Coca (Erythroxylum coca)


Coca (Erythroxylum coca), the source of the alkaloid cocaine, is a small tree native to moist tropical montane regions of Peru, Bolivia, and, possibly, Ecuador. This plant was an essential part of early civilizations in northwestern South America. Traditionally the user made a ball-like quid with a coca leaf, added a paste of lime (ground rock or seashells) or alkaline ashes (e.g., from stems of Chenopodium quinoa), and then placed the quid in the cheek, where saliva would flow over the coca and trickle down the throat. A user could be identified by the bulge in the cheek. The presence of an alkali helped to release the alkaloids from the leaf--the origin of crack cocaine in today's society. In the mouth, the coca leaf was never chewed, although coca is sometimes called a masticatory.

Evidence that coca leaves were used dates back to 3000 B.C. Telltale signs include figurines of coca chewers (coqueros) and ceramic lime pots from the Valdiva culture of coastal Ecuador. Coca ceramics have been found from the upper river valleys of Peru from 1900-1750 B.C. In Ecuador at 500 B.C., the Carchi tribes made ceramics of coqueros and had small lime or ash containers (iscupurus). In the region of Nazca, Peru, mummies almost 2000 years old were found with bags of coca leaves (chuspas) around their necks. Therefore, the coca-leaf culture was well established before the Inca rule began in Peru, even though the Incas invented legends how the coca tradition began with the origin of their relatively recent culture, e.g., from the body parts of the adulteress Mama Coca.

It is from the Incas that we have the most useful information about the history of coca use. Here, as probably earlier, coca was a symbol of royalty, and its use was officially restricted to male royalty and nobility, religious priests, and shamans. There are accounts that coca was used for treating the sick, both for diagnosis and therapy, and being used for pains from toothaches to malaria. Sometime during the Inca rule, coca use was granted to yaravecs, court orators, who under the influence would recite the Inca history using a quipo, a string with knots. Likewise, coca was offered to young nobles during manhood initiation rites. Young maidens would give runners coca and chicha to make them race faster. Rarely in Inca society, human sacrifices were offered to the sun, and the victim was given large doses of coca beforehand; if the victim perceived coca on his lips just at the time of death, he would go to paradise. It does not appear that in Inca society coca was used casually.

The rulers of the Inca world kept power in part by controlling coca as a monopoly. In the rule of the 10th leader, Topa Inca (1471-1493), the power of the ruling class weakened greatly, and many civil wars occurred. The next ruler, Huayana Capas (1493-1527), rewarded loyalty by granting his followers the right to cultivate coca trees. This ended the state's monopoly of coca leaves, and by the time of the Spanish Conquest coca was no longer a symbol of political or social status.

Coca was held in such high esteem because the alkaloid of this plant was able to combat fatigue and to mask hunger, the later by inhibiting nerve impulses that convey hunger pangs. Living at high elevations in the Andes is very stressful, and this leaf made the drudgery of daily life bearable. Under its influence, cultures built stone edifices in the high Andes and successfully cultivated potatoes (Solanum tuberosum and others).

Pizarro came to the New World with Balboa. In November, 1532, he and his soldiers ambushed a royal Inca welcoming party, and by 1533 Pizarro's army had conquered the Incas and had slain the priests and nobles. Spanish settlers of Peru were given tracts of land, repartimientos, with enslaved Indians to work them.

The Roman Catholic church was a powerful political force in the New World. Jesuits, who wanted to convert the Indians to Catholicism, opposed coca because it permitted the Indians to bind with past culture and religion. Priests declared that coca was a food and, therefore, could not be eaten before receiving the Holy Eucharist--coca was a violation of the mandatory precommunion fast. Thus, in 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco banned coca use because it was an evil agent of the Devil, and decreed punishment by death (burning) for users of those in possession of the leaves. This action occurred, coincidentally, as part of the Spanish Inquisition. Plantations were cut down, and stores of coca leaves were burned. Consequently, the coca leaf business went underground and became a way of defying the invaders and authority.

The Church notwithstanding, Spanish leaders realized that coca was a necessary tool and an incentive to work in the thin Andean air of the high mountains. In 1569 King Phillip II decreed that coca was not devilish. Spain needed labor to mine gold, silver, and gemstones. Productivity had been low and death common for those working the mines. In 1570 Spain also imposed a heavy resident tax, payable in Spanish coin, and to make this coinage the Indians, already enslaved, were forced to work harder on short rations and for longer hours-18 to 48 hours per stretch. Consequently, there was great pressure on the leaders and mine overseers to increase production, and this was done by supplying the Indians with coca leaves. Given coca leaves three to four times per day, Indians were able to improve production, and bullion flowed from the mines for developing the Spanish Armada. A male Indian with coca leaves could carry 150 pounds five kilometers in 45 minutes and could walk up a steep mountain (12,000 to 15,000 feet) at a rate of 2.5 kilometers per hour! In one of the great turnarounds in history, the Jesuits claimed that the Devil's coca would now be used to assist "God's work."

Unfortunately, 90% of the mine workers never lived out their 5-month tenure of duty in the silver mines. To supply great quantities of coca leaves, coca plantations (cocales) were established, but even here long hours of heavy labor produced high death rates of the native slaves (up to 50%). Many natives died in the lowlands of poor health--from poor nutrition, exhaustion, and European diseases. By 1650 the Inca population had fallen to 4,000,000 from 10,000,000 in the mid-1500s.

In the 16th century Nicolas Monardes attempted to import coca leaves to Spain, but they decayed during the long voyage. Some interest in coca leaves was raised in London in 1814 to replace food for the poor and to assist child labor practices, but fortunately the leaves were still unavailable in Europe.

Cocaine was first isolated by Dr. Paolo Mantegazza and then tested on himself in 1860. About the same time cocaine was extracted by Angelo Mariani, a chemist, and put into cough drops and wine, called Mariani's Coca Wine or Dr. Mariani's French Tonic, which became the rage in Europe and was endorsed by Rodin, Thomas Edison, President William McKinley, Jules Vernes, and H.G. Wells. Pope Leo XIII gave Mariani a gold medal for relieving fatigue, lifting spirits, and giving people a sense of well being. Its use affected literature, e.g., Sherlock Holmes injected cocaine in his arm, and Robert Louis Stevenson presumably wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while under the influence of cocaine. There were many tonics, elixirs, and medicines with cocaine, and cocaine was on a wave of popularity in the 1920s.

Apropos to all this, in 1886 John S. Pemberton invented Coca Cola, by combining caramel for coloring, phosphoric acid, extract of kola nut (Cola nitida) for caffeine, and extract of coca leaves, and sugar to disguise the bitterness of the cocaine. In 1892 Asa Griggs Chandler purchased the rights to this formula and served this tonic as a drugstore fountain drink. In 1903 the alkaloid cocaine was removed.

One famous fan of cocaine use was Sigmund Freud. In 1884 Freud was in search of fame as a struggling doctor and wanted a cure for nervous exhaustion and morphine addiction. He found that cocaine relieved his own chronic depression and wrote a series of papers on cocaine, praising its results as a "magical drug," superior to morphine. Years later he backed off from his former praises. Freud was also a catalyst for a great medical development; in 1884 he asked Dr. Karl Koller of Vienna to work with coca leaves. Koller was an ophthalmologist, and he was looking for something to use during eye operations. Freud recommended cocaine as a local anesthetic, because it could numb the tongue. Koller soon discovered that cocaine hydrochloride was a successful eye anesthetic and also fine for surgery of the ear, nose, and throat. In 1885 Wilhelm Filehne showed that atropine has a chemical structure close to that of cocaine, and atropine became the anesthesia of choice. Nonetheless, interest in cocaine had opened research on this class of medical chemicals.

Some physicians question the classification of cocaine as a narcotic, because it has exactly opposite characteristics of opium. Cocaine produces intense euphoria and short-term hallucinations; there is apparently no true physical addiction or physical withdrawal symptoms from the milder, standard cocaine, although persons are psychologically addicted and have intense cravings for the drug. However, the reintroduction of Crack (quicklime added, as in ancient times), was very dangerous and physically addictive. Cocaine is snorted or sniffed generally through the nose and is absorbed through the nasal epithelium. This ruins nasal tissues and causes increases in heart rate and blood pressure as well as a rise in body temperature. Several synthetic cocaine-like substances are used in medicine and dentistry, including procaine or Novocaine and Lidocaine.

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