I enjoy re-reading my collection of old books on Coca because no matter how carefully I pay attention to the rich treasure of history and thought they represent, my mind is always drawn to whatever aspect of the current quest is most important, thus passing over information and insight that, in retrospect, was as vital and interesting as the object of the initial quest.
So it is with this passage from “The History of Coca” by Dr. Golden Mortimer (1912). Buried deep in Chapter Seven, this passage not only describes the diverse ways in which the indigenous people of the Andes use Coca to sustain themselves while journeying through the high mountains, it also offers the careful reader some fascinating insights into the world that these people inhabited in the past – the same world where they live their lives to a large extent today, in spite of centuries of outside interference and exploitation.
For example, the brief note that while in the process of mining silver the women charged with evaluating each piece of ore brought to the surface could, at a glance, tell how much silver the piece contained and if it was less than 20% silver, down the mountainside it went and onto the trash pile. 20% silver! Of course this isn’t news to modern-day miners who have worked these “trash piles” for many years, but it does give you an idea of how rich the original mother lodes were, and how expert and intuitive the women were whose job was to sort the keepers from the rejects.
And then Dr. Mortimer goes on to note that men could do exactly the same sort of quick sort as they walked through a Coca patch. With just a glance, and using who knows what other senses, the man could tell immediately which plants would yield the highest quality Coca Leaf and which were destined to be not worth further effort. I have to wonder if that ability persists today among the indigenous Coca growers of the Andes, or if it has been lost and replaced by technology.
Finally, because this post contains multiple references to the use of “Lime” in the chewing of Coca Leaf, it seems a good place to reiterate that we are talking about calcium carbonate as in limestone or seashells, not as in Margaritas and Key Lime Pie. Just a small point to keep in mind should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in possession of some fine quality Coca leaf.
(Excerpt from Chapter VII in “The History of Coca”)
The Indians chew Coca just as they do everything else, very deliberately and systematically. The mouthful of leaves taken at each time is termed acullico, or chique, which is as carefully predetermined as would the skilled housewife apportion the leaves of some choice bohea intended for an individual drawing. In preparing the chew the leaf is held base in between the two thumbs, parallel to the midrib, the soft part of the leaf being stripped off and put in the mouth. From the constant presence of this quid through many years the cheek on the side in which it is usually held presents a swollen appearance known as piccho. It is an error to suppose that the Indian journeys along and plucks the Coca from bushes by the wayside to chew, for the leaf must be carefully picked, dried and cured, and, just as tobacco or tea or coffee has to undergo certain processes before ready for consumption, so the full property of the Coca leaf is only developed after a proper preparation. Usually carried in the chuspa, or huallqui with the leaves, or fastened to it outside, is a little flask or bottle made from a gourd and called iscupuru, The word is not Quichua, but belongs to the dialect of the Chinchay-suyus along the banks of the Marañon. The Spanish authors termed it poporo. In this gourd is carried a lime-like substance made from the ashes left after burning certain plants or by burning shells or limestone. This, which they term llipta, or llucta is intermixed with the leaves when chewing by applying it to those in the mouth with a short stick dipped into the gourd from time to time. After this application the lime left on the stick is wiped about the head of the gourd in an abstracted way, leaving a deposit of lime which increases with time, for the Indian never parts with his poporo. M. Gaugnet presented M. Mariani with a poporo, brought from Colombia, a cast of which in my possession well represents this formation.
The operation of chewing is termed in Bolivia and Southern Peru acullicar while in the North it is called chacchar. The llipta is made in different localities from various substances; in the South from the ashes of the algarroba, the fruit of which has an immense reputation as an aphrodisiac, the mass being held together with boiled potatoes, while in the North quicklime is used, and in some of the Montaña regions ashes of the musa root or that of the common cereus are employed. The ashes of the burnt stalk of the quinoa plant, chenopodium quinua, mixed with a little lime, is the ordinary preparation. In Caravaya the llipta is made in little cone-like lumps; in other places it is found in flat dried cakes, which are scratched into a powder with a stick as it is required for use. Tschudi mentions the use of sugar with the leaves, but this must have been a European innovation which was supposedly an improvement, but not warranted by local customs. In Brazil, Coca – or ypadú as there termed – is powdered and mixed with the ash of Cecropia palmata leaves.
Ernst has traced the derivation of a number of the terms which are applied to the use of Coca among the Colombian Indians. These have been built up from the name of the gourd used to carry the lime or from the little sack in which the leaves are carried, which is always worn by the Indian. Thus the Chibchas term the alkali anna, which signifies a bluish lime.
Dr. Monardes speaks of the use of tobacco combined with Coca and says of the Indians: “When they will make themselves to be out of judgment they mingle with the Coca the leaves of the tobacco, at which they totter and go as though they were out of their witts, or if they were drunk, which is a thing that doth give them great contentment to be in that sorte.” Tobacco is still mixed with Coca by some of the Colombian Indians, but it is doubtful if such a mixture alone would produce the effect described. The hallucinations and narcotic action attributed by early writers to Coca are largely confusional from imperfect facts. Some of the Indians gather the leaves of a plant they term huaca or huacacachu. It is a running vine with a large obvate leaf, pale green above and purple beneath, growing in the Montaña only upon ground where there has previously been a habitation; for what is now an apparent virgin forest it is thought may three or four hundred years ago have been thickly inhabited. No scientific facts are known regarding this leaf as far as I could learn after submitting specimens of it to several of our leading botanists. The Indians term so many things huaca – which is a name they apply to anything they consider sacred – that it is very difficult to determine simply from the name. Von Tschudi probably refers to this leaf in what he describes as bovachero, or datura sanguinea. Several writers refer to the use of this leaf as a remedy for snake bite and against inflammations. A liquor is prepared from the leaves which the Indians term tonga, the drinking of which, they believe, will put them in communication with their ancestors, and from its strong narcotic action perhaps it may. Tschudi describes the symptoms observed in the case of an Indian who had taken some of this narcotic. “He fell into a heavy stupor, his eyes vacantly fixed on the ground, his mouth convulsively closed and his nostrils dilated. In the course of a quarter of an hour his eyes began to roll, foam issued from his mouth, and his body was agitated with frightful convulsions. After these violent symptoms had passed off a profound sleep followed of several hours’ duration, and when the subject recovered he related the particulars of his visit with his forefathers.” Because of this superstitious property the natives termed huaca “the grave plant.”
The Indians have fixed places along the road where they rest and replace their chews of Coca. Usually it is in some spot sheltered from the wind; and if near one of these retreats, they will hurry until reaching there, where they may drop exhausted, and after resting for a few moments will begin to prepare the leaves for mastication. In about ten minutes they are armado – as it is termed, or fully prepared to continue their journey. The distance an Indian will carry his ccepi – or load, of about a hundred pounds, under stimulus of one chew of Coca is spoken of as a cocada, just as we might say a certain number of miles. It is really a matter of time rather than distance, the first influence being felt within ten minutes, and the effect lasting for about three-quarters of an hour, during which time three kilometres on level ground, or two kilometres going up hill, will usually be covered. Although the roads are marked out with league stones, the exact number of miles these represent is a varying quantity, and travelers soon fall into the local habit of computing distance by the cocada as more exact.
These ccepiris – or burden bearers, which is the Quichua term or cargaderos – as they are termed on the coast, commonly travel six to eight cocadas a day without any other food excepting the Coca leaf used in the manner as indicated. It is not at all unusual – as related by numerous travelers – for a messenger to cover a hundred leagues afoot with no other sustenance than Coca. The old traditional chasqui, or courier, who has been continued since the time of the Incas, is still given messages to carry on foot rather than by horse or mule. He always carries a pack, which is fastened on his back and to his head also, leaving both arms free; and where the road is so steep that he cannot walk he will scramble along on all fours very rapidly. When the Indians come to their resting place they throw off their burdens and squat down, and the traveler might just as well decide to rest here as to attempt to go on. All persuasion would be just as useless to induce a resting Indian to proceed as it would be in the case of their favorite beast of burden, the llama, which is as unalterable of purpose as is his master.
The amount of Coca that is used by an Indian in a day varies from one to two handfuls, which is equivalent to one or two ounces. The leaves are not weighed out, but are apportioned to each man in accordance with the amount of work that is to be done. As an extensive operator in Peru expressed it to me, “the more work the more Coca,” while conversely, the more Coca the more work they are capable of doing. If the placid calm of an Indian is ever ruffled, it is only manifest through his taking an extra chew.
Away up in the cold and barren regions of the mountains wood and brush are too scarce to supply fuel, so the dried droppings of the llama are used instead; and as no one ever thinks of having a fire in this region merely for the purpose of keeping warm, this fuel is only used for cooking and necessity soon corrects any over-fastidiousness in the epicure. One of the remarkable peculiarities of the llama is that the beast deposits this mountain fuel always in the same places; a whole herd will go to one fixed spot, and so greatly lessen the labor of gathering the dung. In some of the particularly dangerous passes in the mountains there are rude crosses erected, which have been set up by the missionaries to mark the piles of sacred stones of the early Incan period. These stone piles are often far removed from loose stones, which must be carried for a long distance in anticipation of adding to the heap.
As the Indian makes his offering he also expects all travelers as they pass to make a like obeisance to the god of the mountain, expressive of gratitude for a journey that has been safe thus far, and imploring a favorable continuance. Often these places are decorated with little trinkets, which are hung upon the arms of the cross or thrown upon the pile of stones. Any object that has been closely attached to the person is offered; sometimes this may be even so simple as a hair from the eyebrow, but commonly the cud of Coca is thrown against the rocks, the Indian bowing three times and exclaiming ‘Apachicta’ which is an abbreviation of the term Apachicta-muchhani “I worship at this heap,” or “I give thanks to him who has given me strength to endure thus far.” The offering is made to Apachic, or Pachacamac, of whom the stone pile is an emblem. It is a curious fact that diametrically opposite on the globe, in that portion of Chinese Tartary where the priests are called Lamas, offerings are made by the natives to similar stone piles which are there termed obos.
Arduous as may be the task of the cargo bearer, the severest trial the Indian is subject to is mining. They commence this labor as boys of eight and spend the greater part of their lives in the mines. These places are wet and cold, and the work is very hard. In getting out the ore the workers must use a thirty-pound hammer with one hand, while the carriers are obliged to bear burdens of about one hundred and fifty pounds up the steep ascent of the shaft to the surface. This mining is continuous, being carried on by two gangs of men, one of which goes on duty at seven at night, working until five in the morning, when, after a rest of two hours they continue until seven at night, and are then relieved by the other party. Some of the silver mines employ thousands of operatives, both men and women, the men working in the mine and the women breaking and sorting the ore which is brought to the surface. Unless there is at least twenty per cent, of silver in the ore it is cast aside; and these women are so expert that as they break the stones into small pieces they determine instantly how it shall be sorted.
A similar cleverness is shown on the part of the Indians who select the Coca or cinchona plants. They will walk rapidly through a nursery and determine at a glance the value of individual plants or of the whole field without apparent hesitation. The Indians do not always select mining through choice, but are almost driven to it through the influence of the authorities. They have a dreadful fear of temporal powers and dare not disobey, even though their inclinations might suggest that they were born agriculturists. But these people have no inclinations; they have always been taught to do as commanded. It is suggestive of an instance I once met with when a physician, in reprimanding his colored servant, asked him why he did a certain thing, to which the poor fellow started to explain by “I thought.” “Thought!” said the doctor – “there you go thinking again; you have no right to think!” And so it is with these poor Indians; they can have no opinion, they have no right to think.
The Incas did a prodigious amount of work in their mining efforts, which, even if primitive, were forcible and effective. A system of waterways, similar to the extensive aqueducts of the coast, was made use of to conduct these operations, and several of these canals still exist, some many miles long. They are from three to five feet wide, and five to eight feet deep; in places cut through the solid rock, and in others, when over a porous soil, they are lined with sandstone. Numerous smaller ones were extended from the main canal, generally ending in reservoirs, from which sluice gates might be opened to permit the pent-up volume of waters to suddenly rush down a hill, carrying with it hundreds of tons of golden gravel. At the same time other streams were run along the base of the cliffs, undermining them, and by this ancient method of hydraulic mining, continued through centuries, whole mountains have been washed away. At Alpacata, in the upper part of Aporoma, at an elevation of seven thousand five hundred and fifty feet, is still to be found one of these old canals, together with the huge tanks for storing water, in a fair state of preservation.
An engineer, extensively interested in mining interests, who spends several months of each year in Peru, has described to me the peculiar methods followed by the Indians, who sometimes conduct their gold washings in the streams to their own profit. Selecting a part of some river bed that is left without water during the dry season, the Indian paves it with large sloping stones, forming a series of riffles. When the freshets of the rainy season cause the stream to rise and overflow these paved spots, any gold carried down is caught between the stones and is gathered during the following dry season. The annual returns from such farms are almost exactly the same each year, so that the Indian may count with as great accuracy on the yield of gold from his several mining chacras as he would upon the products of his corn or Coca fields. This primitive form of mining is still carried on to a limited extent, and these gold farms are handed down from father to son as regular property. The Indians appear to have an intuitive and very accurate knowledge of the relative richness of the various streams, but their natural reticence makes it extremely difficult to gain this information from them.