History of the Coca Plant

Albert Niemann was the first scientist to take active notice in the potency of the coca leaf back in the 1800s. He attempted to extract pure cocaine powder from coca leaves, thus establishing the turning point for the plant in Europe in 1860. American physicians learned of the pharmacological possibilities of coca and cocaine in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Articles in medical journals recommended cocaine as an all-purpose stimulant, a cure for depression, a specific for hay fever and asthma and other conditions. Nonetheless, the coca leaf has a long and varied history dating back thousands of years when various cultural groups grew their own coca farms and used the leaves for many ailments. To its authentic use by the Bolivian farmers for its energy giving properties to its misuse in the production of cocaine, the coca leaf has always attracted controversy.

Early Evidence of the Coca Plant

Albert Niemann cocaineErythroxylum (E) Coca, Huanuco or Bolivian coca is the original ancestral variety. Bolivian coca grows best in the moist tropical forests of the eastern Andes of Peru and Bolivia. The earliest coca leaves were discovered in the Huaca Prieta settlement 2500 – 1800 B.C. in the northern coast of Peru; positive proof that the natives of South America were using coca for a series of purposes for more than 1500 years.

All pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes have left evidence of usage of these leaves. Similarly, there is ample evidence that coca was one of the oldest domestic use plants in the New World. Its use extends over an area, which includes Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. This variety is the only one of the four found growing wild. Bolivian coca is the major source of commercially produced coca leaves and cocaine. Coca is a plant whose historic significance dates back to before the conquest of the Incas, in Andean prehistoric times, “… amidst small groups of nomad tribes which inhabited the Andes during the immediate post-glacial period.” The coca leaf was used (and still is) by the Incas, Quechuas and many other Andean cultures.

The Incas Use of Coca

Coca leaves have been chewed by South American Indians for 4500 years to induce a mild and long-lasting euphoria. Anthropologists have speculated that the word coca derives from the pre-Incan Tiwanaku word khoka – meaning “the plant.” The Aymara word q’oka means “food for travelers and workers.” It was found that 100gm of Bolivian coca leaves satisfied the dietary allowance for calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin B and vitamin E. The coca leaf was used (and still is) by the Incas, Inca descendants (Quechuans), Tiwanaku, Amyara and other nomadic Andean cultures. (See Medical use of Cocaine.)

The Incas in particular venerated coca. They used coca in magical ceremonies and initiation rites; for divination and fertility rituals; and to heal their physical and psychological woes. Two of the Inca emperors named their wives after the leaf – the honored consorts were given the plant’s sacred title, Mama Coca. The only object ever carried by the Inca emperor himself was a coca pouch. He wore it around his neck close to his heart.

Francisco Pizarro was the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Inca Empire in 1572. When the conquistador invaded South America they initially outlawed coca leaves, but the invaders were impressed at coca’s efficacy as a stimulant.

When the Spanish needed native labor in their silver-mines their minds changed about coca. Work in the mines was extremely arduous, and taking coca reduces appetite and increases physical stamina. Hence there was a great surge in coca-use and the number of coqueros (coca-chewers).

The Indigenous People of the Andes

The indigenous people of the Andean mountain range have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for years. Archaeological evidence indicates that Peruvians were chewing coca as early as 1800 B.C. Ancient sculptures show the heads of warriors with the characteristic “bulge” in the cheek, depicting coca chewing. The coca plant was one of the first cultivated and domesticated plants in the New World. In certain parts of South America, the coca plant still plays an important role in everyday life. There are some remote parts of countries such as Columbia and Bolivia where coca paste is still used as a money commodity.

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