The Use of ‘coca’ in South America

The word ‘coca’ derives from an Aymara word that means simply ‘tree’. Prior to the Conquest, Indians used various names for the several varieties of cultivated Erythroxylum. The Spanish took the name ‘coca’ from the southern reaches of the Incan empire and bought it into use throughout their domain. The Incas regarded it as a gift from the gods intended to improve human life; its leaves are sacred and the spirit of the plant is personified as Mama Coca, a divine and beneficial aspect of Nature. By the tenth century, when Inca civilization was at its height, coca was well established in the Andes. The Incas believed that the Gods presented coca to the people to satisfy their hunger, to provide them with new vigour, and to help them forget their miseries. They venerated coca and it was intimately involved in their religious ceremonies and in the various initiation rites - shamans used it to induce a trance-like state in order to commune with the spirits. It was a far too important commodity to be used by the common Indians, and their exposure to coca was very limited before the invasion by Pizarro and his ‘conquistadores’.
Coca chewing suffused South American life and the stimulant properties of its leaves have been known from at least the Nazca period (around AD 500). ‘We know this because of the discovery of the mummified remains of a Peruvian potentate of this era accompanied by several bags of coca leaves. In addition, pottery of this period frequently depicts coca chewers with their characteristic distended cheeks.’ (Mann J.) ‘In the Pre-Columbian Quimbaya culture of Colombia some of the finest gold objects were containers for the lime that was chewed with the leaf (whilst) it is obvious from hundreds of Mochica (Peru) ceramics that the coca-chewing ritual was not only an important and complex one with many stages but one that was associated with war and sacrifice.’ (Coe, Snow & Benson 1986: 158).

In much the same way that coca is used in South America, betel is used in Asia, and pituri in Australia. ‘Betel is a concoction made from leaves of the vine Piper betel and slices of the seed of the palm Areca catechu in admixture with lime, which helps to free the alkaloid constituents from the vegetable matrix. In Asia various spices like cloves, tamarinds, turmeric, and cardamom, are also added to the mix, and the resultant quid is chewed, producing copious amounts of red saliva. An estimated 200 million people in southern Asia and the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans use betel at the present time, and although its origins are unknown it has been used for many centuries. It has mild stimulant properties, although some say it produces a feeling of euphoria akin to that produced by alcohol; and, although the constituent alkaloids have been identified, it is not clear how betel exerts its psychoactive effects. Such uncertainty does not attend the ethnopharmacology of pituri. The Aborigines of Australia have for centuries used the leaves of certain varieties of the desert shrub Duboisia hopwoodii as a stimulant. The leaves are roasted, moistened, formed into a quid, then chewed. During social rites known as ‘Big Talks’, a communal quid was passed around from mouth to mouth. The main constituent, nicotine, increases the production of adrenalin and alleviates feelings of hunger and fatigue.’ (Mann J.)

The Plant

‘Coca leaves are derived from shrubs of the family Erythroxylaceae - namely Erythroxylum coca (Bolivian or Huanuco) and E. truxillense (Peruvian or Truxillo), cultivated in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Indonesia. In Bolivia and Peru coca is cultivated at an altitude of 500-2000m. The cultivated plants are usually pruned so as not to exceed 2m in height. Three harvests are collected annually, the first from the pruned twigs, the second in June and the third in November. The leaves are artificially- or sun-dried and packed in bags. Coca leaves contain about 0.7-1.5% of total alkaloids, of which cocaine, cinnamyl-cocaine and a-truxilline are the most important. They occur in different proportions in different commercial varieties. Other substances isolated from various varieties of the leaves are hygrine, hygroline, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, tropacocaine (3b-benzoyloxytropane), crystalline glycosides and cocatannic acid. There are over 200 species of Erythroxylum found throughout the tropical and pantropical regions of the world.’ (Trease & Evans.)

Coca and the West.

(Much material for this section is taken from John Mann.)

Coca was first introduced into Europe by the returning conquistadores, and wildly exaggerated claims about its properties began to circulate. It was said to be an ‘elixir of life’, and the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1814 contained an editorial that exhorted Sir Humphrey Davy (as a leading scientist of the day) to begin experimentation, in the hope that coca could be used as a ‘substitute for food, so that people could live a month, now and then, without eating…’. It first found commercial success in the wine, lozenges and other preparations of Angelo Mariani in the 1860’s. ‘Vin Mariani’ was a great success, for which were claimed analgesic , anaesthetic, and carminative properties and Pope Leo XIII gave the wine an official seal of approval. In America, pharmacist John S. Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia formulated a drink which contained extracts of Erythroxylon coca, together with extracts of Cola nitida (i.e. caffeine) and wine, claiming it to be an excellent tonic, aid to the digestion, and stimulant of the nervous system - an ‘intellectual beverage’. When prohibition began in Atlanta in 1886, Pemberton removed the wine from his recipe and replaced it with sugar syrup, calling the new drink ‘Coca-Cola: the temperance drink’. The name had become so famous that when, in 1904, fears about the narcotic properties of cocaine led to the deletion of the coca extracts also, the name was allowed to remain as it had become part of the language.

The active constituent, cocaine, had been isolated in 1860. Sigmund Freud experimented with the drug and his assistant, Carl Köller, demonstrated its efficacy as a local anaesthetic by applying a solution to his eye and touching the cornea with a pinhead. Cocaine, and its salts, became the local anaesthetics of choice in Europe and New York for the removal of cataracts and other eye surgery. Because of their toxic and addictive qualities, their use is now almost entirely confined to ear, nose and throat surgery - elsewhere they have been superseded by wholly synthetic drugs such as procaine. But it is the use of cocaine as a recreational drug that has brought infamy both to it and to coca. The crude alkaloids may be extracted from the leaves with dilute sulphuric acid or by treatment with lime and petroleum or other organic solvents. The process depends on the fact that cocaine, cinnamyl-cocaine and a-truxilline are closely related derivatives of ecgonine, which is produced by hydrolysing the leaves with boiling dilute hydrochloric acid. This ecgonine hydrochloride is purified and converted into the free base which is then benzoylated and methylated to give methylbenzoylecgonine or cocaine. The latter is converted into the hydrochloride and purified by recrystallization. Much illicit cocaine is extracted locally in South America and in spite of the unsophisticated methods can attain a high degree of purity.

Coca v. cocaine

Because of the association of coca with cocaine, there is a widespread belief that Indians are, by extension, addicted in the same way that Western users are, but this is erroneous. When refined cocaine is absorbed via the mucous membranes in the nose (‘snorted’) or smoked (as with ‘crack’) it has an immediate and powerful stimulant effect on the pleasure centres of the brain. ‘Some understanding of the pharmacology of this addiction is now available, and it seems that cocaine blocks the re-uptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. This substance is especially important in those parts of the brain which control pleasure responses, the so-called pleasure centres; and like other synapses, those involving dopamine have a salvage mechanism for unused neurotransmitters. By blocking the uptake of excess dopamine, cocaine potentiates its effects on the pleasure centre neurons.’ The mechanism of action of cocaine when chewed in indigenous fashion, however, ‘is similar to, though quite distinct from, that involved in the brain. At adrenergic neural junctions the excess of the transmitter noradrenalin is taken up into the releasing or receiving cells, and is then not available to interact with noradrenalin receptors. Cocaine inhibits this re-uptake and thus potentiates the activity of the transmitter, with resultant effects on endurance, etc. The Indians may actually obtain some benefit from the leaves. These are high in vitamins C, B1, and riboflavin, and chewing quids may help to prevent scurvy and other deficiency diseases in regions where fresh fruit and vegetables are in short supply. The Indians also use coca to relieve the pains of rheumatism and headache, as an aphrodisiac, and to relieve the symptoms of asthma. However, there is little evidence of efficacy. At the present time we can thus view at least 1500 years of Indian culture based upon coca’. (Mann).


Coca-leaf chewing may have been the preserve of royalty amongst the Inca, but to the north-west it was always available to everyone as this account shows. From a journal of Amerigo Vespucci during his second voyage to America, in 1499, describing an encounter off the Caribbean coast of what is now Venezuela:- ‘We descried an island in the sea that lay about 15 leagues from the coast and decided to go there to see if it was inhabited. We found there the most bestial and ugly people we had ever seen: very ugly of face and expression, and all of them had their cheeks full of a green herb that they chewed constantly like beasts, so that they could barely speak; and each one carried about his neck two gourds, one of them full of that herb that they had in their mouths and the other of a white powder that looked like pulverised plaster, and from time to time, they dipped a stick into the powder after wetting it in the mouth, then put the stick in the mouth, an end on each cheek, in order to apply powder to the herb that they chewed; they did this very frequently. We were amazed at this thing and could not understand its secret or why they did it.’ The green herb was certainly Erythroxylum novogranatense, of the variety now known as Colombian coca, and the white powder was almost certainly lime made from roasted seashells, one of several alkalis that Indians use with the leaves in order to make the chewing of them more enjoyable. Other alkalis are used. ‘In the Huancavalica area of Peru, peasants use (amaranth) stalk for its high calcium content. After harvesting the seed heads, they burn the stalks and later mix the ash with water (and shape them into) hard balls about an inch in diameter. Villagers scrape the ball with their teeth as they chew the leaves, and the calcium in the amaranth ash releases the alkaloids in the leaves, enhancing the coca’s effect as a mild stimulant.’ (Foster and Cordell 1992: 29-30).