Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Coca museum history

(5 soles entrance as a student, 10 as an adult)

Since I'm studying a history module on the Latin American Drug Trade next year at university, I decided to check out this coca museum in Cusco. Want to increase your knowledge on the origin of cocaines? Read on! 

Coca is named after the Goddess Kuka, who, in Incan mythology, was a promiscuous being who was eventually cut in half by her many lovers who wanted a piece of her. From her body grew the first coca plant. If you've been to South America, you'll know the locals LOVE coca. They offer it to you for any type of woe you may have, from curing thirst and hunger, to losing weight or experiencing altitude sickness. It is essentially seen as a miracle cure for pretty much everything! It also has medical uses such as assisting arthritis and diabetes given its high-mineral content.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Coca has long been used across South America, dating back to 5000 BC and locals have been using it for centuries. You don´t chew or swallow it, simply put the leaves into the side of your mouth and suck on it. Sometimes they put alkaline ash inside it to enhance the effects. Typically, it stays there for about 40 minutes before it's removed.

The continent has suitable conditions for its growth which is why it's so popular here. It growths at an altitude of around 600-2500m, a humidity of 90%, in nitrogen-rich soil and with high levels of brightness. A single plant can be harvested for 10 years, though with the right care, can live up to 40 years. 

They even use it to predict the future based on the interpretation of the characteristics and location of the leaves. In philosophy Andean coca has been created by mother earth to guide and heal. This is why they use it as payments, shipping, offerings or thanks to Mother Earth (aka Pachamama) for what it fives them, such as life. When starting a new project, they offer it as tribute to ensure smooth progress of their request, a sign of respect between man and nature.

Andean women traditionally cultivated the coca fields and looked after the children. It was hard for them to balance their work and thus women are the symbol of strength in Peru - a nice change from the UK!

Spanish Invasion
Anyway, when Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the region, and the Spanish took over, initially they prohibited coca as locals appeared to think it had some spiritual powers - this undermined the Catholicism they were trying to force upon the population. The Spanish believed that Coca Indians communicated with the devil, when the devil saw the need of hunger and thirst on journeys, he made them resort to coca to sooth their pain.

However, when they became interested in mining Gold and Silver, (particularly in Potosi, Bolivia in 1535) they realized that an Indian chewing it could yield up to 48 hours of gruelling work, thus saw work productivity increase. They then lifted the ban and after silver, coca became the second largest business in the colony.


Coca is the primary ingredient in cocaine, however, in its natural form, there is no evidence it is toxic.  If however, you drink 5 cups of coca tea like Matt has, you may test positive on a cocaine test allegedly! When the Spanish bought it back to Europe, there was huge interest among chemists into the effects of it. In 1859 German Albert Nienmann and his assistant Carl von Scherzer first isolated the active ingredient/ primary alkaloid of the coca plant and called it cocaine. Freud was probably the most famous person to write about cocaine and was the first to suggest the therapeutic use of cocaine as a analgesic and stimulating component. It was not until 1919, however, that cocaine was really sniffed for the first time.

Freddy Mercury wrote this about his cocaine use:

I met her when I was 16.
A common "friend" introduced us.
Did she like me?Yes, she did.Did I like her?No, I didn't like her.I loved her.It was passion, love at first sight.She really drove me crazy.And I didn't know how to live without her.But the world didn't want that love.My parents didn't approve of it, so I had to see her secretly.And when that became impossible, I didn't know what to do.I wanted her I needed herso when I didn't have her, things really got out of control.I wrecked the car, I broke all the doors and windows in my room,I almost killed my sister.Why did I do that?I had a passion for her,I went crazy when I didn't have her.Today I'm 45.I'm a terminally ill patient in a hospital,and I know I'm going to die pretty soon.There's no one around me now:no family, no friends and of course she's not here now.Did I tell you her name?Cocaine.I owe her my love,my life,my destruction and my death. 

Of course, the main use people talk about is in coca-cola. A prototype recipe was formed in 1886 by John Pemberton and was initially sold as a patent medicine to cure the headache using coca leaves, kola nuts seeds and carbonated water. Later, a remedy for thirst. He thought it would cure diseases like dyspepsia, neurasthenia and morphine addiction. He sold his prototype and business for 23,000 USD and it expanded from there. Today, they use coca leaf extract but are the only company in the US licensed to isolate the cocaine alkaloid from the coca leaf, mainly from Peru and Bolivia.

It was also, however, in classic French style, used in the 1860s by France to create wine for example. 

Primarily, its key use, though, in the mid-nineteenth century was certainly medical-related as it was used as an anaesthetic to help with surgery. 

Modern Day
From the Inca time until today, the commercialization of coca has been controlled. Juan Evo Morales, the first native president of Bolivia, was leader of a coca movement with socialist ideas. He defended all products that used the leaf and was proud to heard that the ONU world organisation approved the chewing of coca leaves. The following is from Wikipedia 'During the U.S. War on Drugs, he refused the US$2,500 compensation offered by the government for each acre of coca he eradicated. Deeply embedded in Bolivian culture, the campesinos had an ancestral relationship with coca and did not want to lose their most profitable means of subsistence. For them, it was an issue of national sovereignty, with the U.S. viewed as imperialists; activists regularly proclaimed "Long live coca! Death to the Yankees!"'.

With the US trying to enforce their anti-drug rhetoric onto Bolivia and Peru, tensions certainly have escalated, and today, the debate still rages on - is it an extension of American imperialism, or does coca/ cocaine pose a genuine threat? I'm doubtful of the latter in all honesty. 

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