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The Amazing New Adventures of Larry and Mark - Peru, Land of the Incas
Coca, The Inca, and Modern Peru
Before we left the U.S., we were all aware that coca was a legal product in Peru.
But that statement alone cannot adequately describe how important the coca
plant has been to Andean culture for thousands of years.
I wish I had taken a photo, but it wasn't sixty seconds after getting out of the airport
to our bus that several women came over to us to sell us small bags of coca leaf. Coca
leaf is cheap, harmless (more on this later,) and we wouldn't dream of bringing any
of it home to the states. But I can take photos.
Cusco is 10,800' above sea level. We were struggling in the streets with 30% less oxygen.
We are all trying to avoid altitude sickness - known locally as "The Soroche." We take
modern altitude medications, but coca, which the locals have chewed for centuries, also
helps. Mate de coca - coca tea, can be found in most hotels which have it brewing constantly.
While walking the streets of Cusco, we came upon the Coca Museum. We didn't
have time to go in, but it shows that the connection to coca is everywhere.
The Coca leaf was one of the first domesticated plants. Coca has been the backbone
of Andean culture for over 3000 years, and for good reason. Coca has been used as a food
substitute, a stimulant, a medicine, as an aphrodisiac, a means to stay warm, and as a
measure of distance. An important factor in the spread of coca-chewing among Indians
was due to a need for a food substitute when the Incan agricultural economy broke
down due to inter tribal wars. Nutritional analysis shows that 100 grams of coca
leaves contain 305 calories, 18.9 grams of protein, and 46.2 grams of carbohydrates,
and satisfies the recommended dietary allowances for calcium, iron, phosphorus,
and vitamins A, B, C, and E.
Since ancient times, coca has been an important trade commodity between the lowlands
where it is grown and the higher altitudes where it is widely consumed by the Andean
peoples of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia.
Fresh dried leaves are uncurled, are of a deep green on the upper, and a grey-green on
the lower surface, and have a strong tea-like odor. When chewed, they produce a
pleasurable numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent, strong tea taste. When
chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue.
Addiction or other harmful effects from the consumption of the leaf in its natural form have
not been documented.
Here are coca plants growing in the royal garden in Machu Picchu.
After lunch, before a hike, we shared some of the coca leaf, chewing it and placing
it between teeth and cheek, like it's been done for thousands of years. None of
us felt much, except maybe by the power of suggestion. I think we felt closer to the Incas.
Coca is found in all sorts of products, like this chocolate-covered coca
leaf! Nothing like two temptations in one! I had to buy it. It tasted like
great chocolate with dry leaves in it!
Cocaine was the first material which, aside from alcohol, seemed to deaden
or lessen pain. Hence, the new term, "anesthesia," which meant "no feeling."
It still has some medicinal uses in anesthesiology, but has for the most part been replaced
by synthetic drugs. In dentistry, the first synthetic anesthetic was Procaine, marketed under
the name "Novocain." Nowadays, Novocain is rarely used, replaced by better anesthetics,
but that's what everyone still calls it. Topical Cocaine is a paste which is still used because
it will penetrate regular skin tissue to provide numbness. If you ever held a young child
who will need stitches to close a skin wound, you appreciate cocaine paste.
I wasn't planning on explaining this picture below, but it looks impressive.
When the Spanish Conquistadores first encountered the Inca early in the 16th Century,
they found that the Emperor himself controlled the use of the leaves of a mountain shrub
now known as Erythroxylon coca. Chewing of these leaves provided a sense of euphoria. Only
the nobles and chosen ones could chew coca. Among the highest rewards the Inca could
give to a lesser individual was the right to chew coca leaf.
Coca made its way from the Inca to Spain and greater Europe shortly thereafter, but
it did not achieve popularity until the 1800's, when chemists first isolated cocaine,
and "cocawine" was created. Angelo Mariani, in Italy, developed the first popular
drink using coca leaves. It was called "Vin Mariani." it was introduced to the public in
1863 and became very popular in America and in Europe.Vin Mariani was advertised and
apparently used for treating a variety of illnesses, and quickly became the world’s
most popular prescription. No surprise.
At the same time, other preparations were developed which contained coca -
all sorts of tonics and patent medicine. The first formulation of Coca-Cola was
developed, which included extracts of the coca leaf and the kola nut of Africa.
At various times it Coca-Cola was advertised as a remarkable therapeutic agent" and as a
"sovereign remedy" for a long list of ailments, including melancholy and (curiously) insomnia.
With the enaction of the Pure Food and Drug Laws in 1906, the product switched
to de-cocainized leaves, but retained the caffeine which was in the kola nuts.
The rest is history. Note: the logo hasn't changed.
Next: More on the Incas
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Closer to home, if you are interested, you can find my Arctic Story at
Click here: The Amazing Adventures of Larry and Mark
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