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Chapter 1: About Coca - History of its Cultivation and Use

There are at present count more than a hundred drugs derived from psychotropic plants. More are being discovered every year. Nearly all of these natural, mind-altering drugs have an aura or legend and mystery surrounding them. For centuries drugs prepared from certain plants have shaped single lives, religions, even entire cultures.

Among the more widely used of these drugs is marijuana (hash-hish, kif or charas in its more concentrated form) which has been a medium for religious ceremonials for an estimated 6,000 years and is cultivated worldwide in all but the hottest and coldest climates, mushrooms probably runs a good second. The most widely used is known as God's flesh, or teonanacatl, found in the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America. Another type of hallucinogenic mushroom just now making the scene again is Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. This one may go back thousands of years to the ancient Hindus and the Zoroastrians where it is referred to as soma. One of the reasons for its connection to soma is that it can pass through the unaltered and can be consumed again, if one is really into it as per Hindus. (Care to join me in a little shot of soma piss, baby?). Peyote, or mescal buttons (The Divine Messenger) from the tops of a certain cactus known as Lophophora Williamsii is another of the more widely known and is used by natives of North America.

A list of the lesser knowns might be headed by morning glory seeds, known as round things(ololuiqui) by 16th century Mexicans. Columbus, as well as his discovery of America, also discovered the natives in the West Indies gleefully snorting yopo, made from the bark of the Andenanthera tree. Another psychedelic found in South America, called yaje, is ingested in the form of a drink prepared from the stem bark of certain vines. Active ingredient: harmine, a very stable psychedelic. Iboga, a strong stimulant and psychedelic is used by the secret Bwiti cult in the Congo, and appears to be doing better than Christianity in making converts there.

All of these drugs have been incorporated into cults for religious functions. They provide variously for the union with the divine or sacred, and for a self, transcendence, or relaxation, sometimes obliteration of the boundaries of the ego. They have served as special instructors, and have ushered many a primitive through the rites of puberty and into manhood. Generally, there is also an associated purging or purification of the mind and body. This may take the form of elaborate fasting and preparation for the ceremony of ingestion. It is also suggested by the nausea and vomiting which accompanies the use of certain varieties. The literal meaning of the term psychedelic (mind manifesting) gives suggestion to the release of the subconscious associated with the use of these drugs.

The above discussion has been presented mainly to help illustrate the answer to the question: "What is coca?" by placing it in the schematic of psychotropic plants. The action and use of Erythroxylon coca is not nearly so widely known as that of cocaine, one of its most active alkaloids. As will be discussed later, coca is not cocaine and the rituals that surround its use vary greatly from that of cocaine. No religious experience, no physical or psychological rush, but merely gave the power of endurance, freedom from fatigue and hunger.

The Incas

No discussion of the coca plant and its use may be separated from a discussion of the Incas. Coca has in fact been called "the divine plant of the Incas". Erythroxylon coca was first known to be cultivated on the eastern slopes of the Andes prior to 1200 AD, and its use goes back as far as 500 BC. About the time of the first cultivation, the Incas were assimilating, assembling, and building their empire -- one of the most extensive and unique in histories. As was their custom, the Incas were quick to recognize and assimilate beneficial aspects of conquered areas. Coca was no exception, although at first its use was limited to the Inca (literally Son of the Sun God) and his royal entourage, which most often numbered in the thousands. As the Incas became more ambitious in their endeavors of building roads, canals, and a vast empire, they allowed the use of the divine plant to filter down to the peasant class in order that they should work harder and become more industrious. Industrious they became! At the height of the empire, there were estimated 6,000,000 coca chewers transforming the land with vigor.

In this area containing some of the highest mountains and the most arid deserts in the world, the Incas (with the help of the Incas, of course) irrigated and terraced and made non-arable land productive. With stone and bronze implements, they hacked out roads, tunnels, bridges, cities, and temples unrivaled by that of the most advanced of technological societies. They built over 9,000 miles of roads traversing this treacherous terrain roads on which horses could ride eight abreast. Montaigne said of the Inca roads: Neither Greece, nor Rome, nor Egypt can show anything to compare in usefulness, difficulties overcome, or nobility with these works. Modern science is still scratching its head at the size of stones quarried and moved for miles by the Incas. The Inca could sit in Cuzco, hundreds of miles from the coast, and receive fresh ocean fish daily by a runner who was amply supplied with coca leaves. He could relay messages to the other end of his empire in Quito, Ecuador in a matter of a few, short days. All of this activity was fueled by coca. Each task was assessed as to its difficulty and an appropriate amount of coca was provided to accomplish it. The spaniards and the Catholic Church, who later tried to abolish coca consumption as a pagan frivolity, reluctantly recognized that in order for the natives to accomplish difficult tasks, especially at high altitudes, they must be provided with coca, pagan though it may be. As usual, righteousness gave way to practicality.

Even today in modern Peru there is still 8,000,000 coca chewers. Distances are still measured by the cocada the time that the influence of a chew of coca will carry the traveler, or about forty to forty-five minutes. It might be mentioned in passing that the continual daily use of coca by the Indians of Peru is an excellent attestation that a coca habit is purely a fiction. A normal Peruvian will begin chewing coca at the age of ten, will chew it daily and will need no more at the age of one hundred to accomplish a task than he did at the age of ten. A Peruvian Indian will consume tons of coca during his lifetime and the only habit he will acquire will be to lead a long and industrious life. Many live over a century. In short, bound and motivated by coca, the Incas had their shit together.

Although the Inca and Incas showed great reference for coca, it was not because chewing the plant gave them a religious experience. Coca sprays and entire plants were replicated in gold and adorned much of the empire. The Inca himself never went without his coca pouch, or chuspa, and he ordered the leaves consumed and sacrificed at nearly all religious ceremonials and festivals. The fourth Inca, Manco Ccapac, designated his wife "Mama Coca" to afford her the highest title he could bestow. But the llama and maize (corn) were given the same reference, if on a somewhat lesser scale. This is because coca, maize and the llama fell into one general class: they were necessities for livelihood in the Andes. Without coca, it is unlikely the Inca would have an empire. There might not have been the energy to irrigate and terrace and make habitable this arid land. There were monumental tasks to be performed, and without coca enthusiasm may well have waned.

Coca, aside from being used as a general stimulant to construct the empire, was employed in many other ways. The Incas applied it to sores, broken bones, to remove cold, and to preserve the teeth. Beyond daily use and the accompanying pleasure, it was used as a charm and was placed in each grave to give companionship and strength for the long trek to the great beyond, giving a greater assurance to reaching paradise. Last, but not least, coca was found to produce uterine contractions, and could be used as a general sexual stimulant. It accompanied many an Indian orgy of sexual excesses.

Coca is not cocaine

The modern people will need to be reminded again that coca is not cocaine. The action of coca and cocaine, while similar, is different. Each gives a peculiar sense of well-being, but cocaine affects the central nervous system more markedly - not because cocaine is in a more concentrated form, but because the associate substances present in coca, which are important in modifying its action, are not present in cocaine.

The natives do not choose their coca for the amount of cocaine content, which in greater quantity would make it bitterer to the taste, but rather they choose it by its aroma and taste. As much as taste and aroma, this would suggest that they are also influenced by the homogeny of all the associate alkaloids, which will enhance the effects to the greatest degree. Though all these other bases, or alkaloids, are milder than cocaine in their psychological effects, they do differ somewhat and give an added dimension to cocaine.

The effects of coca

What happens to you when you chew coca? Persons who have snorted cocaine before may at first be somewhat disappointed when there is no strong physical or psychological rush. Coca is subtler and not designed for thrill seekers.

In a few moments after beginning to chew, any previous hunger will give way to a sensation of warmth in the stomach. The feeling is similar to having eaten a good meal. There will be an aromatic taste in the mouth and an increased flow of saliva. This will be accompanied by an increased pulse beat and a more active digestion. Respiration will be deeper and more regular. In a short time ideas will begin to flow more readily in some respects resembling the mental activity after taking a small dose of opium. Weariness will disappear and will be replaced by a sense of eagerness. Sometimes there will be an initial sense of giddiness. The effects will last about three hours, peaking and gradually wearing off after the first hour. There is none of the traditional "crash" usually associated with stimulants as they wear off. The appetite is then renewed with vigor and one is inclined to rest, unless more leaves are chewed.

The reason coca does not have the rise and fall pattern of traditional stimulant is based on the difference in physiological effects from other stimulants. The body is not "tricked" into not being hungry or tired. On the contrary the action of coca instead flushes the system of waste products that are the cause of fatigue. For example, washing out a fatigued muscle with a common salt solution, even though it will add no new energy, will free the tissue from poisonous material and allow it to perform work again.

Energy is not extracted immediately from the intake of food. This process takes about 24 hours. Energy then must be extracted rather from material stored up in the tissues. Without this conversion, the body is merely clogged up with the accumulation of fuel that impedes, rather than creates, energy. Retention of waste products is the retention of poison in the form of uric acid. Experiments have been conducted in a medical setting where rested muscle has been inoculated with urea from a fatigued muscle, making the rested muscle take on symptoms of fatigue. Coca interacts with uric acid and flushes it from the muscles and capillaries, removing the sense of fatigue at the same time. As a result, respiration becomes deeper and the heartbeat, instead of just increasing, becomes more regular and the cycle seems to gain force.

It is no wonder that coca and cocaine gained the favor of quite a number of people before it was outlawed by the Pure Food and Drug Law in 1906. In the old days when Coca Cola was coca leaves and cola nuts, Angelo Mariani, a great experimentor and cultivator of coca, was turning on Popes, Queens, inventors, writers, artists and actors. The world was becoming turned on to a stimulant far superior to coffee and tea. All was nipped in the bud by bland-brained, blank-eyed bureaucratic history, when the plant was given the stigma of "narcotic". Whatever the word meant, when applied to coca and and cocaine, Angelo faded. Coca Cola took the cocaine out of the Coke, and users became criminal, to be arrested, imprisoned or "treated" for an illness. Since then, coca is left mainly to the Andean Indians, some 8,000,000 strong who keep on keeping on with their cheeks puffed out by a quid of coca. Cocaine, on the other hand, is left to the rich.

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