Unearthing more of guayusa's story

Guayusa growing as a live tree

Our last blog went down really well, and we certainly enjoyed writing it - so much so that we have another article along the same lines - one that delves into other lesser known corners of the mysterious and wonderful guayusa plant.

Last time we finished up talking about how the recorded use of guayusa fell quiet after the abandonment of the Jesuit missionaries - this is obviously not to say that local communities stopped using it, for the Bishop of Cuenca, Manuel Plaza, reported in 1854 that the Jivaroan peoples were still cultivating guayusa near their houses.

Spruce, the Victorian botanist

The story can be picked again when we learn that, in 1857, the English botanist, Richard Spruce (which we think is a great name for a botanist!), saw that guayusa was still being grown and used by these same peoples south of the town of Banos, in Antombes.

In a grove - which we can only imagine must have been an ancient and magical place - Spruce happened upon a gathering of guayusa plants that were understood to pre-date the time of the Spanish conquest.

Richard Spruce himself was one of the eminent Victorian botanical explorers, famed for spending 15 years travelling around the Andes and the Amazon in search of new botanical wonders. He was one of the first Europeans to travel to the places where he found and collected specimens of trees and plants that are now held on record at such esteemed institutes like the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, Dublin's Trinity College and the University of Manchester.

Spruce was famous for making the drug quinine available to the masses by cultivating the Chinchona tree, whose bitter bark is quinine's source. The bark was traditionally used by indigenous peoples as a cure for malaria.

So, back to the story of guayusa, and Spruce's observations. Spruce recorded that the local people used guayusa to help cleanse their stomachs in order to keep them in a healthy condition. In addition, the Ecuadorian geographer, Manuel Villa-Vincencio also recorded that drinking guayusa tea every morning was widespread for the same reasons of stomach purification.

Use by tribes

Another traveller noted that among the Pintsche tribe, guayusa was the drink that was favoured at social gatherings (presumably because of its energising and uplifting properties).

This same traveller also noted that guayusa was in use by the following tribes - as you can see there is a large number, and we would imagine this would probably be only a fraction of the actuality:

  • Omagua
  • Kokama
  • Panobo
  • Kaschibo
  • Koto
  • Pioche
  • Lamisto
  • Kichos
  • Kanelo/Canelo
  • Aguano
  • Kandoschi
  • Ssabela
  • Chivaro (Jivaro)
  • Mayoruna
  • Tschayahuita
  • Tschamikuro
  • Chebero
  • Omurana
  • Yagua
  • Auischiri
  • Ssimaku
  • Ikito
  • Zaparo
  • Yameo
  • Pintsche

Karsten, the Finnish anthropologist

Rafael Karsten, born in 1879, was an anthropologist from Finland who carried out much field research in South America, particularly with the Jivaroan people.

His first field trip to South America was in 1911, where he mainly spent time in Bolivia and Argentina before returning home in 1913. His second trip, in 1916, was to Ecuador and it was from his time spent there, that he learned of guayusa tea from the Jivaro and Canelo peoples.

He became convinced that guayusa was a magic plant, drunk not only by men and women, but also by children - it was even observed to be given to hunting dogs before expeditions, presumably to increase their focus and stamina too. Karsten learned that the preparation of guayusa tea was performed only by male members of the tribes and that was prepared ritually each morning.

Superstition / belief frameworks attached to guayusa meant that tribespeople were seen to abstain from drinking guayusa after cassava and plantains has been planted. This was for fear they that would not grow or the harvest would be poor. Guayusa is deeply weaved into tribal mysticism. We would like to explore this further in a separate blog.

The tribespeople were seen to believe that drinking guayusa could help them divine the future to learn if a hunting trip would be successful or not. They believed that seeing rapidly boiling guayusa in a dream was a good sign.

In 1968, we didn't know guayusa contained caffeine

Much of the information we have unearthed in this article comes from a publication that was published in 1968. It was interesting to read that even at that point in time, while it was known that guayusa had a stimulative effect like caffeine, researchers did not know it actually contained it as no chemical analysis had been performed. Of course, these days we know that guayusa most definitely does contain caffeine (along with so many other health benefiting compounds!). 

Here's a quote from that 1968 publication:

"Since the chemical composition of this plant is unknown and since the plant is not well known botanically due to a lack of sufficient herbarium material, it is only possible to assume that guayusa may contain, as do Ilex paraguariensis (Yerba Mate) and Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon holly), an alkaloid like caffeine with a stimulative effect."

We hope you enjoyed this article and please check back soon, for there is more to tell!

Publications / websites cited in this blog include:

Rafael Karsten - anthrobase.com
Rafael Karsten - biography
Richard Spruce - Wikipedia page
Guayusa, a neglected stimulant from the Andean foothills - Victor Manuel Patino


Linda Elliot
Linda Elliot

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