This post is from Chapter One of “The History of Coca” which is part of the historical literature documented in my ebook “The Coca Leaf Papers“. For those who are unfamiliar with the long and proud legacy of pure, natural Coca as a medicinal plant this introduction should serve to convince that Coca Leaf is far different in its medicinal qualities from the synthetically extracted alkaloid Cocaine, which is only one of the 19 known alkaloids of the Coca Leaf, and only one among hundreds of bio-active components of the leaf.
Chapter One (from) The History of Coca by Dr. William Golden Mortimer MD, 1901
IF MAN were asked what one boon he would prefer of all Earth’s bounties or Heaven’s blessings, his response must be – the power of endurance. The capability to patiently and persistently do best that which the laws of life or the vagaries of association necessitates. Search for this one quality has been the impetus to inspire poet and philosopher since man’s first appreciation of his mortal frailty. A something which shall check, within himself at least, the progress of time, the ravages of age, and the natural vacillation of conditions or environment. Wealth, and power, and greatness, and skill, must alike fall into insignificance without this one essential attribute to success. The artist in impressionistic work, the poet in soulful muse, the musician in celestial chords, the soldier in the mad rush of battle, the artisan in the cleverness of device, the merchant in the intricacies of commercial problems – even the most prosaic delver in life’s plodding journey – each hopes to display a virility from which the slightest weakness is deprecated as humiliating. Work, indeed, is necessary to existence. It is the price – as the ancients considered – which the gods set on anything worth having. It is the power to do this work – to gain happiness for ourselves, which is the demand of modem necessity. To be enabled to keep active until the human machine may wear out as did the ‘wonderful one-hoss-shay,” rather than rusting into a state of uselessness.
Human endurance, bounded by natural limitations, is still more closely environed by the results of a higher civilization, which presents the remarkable anomaly of two opposite conditions. While increasing, through the refinements of hygienic resources, the average term of life, it crowds man in the struggle for existence, into a condition where he is rendered less capable physically for fighting the battles into which he is thrust. So, from a natural life of pronounced perfection where his trials have been essentially muscular, he is gradually evolving into an artificial existence of eminently nervous impulse. If this be so, then the interest in any means which shall tend to establish and maintain a balance of force, should not be merely casual, but must be earnest and persistent to any who have regard for life’s best qualities, and this interest must constantly increase with the retirements of time.
Even though others may point the way, everyone must fight his own battles. To each of us the world will appear as we may shape it for ourselves – a thought poetically expressed by the composer Wagner, who said: “The world exists only in our heart and conception.” This shaping, if done by weakly hands or influenced by troubled brain, may not always prove symmetrical. A sensitive imagination, sharply attuned, jars discordantly amidst inharmonious surroundings, which will be all the more harshly apparent if made possible through a known impotence
The Nature Of The Life Force
There is a fund of force communicated by the Creator to all things. It is the primal factor not only of man’s existence, but of his continued being, and the activity which it generates is necessary to life, just as a cessation of energy means death. This fact has ever been so much a portion of the human mind that it requires no philosophic training to implant. It is not alone the savage who regards examples of vigor and prowess as ennobled emblems of a supreme being, while the sick or even the weak are looked upon as possessed of some evil spirit to be exorcised by priest or medicine man. This belief, whether superstitious or not, is pre-eminent and widespread. It is not only manifested by the ignorant, but often by the educated as well. The effort to ward off disease through wearing some particular substance as a talisman is a practice prompted by this feeling, which is not wholly relegated to bygone days, and the belief in amulets, rings, or the influence of certain precious stones is still prevalent every where.
There is supposedly some deeply hidden mystery about Nature in her varied presentations, which if it does not control presumably influences the curative art. It is not only those who consider that “yarbs should be gathered at a certain time of the moon,” but the laity quite generally suppose there is a specific for every disease if not every condition, which if not immediately forthcoming upon inquiry must be revealed by more diligent search. Nor is this belief – even though vague – indulged in merely by the unthinking, but every where about us there is a tendency against accepting rigid facts, and inevitable truths, particularly when applied to one’s self. “All men think all men mortal but themselves” is surely a well founded adage. The result is a groping after that all necessary something, which shall supply this very apparent want, a craving for endurance in all we are called upon to bear. As Cicero has expressed it : “If not destined to be immortal, yet it is a desirable thing for a man to expire at his fit time, for, as Nature proscribes a boundary to all other things, so does she also to life.” The practical side of this idea was once advanced to me by an, elderly patient who said : “I don’t want to controvert Nature, but I do want to be as comfortable as possible while I am here.”
There has been a numerous order of philosophers not content with simple well being, who sought for that perpetual youth – that elixir vitae- which might give at least prolonged existence even if not rejuvenation. These did not commence with Faust nor end with Brown-Sequard. Happily the search for this substance – even though originating in a sanguine imagination – has often ended in findings that have been extremely important. Just as when Juan Ponce de Leon sought the Fontaine de Jouvence in the Island of Bimini, though he failed to locate the fountain, he did discover a land of perpetual youth, if we may so entitle the ever-blooming peninsula. Possibly it was because of some such spirit of inquiry into the vague depths of the unknown, where was presumed there might be some revelation to this knowledge of a perpetual vigor, which prompted a desire for exploration. Nature has always been ready to answer such seeking by her munificence, which, if not in the direction at first wished, has at least encouraged man to new desires.
The discovery of the Western Continent, whether due to the forethought or ignorance of Columbus, or to the hardihood of the Norsemen several centuries before his time, brought a multitude of bounties to humanity. Among these none is greater than the countless plants which have been gradually unfolded to usefulness by the processes of science. Particularly is this true of the economic and medicinal plants of South America, which on the eastern declivity of the Andes and towards the valley of the Amazon, spring forth in all the luxuriance of the tropical jungle, over a vast portion of which it is supposed the foot of man has never trodden. In this locality – and among this wild profusion, grows a beautiful shrub, the leaves of which in shape somewhat resemble those of the orange tree, but in color are of a very much paler green, having that exquisite translucence of the most delicate fern. The properties of this plant more nearly approach that ideal source of endurance than is known to exist in any other one sub stance. Its leaves have been used by the natives of the surrounding country from the earliest recollection, as a masticatory, as a medicine, and as a force sustaining food. Its use is not confined to emergency, nor to luxury, but as an essential factor to the daily life work of these people. As a potent necessity it has been tenderly cared for and carefully cultivated through the struggles, trials and vituperation it has been the occasion of during so many hundreds of years, until to-day its cultivation forms the chief industry of a large portion of the natives and a prominent source of revenue to the governments controlling the localities where it is grown.
The Early Inca In Nature’s Garden
During the early age, when this nature’s garden was unknown to the rest of the world, the Incas, who were then the dominant people of this portion of the continent, regarded this shrub as “the divine plant,” so all important and complete in it self, that it was termed simply “khoha”, meaning “the tree”, beyond which all other designation was unnecessary. This plant, which has been described under a variety of names but now known as Coca, has appealed alike to the archaeologist, the botanist, the historian, and traveler as well as to the physician. Its history is united with the antiquity of centuries, while its traditions link it with a sacredness of the past, the beginning of which is lost in the remoteness of time. So intimately entwined is the story of Coca with these early associations – with religious rites, with superstitious reverence, with false assertions and modem doubts – that to unravel it is like to the disentanglement of a tropical vine in the primitive jungles of its native home.
Antedating historical record Coca was linked with the political doings of that most remarkable people of early American civilization who constituted the Incan dynasty. Since the conquest of Peru it has continued to form a necessary factor to the daily life work of the Andean Indians, the descendants of this once noble race. So important has it been held in the history of its native land that it has very fit tingly been embodied in the escutcheon of Peru, along with the vicuna and the horn of plenty, thus typifying endurance with the versatile riches which this country affords.
The first knowledge to the outer world concerning Coca followed Pizarro’s invasion of Peru, though the actual accounts of its properties were not published until some years after the cruel murder of Atahualpa – commonly regarded as the last Incan monarch. The effort made by the Spanish to implant their religion raised the cross and shrine wherever possible, which necessitated the founding of numerous missions, in charge of fathers of the church. These men in holy orders were often as tyrannical as those who bore arms, yet fortunately there were some in both classes less cruel men of liberal attainments who appreciated the importance of preserving the traditions and records of this new country. To the writings of some of these more kindly disposed personages, as well as to the earnest labors of a few young nobles who were in the army of invasion, whose spirit for a conservative exploration was greater than for destructive conquest, we are indebted for the facts which form the foundation of this early history. Many of these writers had personally seen the result of the Incan civilization before its decay, and had opportunity to collect the native stories, as retold from father to son, through generation after generation, oral tradition being the early Peruvian method for continuing a knowledge of events. Unlike the Mexicans, these people had no picture writings to tell their doings in a series of hieroglyphics, nor had they a written language. But the story of this once mighty empire is told in its wonderful ruins, and through the relics of skillfully molded pottery, and textile fabrics in exquisite designs, which all indicate a remarkable civilization. Historical facts were related by regularly appointed orators of phenomenal memory, who on all state occasions would recount the occurrences of the preceding reign, being aided in this recital by a novel fringe-like record of colored cords, known as the quipu. By the aid of this, as a sort of artificial memory, they told, as a monk might tell his beads. The various knots and several colors of the contrivance designating certain objects or events. In all these relations the Coca leaf was repeatedly and reverently alluded to as a most important element of their customs, as well as of their numerous feasts and religious rites.
Spanish Barbarians In Nature’s Garden
The Spanish idea of conquest was to establish a complete mastery over the Peruvians; the Indians were to be regarded as slaves to be bought, sold, and used as such. In view of these facts it is not difficult to understand that as Coca was constantly employed among the natives, its use was early questioned and condemned as a possible luxury, for it was not considered a matter worthy of inquiry as to any real benefit in a substance employed by slaves. So superficial were the observations made by some of the early writers that the fact of this neglect is most apparent. Thus, Cieza de Leon, a voluminous writer on Incan customs, mentions as a peculiar habit of the natives: “they always carry a small leaf of some sort in the mouth.” Even so experienced an observer as Humboldt, in his writings of many years later, did not recognize the true quality of Coca, but confounds the sustaining properties of the leaf as due to the alkaline ashes – the “llipta” – which is chewed with it. He refers to the use of this lime as though it be longed to the custom of the clay eaters of other regions, and suggests that any support to be derived from it must necessarily be purely imaginary.
It is not surprising that Coca chewing, if superficially viewed, should be condemned. The Spanish considered it merely an idle and offensive habit that must be prohibited, and at one time it was even seriously suggested that the plants should be uprooted and destroyed. But it was soon seen that the Indians could not work without Coca, and when forced to do so were unequal to the severe tasks imposed on them. As, however, the local tribute to the authorities demanded from all able bodied laborers a fixed amount of work, it was soon appreciated as a matter of policy that the use of Coca must at least be tolerated in order that this work should be done. Then the Church, which was from the invasion an all-powerful force in this new country, exacting and relentless in it demands, saw an imaginative evil in this promiscuous Coca chewing. If Coca sustained the Indians, it was of course a food, and its use should not be allowed before the holy Eucharist. Necessity brought forth a deliverer from this formidable opponent, and it was represented that Coca was not an aliment, and so its use was reluctantly permitted.
But now came still another effort to prohibit it, from moral motives. The Indian believed in Coca, he knew that it sustained him without other food in his arduous work, but it had been conclusively shown that it was not a food, and so could not sustain, hence his belief was false, superstitious, even a delusion of the devil to warp the poor Indian from the way he should go. Greed, however, predominated, as gold has ever been a convincing factor, and as the Indian could do most work when supplied with Coca, its use was finally allowed unrestricted, and today a portion of Coca is given to all Andean laborers as part of their necessary supplies.
So it will be seen that like all scientific advances which have been made, since Prometheus incurred the wrath of Jove by stealing fire from the gods to put life in mortals, until the present time. Coca has not been admitted to acceptance unassailed. That spirit of antagonism which seems rampant at the very suggestion of progress has caused its allies to rehabilitate and magnify the early errors and superstitions whenever opportunity might admit, together with those newer accessions of false premises engendered through shallowness of investigation. Every department of science has been subjected to similar instances of annoyance, though it would appear that medicine is particularly more subject to such influence. At first a partisan sentimentality, with an exaggeration which provokes condemnation and often results in oblivion, or what in calmer judgment may be a true balance of worth.
It is amusing to now look back at some attacks which were hurled against substances that all the world to-day considers as necessities. The anӕsthetic use of chloroform was at first regarded as unholy because it was asserted man is born unto pain as he is unto sin, and so should bear his necessary sufferings in a holy and uncomplaining manner. Every physician frequently meets with just such original and plausible opposition to suggested remedies today. When in 1638 Cinchona was introduced into Europe under the name of “Jesuits’ powder,” it was vigorously denounced as quackery. So great was the prejudice that sprang up against it, even among those eminent physicians whom we now look back upon as the fathers of medicine, that when Chiftelius, in 1653, wrote a book against “the bark,” he was complimented as though he had relieved the world of a monster or a pestilence. For years it was not countenanced by “the faculty,” and the various arguments then advanced concerning its supposed action form curious reading. The opposition to vaccination, in 1770, was something which excited not only the protests of physicians and learned societies, but the clergy and laity as well. The College of Physicians shook its wise head and refused to recognize Jenner’s discovery. The country doctor was considered something of a bore. Innumerable other instances might be cited to testify to this negative spirit prompted by any advance.
Among food products, the humble potato when introduced into Scotland, in 1728, was violently denounced as unholy because “not mentioned in the Bible.” It was asserted that it was forbidden fruit, and as that was the cause of man’s first fall, to countenance its use would be irreligious. In France, so strong was the feeling against the introduction of potatoes that Louis XVI and his Court wore the flower of the plant as a boutonniere to give the much opposed- but desirable – potato at least the prestige of fashion. Tea, coffee and chocolate have each been denounced, and from very high sources too. “A lover of his country,” as he designated himself, in 1673, proposed to Parliament “the prohibition of brandy, rum, coffee, chocolate and tea, and the suppressing of coffee houses. These hinder greatly the consumption of barley, malt and wheat, the product of our land.” Here would seem to be an ulterior motive that is almost suggestive of the commercial spirit often now displayed, which would suppress one product that another may be permitted to flourish regardless of merit.
As an argument against the pernicious and growing tendency to use tea and coffee, after they had been rendered palatable through knowing how to use them, a Dr. Duncan, of the Faculty of Montpelier, in 1706, wrote: “Coffee and tea were at the first used only as medicine while they continued unpleasant, but since they were made delicious with sugar, they are become poison.” The Spectator of April 29th, 1712, urges against the dangers of chocolate as follows: “I shall also advise my fair readers to be in a particular manner careful how they meddle with romances, chocolates, novels, and the like inflamers which I look upon as very dangerous to be made use of during this great carnival.” Opinion on these beverages is not unanimous today even, as harmless as they are commonly considered. Alcohol and tobacco of course have come in for an unusual share of denunciation, and the argument is not yet ended. From these through the entire range of stimulant-narcotics, each has excited such vigorous protests that the very term stimulant is considered by some as opprobrious. How real must be the merit that can withstand such storms of abuse, and spring up, perennially blooming, through such opposition!
Confusion & Dismay Over The Coca Plant
Coca is unparalleled in the history of plants, and although it has been compared to about every plant that has any stimulating quality, it is wholly unlike any other. In this comparison tobacco, kola, tea, mate, guarana, coffee, cacao, hashish, opium, and even alcohol, has been referred to. It has been made to bear the burden of whatever evils lurk in any or all of these, and has unjustly been falsely condemned through such association. That Coca is chewed by the South American Indians and tobacco is smoked by the North American Indians, that Coca is used in Peru and opium or betel is used in the East – is a fair example of this comparison. It no more nearly resembles kola – with which it is often carelessly confounded, the properties of which are chiefly due to caffeine – than through the allied harmony of its first syllable. While a similarity to various substances taken as beverages is possibly suggested through the fact that Coca is sometimes drunk in decoction by the Peruvians.
The cerebral effects of Coca are entirely different from hashish or opium, and its stimulant action in no way comparable to alcohol. I do not mention these substances to decry them, but merely to illustrate the careless comparisons which have been advanced, through which imperfect conclusions must necessarily be drawn. Then again there is an unfortunate similarity between the pronunciation of the names Coca, and cocoa or cacao – the chocolate nut, and coco – the coconut, which has occasioned a confusion of thought not wholly limited to some of the laity.
The fact remains that though Coca is used by millions of people, it is not generally known away from its native country. Even many physicians constantly confound it with allied plants of dissimilar properties or with substances of like sounding name. That this is not simply a broad and hasty statement may be illustrated by the following fact. The writing of this work was prompted by the immense divergence of published accounts regarding the efficacy of Coca, in view of which an effort was made to learn the result of its use among a representative class of practitioners, each of whom it was presumed would be well qualified to express an opinion worthy of consideration. An autograph letter, together with an appropriate blank for reply, fully explaining the desirability for this data, was prepared, of which ten thousand were sent out. These were addressed to professors in the several medical colleges, and to those prominent in local medical societies – all eminent in practice. Many did not reply, while of the answers received, fully one half had “never used Coca in any form.” Of the balance, many are “prejudiced against its use,” through some preconceived notion as to its inertness, or through some vague fear of insidious danger which they were not prepared to explain, and even preferred not to inquire into, being “satisfied it is a dangerous drug.”
There are others who inadvertently confused Coca with some of the confusional drugs already referred to or with cocoa. That this was not merely an apparent fault, through some slip of the pen in hasty writing, is shown by direct answer to the question as to the form of Coca found most serviceable, stating so and so’s “breakfast coca” is used in place of tea or coffee. In some instances the benefits of Coca were enlarged upon with an earnestness that was inclined to inspire confidence. The physiological action was gone into minutely and its therapeutic application extolled, only to conclude with the amazing statement that the fluid extract, the wine, or “breakfast coca” were interchangeably used, thus displaying a confusion worse confounded which might be amusing if not so appalling.
These confusional assertions display one source of error, yet in view of the entwined facts concerning Coca through literature and science it must emphasize the unfortunate neglect of observation, and the refusal to recognize advancement manifest even in this progressive age, among some whose duties and responsibilities should have spurred to a refinement of discernment. It is suggestive of the anecdote told by Park, who when in his Eastern travels asked some Arabs what became of the sun at night, and whether it always was the same sun, or was renewed each day, was staggered with the reply “such a question is foolish, being entirely the reach of human investigation.” Replies fully as surprising were received in this inquiry.
Several have taken the “moral” side of the question quite to heart, and expressed a belief that through advocating the popularizing of Coca, I was tending to contribute to the increase of a pernicious and debasing habit which was already undermining the morals of the community. Others again have tried to show me the error I had fallen into when speaking of the dietetic uses of Coca. As one gentleman emphatically expressed it: “This is some terrible mistake, you are confounding Coca with Cocoa! Cocoa is used for food, but Coca – never.” So that even that part of my investigation pursued among modem medical men has not been as easily carried out as might at first be supposed. There has been the same or similar ignorance and error to sift apart from truth as encompassed the early historical associations of the plant.
This unfortunate confusion is probably to be accounted for because Coca was largely used empirically and without a proper appreciation of its physiological action before its properties were fully known. Writers who have described its local use among the Andean Indians have advanced statements regarding its sustaining qualities which have not been verified by some observers elsewhere located, even though these latter may have carried out a careful line of physiological experimentation. The explanation of this has only recently been determined, but is now known to be due to the extreme volatility of the associate principles of Coca.
Recent, or well cured and properly preserved Coca is wholly different from leaves which have become inert through improper treatment. Then again as our botanical knowledge of this plant has increased, it has indicated that not all leaves termed Coca are such. The family to which the classic leaves of the Incans belong has many species. Among the particular species of Coca there has only quite recently been determined several varieties. The properties of these differ materially according to the presence or absence of certain alkaloidal constituents. Some of the early experiments upon the properties of Coca were made at a time when these facts were unknown, and with this, was the added disadvantage of the impossibility of then obtaining appropriately preserved Coca in the open markets. Not only may the substance examined have been inert, but through different observers using different varieties of Coca the conclusions could not possibly agree. Unfortunately because of the apparent carefulness of research these early statements were accepted and given a wide publicity, and so from the marvelous apparent benefits of Coca among native users to the absolute inertness pronounced by some foreign observers, there has been a very wide space for the admission of much distrust. The busy physician must commonly accept the result of the provings of the experimentalist, and amidst so much doubt it may have seemed easier to set aside a possible remedy than to have personally verified the assertions. Indeed, trial has only too often depreciated hopes from a happy realization of the wonderful properties attributed to the use of native Coca on the Andes, to a realization of the uncertainty of the marketed product at command. In which connection it may not seem too astonishing to say I know of an instance where Senna leaves were sold by a whole sale drug house for “fresh Coca leaves,” while I doubt if any drug house would make a distinction in offering the casual purchaser any variety of Coca at hand.
It was because of “this uncertainty” – of the conflicting stories and the impossibility to unify facts – that interest in Coca, which had been stimulated in Europe by Dr. Mantegazza about 1859, soon declined until disuse almost left it in forgetfulness. About this time Niemann, then a pupil of Professor Woehler, isolated the alkaloid cocaine from the leaves, and attention was again awakened to the possible usefulness of the parent plant. It was supposed, however, that the active principle to which all the sustaining energy of Coca was due had been discovered in cocaine. Here again was a radical error, and an unfortunate one as it has since proved, to still more confound an intricate problem. This is particularly serious because it is widely accepted as truth, not only among many physicians, but also because it has been spread by this misunderstanding through the secular press, and so falsely impressed the laity. As a result, cocaine has been promiscuously used as a restorative and sustainer under the supposition that it is but Coca in a more convenient and active form. The evils which have followed this use have fallen upon Coca, which has often been erroneously condemned as the cause. It is owing to the wide spread of this belief as well as its resultant evil and because of the difficulty for the lay mind to appreciate the radical difference between Coca and cocaine – between any parent plant and but one of its alkaloids – that it must necessarily require long and persistent effort on the part of educated physicians to explain away this wrong, to reassure those who have been falsely informed as to the real merits of Coca, and so reflect credit upon themselves through the advocacy and use of a really marvelous remedy.
One Forceful Truth
The truth cannot be too forcibly impressed, that cocaine is but one constituent, and no more fully represents Coca than would prussic acid, because found in a minute quantity in the seeds of the peach, represent that luscious fruit. In emphasizing this a recent investigator who passed a long period in the Coca region, studying as a scientist the peculiarities of the plant, and watching as a physician its effect upon native users of the drug, says: “With certain restrictions it may be said that the properties of cocaine, remarkable as they are, lie in an altogether different direction from those of Coca as it has been reported to us from South America.” So it will be seen that because of misconstruing early tales and superstitious beliefs, because inert leaves have not yielded results of the sound plant, because some different variety has not yielded the same results as the classic type, because one of its alkaloids does not represent the whole, the parent plant is condemned. Because of this ignorance of certain investigators the historical accounts of the use of Coca and its sustaining qualities among the natives, have been set down to exaggeration or absolute fabrication. As one physician replying to my inquiries would have others believe “The Indians are great liars.” Thus from ignorance, neglect or from false conception, Coca was either wholly ignored or little understood in a popular way, until in 1884 a renewed interest was awakened through the discovery of the qualities of cocaine as an anaesthetic in the surgery of the eye. Then, as though forgetful of all preceding investigation or condemnation, a renewed discussion commenced regarding the asserted qualities of Coca, the failure to realize them, and the probable source of potency of the plant as represented by cocaine.
This was followed by frequently reported accounts of a new and terrible vice which was springing up everywhere – the so-called “cocaine habit.” For this Coca was condemned as its enemies pretended to now see the real element of perniciousness. Yet before cocaine was ever dreamed of and during the long centuries in the history of Coca, not one case of poisoning from its use has ever been recorded. The accusation of “habit” had, however, long before been erroneously directed against the leaves. But of this, one who wrote scientifically and extensively on Peru after personal observation, sets forth his conclusions in the following positive way: “Coca is not merely innocuous, but even very conducive to health. ”He even calculated the improbability of harm by estimating, if an Indian reached the age of one hundred and thirty years – which seems to be the only “habit” to which these people are addicted beside the “habit” for hard work – he would have consumed two thousand seven hundred pounds of leaves, an amount sufficient to have quite fully determined all pernicious possibilities. Indeed, to think of Coca as an injurious substance suggests the character in one of Madison Morton’s farces who wished to “shuffle off” speedily, and determined to chew poppy heads “because poppy heads contain poppy seeds, and poppy seeds eaten constantly for several years will produce instant death.”
The theory has been advanced that because cocaine is one of the chief alkaloids of Coca, it represents whatever sustaining quality the leaf can possibly have, and manufacturers base their choice of leaves upon the percentage of cocaine determined by assay. But this is not in unanimity with the selection of the native users of Coca, any more than would the quality of a choice tobacco leaf be governed by the amount of nicotine it contains. The fact is the Andean Indian selects Coca that is rich in the more volatile associate alkaloids and low in cocaine. It is what is known as the sweet in contra-distinction to the bitter-leaf, which latter is made bitter by the large amount of cocaine it contains. On this very point an authority says: – “It only remains for me to point out that the relative amount of cocaine contained in native Coca leaves exerts no influence in determining the Indian’s selection of his supply. As a matter of fact, the ordinary conditions to which the leaves are subject during the first two or three months after they are gathered have but little effect upon their original percentage of cocaine. The Indian, however, makes his selections from among such leaves with the greatest care, eagerly seeking the properly dried leaves from some favorite cocal, whose produce is always most readily brought out, and absolutely rejecting other leaves, notwithstanding that the percentages of cocaine may be almost identical.”
The absolute reliance of the Andean Indians upon Coca not only for sustenance, but as a general panacea for all ills, has naturally led them to feel a superstitious regard for the plant. This reverence has descended to them from the Incan period, during which the shrub was looked upon as “a living manifestation of divinity, and the places of its growth a sanctuary where all mortals should bend the knee.” However much the Incas reverenced Coca they did not worship it; it was considered the greatest of all natural productions, and as such was offered in their sacrifices. Their ceremonial offerings were made to their conception of deity – the sun, which they held to be the giver of all earthly blessings.
The ideas of moral depravity, and the fears of debasing habit following the use of Coca, have sprung from false premises and early misconceptions as to the true nature of the plant. As a matter of fact, neither “habit,” as that is understood, nor poisoning has ever been recorded against Coca among the natives where it has been continued in use for centuries. Those early writers on Andean customs who allude to Coca chewing all speak positively against any evil result following its use. One physician, after being intimately associated among the natives for nearly a year, where he had witnessed the constant use of Coca, failed to find a single case of chronic cocaism, although this one subject chiefly occupied his attention, and he searched assiduously for information. Speaking of the amount used, he says “what it does for the Indian at fifteen it does for him at sixty, and a greatly increasing dose is not resorted to. There is no reaction, nor have I seen any of the evil effects depicted by some writers and generally recorded in books.”
The early objections by the Spanish against the use of Coca were rather as persecutions, intended to still further oppress this conquered race by taking from them what was looked upon as an idle and expensive luxury. But Coca-chewing could never be an expensive luxury in a country where it grows wild, and where it is given by those in charge of laborers as a regular portion of each man’s daily supplies. The later cries against its perniciousness, as has been shown, were based wholly upon the action of cocaine following the widespread use of that alkaloid as a local anӕsthetic. The reports in the medical press of injurious effects from the use of cocaine all date from the period when the entire medical world was active in the discussion of the merits of this great boon to minor surgery. It would seem that many then rushed into print without regard to method so long as something was said about the all-absorbing topic of the time, which might direct a portion of attention to themselves. A new opportunity had arisen when old tales and early prejudices might be again reiterated concerning Coca. The lay press was not slow to take up the sensational side of the subject, and the ‘cocaine habit” soon became a well-determined condition in theory, and a fashionable complaint. I have personally investigated a number of such reported cases and in every instance have found either that it was a condition engrafted upon some previous “habit” in a nervous subject, or else that the report was absolutely false. There is no motive – as the lawyers would say – for the offense, there is no reason for the establishment of a habit such as exists in the case of alcohol or opium. The fact is there exists a certain class of subjects who are so weak in will power, that if they should repeat any one thing for a few consecutive times they would become habituated to that practice. But such cases are the exceptions, and have no especial bearing upon Coca. In the collective investigation among several thousand physicians, this matter was particularly impressed as an important point of inquiry and the answers sustained the facts already explained, that a “ Coca habit has never existed. During the early part of 1898 a case was reported very sensationally in the secular press regarding a Dr. Holmes who had died in an asylum at Ardendale, N. Y., a hopeless wreck as a result of cocaine habit. I communicated with the physician in charge of that institution and was promptly assured “Dr. Holmes did not die as a result of ‘cocaine habit,’ nor had he ever been addicted to it.”
That Coca has survived the attacks which have been periodically hurled against it during several hundred years, and that its use is not only continued, but its therapeutic application constantly increasing, must suggest to the thinking mind that it is possessed of remarkable value. It has continued with the Andeans not because they have formed a “habit” for it, not because it fills their minds with that ecstatic and dreamful bliss as habit drugs would do, but because experience has taught them that they can perform their work better by its use. There is a practical utility in it which, as will be seen when detailing some of the customs of these people, is so exact that they measure their distances by the amount of Coca that they chew instead of by the rod and chain, or chronometer. Their use of this plant is continued day after day during a long lifetime, yet the amount of Coca which sustains them in young adult life is not increased in their old age. Its force product is a constant factor, just as a given amount of water under proper conditions wall make a known amount of steam. The fuel taken and the work performed is always the same, other conditions being equal.
Can it be presumed for a moment that if this general and persistent use of Coca is a depraved habit, sapping the best of moral qualities, even manhood, unfitting its users to perform their duties, that these people would be capable of the immense amount of physical work which they do? It is known to be a fact by those employing large forces of workmen in the Peruvian mines, that the Indian would not and could not perform the tasks he is set to under the exposure he is subjected to without Coca. This is well shown by contrast when foreigners are compelled to work with them, and are unable to perform an equal amount of labor to theirs until they too have recourse to the use of Coca. Thus it must be seen that Coca is as worthy today as it was in the time of the Incas of being termed the “divine plant.” It is Nature’s best gift to man. It neither morally corrupts nor undermines manhood, or vitality, as is well shown in these Indians, who are long-lived and are held by those who know them best, to be conservative, respectful, virtuous, honest and trustworthy, addicted to hard work – and the use of Coca, that they may more thoroughly and successfully do that work.
That any plant or substance which has been continued in daily use by millions of people over a vast territory, for many hundreds of years, should have so long remained unrecognized by the world at large seems almost incredible. Yet the fact is undoubted, as has been shown, and Coca is even today unknown to a great majority of not only the masses, but of physicians. Since the date of the Conquest, the constant use of Coca leaves by the Indians has been frequently referred to by travelers, often superficially, yet commonly agreeing as to its sustaining qualities. But so wonderful have these accounts seemed that their simple relation has usually excited doubt rather than belief. They have been looked upon as “travelers’ tales,” relations due to an imagination, which possibly had been expanded by the conjoined influence of a rarefied atmosphere, and an exalted desire to enhance the wonders of travel. So from doubting qualities which were long looked upon as improbable or unexplainable, and from the inaccuracies recorded by those who affected scientific research on old leaves, it was but a simple step to relegate the very existence of the plant to the legendary.
It has been shown in outline how varied were the causes to account for this unbelief, and the consequent neglect which followed. Primarily to superficial observation on the part of early explorers in an unknown country, where consideration for mere existence was to the unacclimated often of the first importance. Added to this was the conservative reticence of the Indians, and their superstitious regard for this plant so
intimately linked with their religious and political life. This alone was sufficient to prevent the ready acquirement by travelers of a detailed knowledge of the use of Coca, or even of native customs and the reason for them.
Here was sufficient possibility for hasty conclusions, aside from the forceful attacks of both Church and State against what they were pleased to regard as the continuance of a superstitious practice or vulgar habit, which possibly linked the desires of these people whom they hoped to Christianize, with an idolatrous past. Then, too, there existed as now, a class of zealots seeing imaginative wrong in every custom, who would have every act discontinued simply because it is done, in dread of some direful consequence which may result. In furthering each of these negative influences, theories were often advanced at variance with existent facts, and so many conflicting tales and much confusion has resulted. Absurd stories have been published, and these again copied without apparent attempt at verification, the whole establishing a falsity from which there has grown a diversity of opinion wholly inconsistent with the exact requirements of science. Meanwhile the rapid progress of the world in exploration often engrossed attention to the exclusion of details. The demand of commercial interests, for broad facts and immediate results in the amassing of wealth, diverted attention from the tales of travelers or the disputes of scientists. But as a higher civilization demands the resources of the universe to maintain its conditions, the secret of Nature’s gift to the Andean could not remain long hidden, and the means which afforded support for these simple people was recognized as of possible benefit to the rest of the plodding, toiling world. As Coca was shown to be a necessity to the Andean in his toilsome travels of exposure, its adaptability was suggested to other members of the human family elsewhere located who are comparatively as subject to privation and hardship as are these primitive people. Even in our great cities among modern resources the labor is exacting and exhaustive, and whether the work done be a strain of muscular exertion or a prolonged mental effort, the resultant wear and tear is similar, and the conditions are to be met by recourse to the most expedient means available.
Unfortunately the Spanish invasion of Peru so largely destroyed all native records that it has been difficult to readily retrace a continued history of the remarkable people of this early civilization, among whom our story of Coca must begin. But from the period of the Conquest, after it had been made known to the outer world Coca was frequently sung in poetry or recounted in the tales of travelers. It however continued, since the privilege was extended from its early users to their descendants, to almost exclusively be enjoyed by these people until less than half a century ago.
In properly determining the benefits of Coca it seems desirable to trace back its historical connections and its associations between past uses and present necessities, as well as to inquire into those surroundings which have prompted its use and called for its continuance. This must necessarily lead us through many interesting fields where the view may seem remote from our narrative, yet is essential to the full under standing of a story the first impulse for which was generated in the horrors of the Conquest. Before entering upon this more prosaic story, I wish to recall a writing of long ago that is fittingly associated with our History of Coca.
Dr. Abraham Cowley, of whom Dr. Johnson said “In Cowley’s mind botany turns into poetry”, in 1662 wove the qualities of Coca through a legendary tale so accurately and charmingly that these have scarce been added to by the research of other scientists.
At a convention of the gods, which was presided over by Venus, to discuss various fruits, the merits of each was set forth by its god. The poem is taken up where Bacchus, in illustration of the virtues of the vine, has offered a cup of wine to a South American godling:
He, unaccustomed to the acid juice,
Storm’d, and with Blows had answer’d the Abuse.
But fear’d t’engage the European Guest.
Whose Strength and Courage had subdu’d the East ;
He therefore chooses a less dangerous Fray.
And summons all his Country’s Plants away ;
Forthwith in decent order they appear.
And various Fruits on various Branches wear.
Like Amazons they stand in painted Arms,
Coca alone appear’d with little Charms,
Yet led the Van, our scoffing Venus Scorn’d
The shrub-like tree, and with no Fruit adorn’d,
The Indian Plants, said she, are like to speed
In this dispute of the most fertile Breed,
Who choose a Dwarf and Eunuch for their head;
Our Gods laughed out aloud at what she said.
Pachamama defends her darling Tree,
And said the wanton Goddess was too free ;
You only know the fruitfulness of Lust.
And therefore here your judgment is unjust.
Your skill in other offsprings we may trust.
With those Chaste tribes that no distinction know
Of Sex, your Province nothing has to do.
Of all the Plants that any Soil does bear.
This Tree in Fruits the richest does appear.
It bears the best, and bears them all the Year.
Ev’n now with Fruits ’tis stor’d – why laugh you yet ?
Behold how thick with Leaves it is beset ;
Each Leaf is Fruit, and such substantial Fare.
No Fruit beside to rival it will dare.
Mov’d with his Country’s coming Fate (whose Soil
Must for her Treasures be exposed to spoil)
Our Varicocha first this Coca sent,
Endow’d with leaves of wond’rous Nourishment,
Whose juice Succ’d in, and to the Stomach tak’n
Long Hunger and long Labour can sustain ;
From which our faint and weary Bodies find
More Succor, more they cheer the drooping Mind,
Than can your Bacchus and your Ceres join’d.
Three Leaves supply for six days’ march afford ;
The Quitoita with this Provision stor’d
Can pass the vast and cloudy Andes o’er,
The dreadful Andes plac’d ‘twixt Winter’s Store
Of Winds, Rains, Snow, and that more humble Earth,
That gives the small, but valiant, Coca birth ;
This Champion that makes war-like Venus Mirth.
Nor Coca only useful art at Home,
A famous Merchandize thou art become ;
A thousand Paci and Vicugni groan
Yearly beneath thy Loads, and for thy sake alone
The spacious World’s to us by Commerce Known.
Thus spake the Goddess (on her painted Skin
Were figures wrought) and next called Hovia in,
That for it’s stony Fruit may be despis’d,
But for its Virtue next to Coca priz’d.
Her shade by wond’rous Influence can compose
And lock the Senscs in such sweet Repose
That oft the Natives of a distant Soil
Long journeys take of voluntary Toil,
Only to sleep beneath her branches’ shade ;
Where in transporting Dreams entranc’d they lye
And quite forget the Spaniards’ Tyranny.
– Book of Plants.