Carias, Charles, and Julian A. Steyermark. 1976. Hallucinogenic snuff drugs of the Yanomamo Caburiwe-Teri in the Cauaburi River, Brazil. Economic Botany 30:57–66.


Chagnon, Napoleon. 1977. Yanomamö: The fierce people. 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


———. 1994. Die Yanomamö: Leben und Sterben der Indianer am Orinoko. Berlin: Byblos Verlag.


Chagnon, Napoleon A., Philip Le Quesne, and James M. Cook. 1970. Algunos aspectos de uso de drogas comercio y domesticación de plantas entre los indígenas yanomamö de Venezuela y Brazil. Acta Científica Venezolano 21:186–93.


Cornejo B., Luis E. 1994. San Pedro de Atacama: Desmasiado mundo terrenal (DMT). Mundo Precolombino—Revista del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino 1:14–24.


de Budowski, J., G. B. Marini-Bettolo, E. Delle Monache, and F. Ferrari. 1975. On the alkaloid composition of the snuff drug yopo from upper Orinoco (Venezuela). Il Farmaco 29 (8): 574–78.


de Smet, Peter A. G. M. 1985a. A multidisciplinary overview of intoxicating snuff rituals in the Western Hemisphere. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 13 (1): 3–49.


———. 1985b. Ritual enemas and snuffs in the Americas. Latin America Studies 33. Amsterdam: CEDLA.


de Smet, Peter A. G. M., and Laurent Rivier. 1974. Intoxicating snuffs of the Venezuelan Piaroa Indians. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 17:93–103.


Donner, Florinda. 1985. Shabono. Munich: Knaur. Furst, Peter T. 1974. Archaeological evidence for snuffing in prehispanic Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 24:1–28.


Goetz, Inga Steinvorth. 1970. Uriji jami! Die Waika-Indianer in den Urwäldern des Oberen Orinoko. Caracas: Asociación Cultural Humboldt.


Henley, Paul. 1995. Yanomami: Masters of the spirit world. Tribal Wisdom Series. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.


Holdstock, Robert. 1986. Der Smaragdwald. Munich: Goldmann.


Holmstedt, Bo. 1965. Tryptamine derivatives in epená, an intoxicating snuff used by some South American Indian tribes. Archives internationales de Pharmacodynamie et de Thérapie 156 (2): 285–305.


Holmstedt, Bo, and Jan-Erik Lindgren. 1967. Chemical constituents and pharmacology of South American snuff. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. Daniel H. Efron, 339–73. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Lizot, Jacques. 1982. Im Kreis der Feuer: Aus dem Leben der Yanomami-Indianer. Frankfurt/M.: Syndikat.


Llagostera, Agustín, Manuel C. Torres, and María Antonietta Costa. 1988. El complejo psicotrópico en Solcor-3 (San Pedro de Atacama). Estudios Atacameños 9:61–98.


Núñez A., Lautaro. 1969. Informe arqueologico sobre una muestra de posible narcotico, del sitio Patillos-1 (Provincia de Tarapaca, Norte de Chile). Etnografiska Museet Göteborg Årstryck 1967–1968: 83–95.


Rätsch, Christian. [1990]. Und Moleküle bohren sich durch die Nase: Von psychedelischen Schnupfpulvern. In Ene Mene Mopel—Die Nase und der Popel (Der Grüne Zweig 139), ed. Werner Pieper, 111–18. Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente.


Ritchie, Mark Andrew. 1996. Spirit of the rainforest: A Yanomamö shaman’s story. Chicago: Island Lake Press.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1967. The botanical origins of South American snuffs. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. Daniel H. Efron, 291–306. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


———. 1980. De plantis toxicariis e mundo novo tropicale commentationes XXIX: A suspected new Amazonian hallucinogen. Botanical Museum Leaflets 28 (3): 271–75.


———. 1984. Fifteen years of study of psychoactive snuffs of South America: 1967–1982, a review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11 (1): 17–32.


Seitz, George J. 1965. Einige Bemerkungen zur Anwendung und Wirkungsweise des Epena-Schnupfpulvers der Waika-Indianer. Etnologiska Studier 28:117–32.


———. 1967. Epena, the intoxicating snuff powder of the Waika Indians and the Tucano medicine men, agostino. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. Daniel H. Efron, 315–38. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Torres, Constantino Manuel. 1981. Evidence for snuffing in the prehispanic stone sculpture of San Agustín, Colombia. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 13 (1): 53–60.


———. 1987a. The iconography of South American snuff trays and related paraphernalia. Etnologiska Studier 37. Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum.


———. 1987b. The iconography of the prehispanic snuff trays from San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile. Andean Past 1:191–245.


———. 1988. Tabletas para alucinogenos de San Pedro de Atacama: Estilo e iconografia. In Tesoros de San Pedro de Atacama, 23–36. Santiago: Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.


———. 1993. Snuff trails of Atacama: Psychedelics and iconography in prehispanic San Pedro de Atacama. Integration 4:17–28.


———. 1995. Archaeological evidence for the antiquity of psychoactive plant use in the central Andes. Annali dei Musei Civici di Rovereto 11 (1995): 291–326.


———. 1998. Status of research on psychoactive snuff powders: A review of the literature. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1996 (5): 15–39. Berlin: VWB.


Torres, Constantino Manuel, David B. Repke, Kelvin Chan, Dennis McKenna, Agustín Llagostera, and Richard Evans Schultes. 1991. Snuff powders from pre-Hispanic San Pedro de Atacama: Chemical and contextual analysis. Current Anthropology 32 (5): 640–49.


Wassén, S. Henry. 1965. The use of some specific kinds of South American Indian snuff and related paraphernalia. Etnologiska Studier 28. Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum.


———. 1967a. Anthropological survey of the use of South American snuffs. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. Daniel H. Efron, 233–89. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


———. 1967b. Om några indianska droger och speciellt om snus samt tillbehör. Etnografiska Museet Göteborg Årstryck 1963–1966: 97–140.


———. 1972. A medicine-man’s implements and plants in a Tiahuanacoid tomb in highland Bolivia. Etnologiska Studier 32:8–114.


———. 1983. Revival in coimbra of 18th century Brazilian snuff trays. Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum Årstryck 1981/82:39–42.


———. 1985. Convergent approches to the analysis of hallucinogenic snuff trays. Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum Årstryck 1983/84:26–37.


Zearies, Otto. 1960. Medizinmannwesen und Geisterglaube der Waiká-Indianer des oberen Orinoco. Ethnologica, n.f., 2:485–507.


———. 1980. Unter Indianern Brasiliens: Sammlung Spix und Martius 1817–1820. Innsbruck: Pinguin; Frankfurt/M.: Umschau.





These depictions of gods and mythical beings were found on pre-Columbian snuff trays from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile). (Drawing: Donna Torres; reproduced with kind permission)