Martin Fortier-Davy

Martin Fortier-Davy, PhD candidate

Institut Jean Nicod, EHESS/ENS, Paris

Culture, innate cognition, pharmacology and the forms of hallucinogenic rituals: The anthropology of anticholinergic and serotonergic indigenous rituals in the Americas


The respective contribution of culture, innate cognitive structures, and pharmacology to the effects of hallucinogens has long been debated. Culturalists have argued that mindsets and settings play a key role in determining those effects (Gayton, Lévi-Strauss, Hartogsohn, etc.), whereas nativists have insisted that innate cognition is fundamental (Furst, Ruck, Winkelman, etc.). Surprisingly, few social scientists have considered the possibility that the effects of hallucinogens may considerably vary from one pharmacological class to another; as a result, few authors have argued that pharmacology may be a central factor in shaping the effects of hallucinogens. Here, I will contend that of the three above factors, pharmacology is the most important one. The discussion will be restricted to what cognitive anthropologists call “ritual forms” (i.e., are rituals performed individually or collectively?; are they rarely or frequently performed?; do they involve low or high level of sensory pageantry?; etc.). I will examine whether ritual forms are mainly shaped by culture, innate cognition, or pharmacology. Proponents of culturalism predict that the forms of hallucinogenic rituals extensively vary across cultures; proponents of nativism predict that these forms are the same everywhere – they do not vary across cultures nor across pharmacological classes. I will review ethnographic evidence documenting the ritual use of anticholinergics (datura and brugmansia) and serotonergics (ayahuasca and anadenanthera) in various indigenous cultures of California and Amazonia and show that the data are inconsistent with both culturalism and nativism and instead support the pharmacological model: ritual forms vary mainly across pharmacological classes.


Martin Fortier-Davy holds a MPhil in philosophy as well as a MPhil in anthropology. He is currently a PhD candidate in cognitive science at Institut Jean Nicod (EHESS/ENS, Paris); he also completed part of his PhD at Stanford University’s Department of Anthropology. Situated at the intersection of cognitive science, anthropology, and philosophy of mind, his research explores the interplay between cultural and neurobiological processes in hallucinogenic experiences. In particular, his work attempts to bridge scales and levels through which hallucinogens operate, thus providing a broad model of hallucinogenic effects starting at the molecular level and going up to the phenomenological and cultural levels. In his work, Martin is particularly interested in comparing the mechanisms and effects of various classes of hallucinogens (notably serotonergics and antimuscarinics). At the anthropological level, he is developing a large database – the HUTHAC database – on hallucinogenic use through history and across cultures. In the near future, this database will allow researchers to investigate in a systematic manner how various classes of hallucinogens correlate with specific cultural traits. In addition to his research on hallucinogens, Martin also investigates categorization and reasoning among Amazonian indigenous groups as well as the cognitive underpinnings of supernatural thinking (with a special interest in animism). He employs both ethnographic and experimental methods in his research work. He is mainly working with Shipibo-Konibo and Huni Kuin (Kashinawa) communities of the Peruvian Amazon.



Be the first to learn about the ticket sale, speaker announcements and all things ICPR.