Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- For the American comedian, see Imogene Coca.
Coca (Erythroxylon coca) is a plant which is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes. Since time immemorial, its leaves have been used as a stimulant by the indigenous people of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina; it also has religious and symbolic significance. Since the 1980s, the cultivation of coca has become controversial because it is used for the manufacture of the illegal drug cocaine.
Coca belongs to the natural family Erythroxylaceae . Under the older Cronquist system of classifying flowering plants, this was placed in an order Linales ; more modern systems place it in the order Malpighiales.
The plant resembles a blackthorn bush, and grows to a height of 6 or 8 ft. The branches are straight, and the leaves, which have a lively green tint, are thin, opaque, oval, more or less tapering at the extremities. A marked characteristic of the leaf is an areolated portion bounded by two longitudinal curved lines once on each side of the midrib, and more conspicuous on the under face of the leaf.
The flowers are small, and disposed in little clusters on short stalks; the corolla is composed of five yellowish-white petals, the anthers are heart-shaped, and the pistil consists of three carpels united to form a three-chambered ovary. The flowers are succeeded by red berries.
Good samples of the 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 faint numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent taste. Bad specimens have a camphoraceous smell and a brownish colour, and lack the pungent taste.
The pharmacologically active ingredient of coca is the alkaloid cocaine which is found in the amount of about 0.2% in fresh leaves. Besides cocaine, the coca leaf contains a number of other alkaloids, including Methylecgonine cinnamate, Ecgonine benzoate, Truxilline , Hydroxytropacocaine , Tropacocaine , Ecgonine , Cuscohygrine , Dihydrocuscohygrine , Nicotine and Hygrine .
The seeds are sown in December and January in small plots (almacigas) sheltered from the sun, and the young plants when from 1 1/8 to 2 ft. in height are placed in holes (aspi), or, if the ground is level, in furrows (uachos) in carefully-weeded soil. The plants thrive best in hot, damp situations, such as the clearings of forests; but the leaves most preferred are obtained in drier localities, on the sides of hills. The leaves are gathered from plants varying in age from one and a half to upwards of forty years. They are considered ready for plucking when they break on being bent. The first and most abundant harvest is in March, after the rains; the second is at the end of June, the third in October or November. The green leaves (matu) are spread in thin layers on coarse woollen cloths and dried in the sun; they are then packed in sacks, which, in order to preserve the quality of the leaves, must be kept from damp.
In the Andes, the indigenous peoples have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for millennia. They traditionally carried a woven pouch called a chuspa or huallqui in which they kept a day's supply of coca leaves, along with a small amount of ilucta or uipta, which is made from pulverized unslaked lime or from the ashes of the quinoa plant. A tiny quantity of ilucta is chewed together with the coca leaves; it softens their astringent flavor and activates the alkaloids.
The practice of chewing coca was most likely originally a simple matter of survival. The coca leaf contained many essential nutrients in addition to its more well-known mood-altering alkaloid. It is rich in protein and vitamins, and it grows in regions where other food sources are scarce. The perceived boost in energy and strength provided by the cocaine in coca leaves was also very functional in an area where oxygen is scarce and extensive walking is essential. The coca plant was so central to the worldview of the Yunga and Aymara tribes of South America that distance was often measured in units called "cocada", which signified the number of mouthfuls of coca that one would chew while walking from one point to another. In fact, the word "coca" itself most likely originally simply meant "plant."
Coca was also a vital part of the religious cosmology of the Andean tribes in the pre-Inca period as well as throughout the Inca Empire (Tahuantinsuyu). Coca was historically employed as an offering to the Sun, or to produce smoke at the great sacrifices; and the priests, it was believed, must chew it during the performance of religious ceremonies, otherwise the gods would not be propitiated. Coca is still held in superstitious veneration among the Peruvians, and is believed by the miners of Cerro de Pasco to soften the veins of ore, if masticated (chewed) and thrown upon them. (See also Cocomama.)
The activity of chewing coca is called chacchar or acullicar. Doing so usually causes users to feel a tingling and numbing sensation in their mouths, similar to receiving Novocain during a dental procedure. Even today, chewing coca leaves is a common sight in indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in places like the mountains of Bolivia, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is as much a part of the national culture as wine is to France or beer is to Germany. Bags of coca leaves are sold in local markets. Commercially manufactured coca teas are also available in most stores and supermarkets.
Coca is used industrially in the cosmetics and food industries. The Coca Cola Company buys 115 tons of coca leaf from Peru and 105 tons from Bolivia per year, which it uses as an ingredient in its secret soft-drink formula. The cocaine itself does not end up in the drink nowadays, however. 
- The Coca Museum (A private museum in La Paz, Bolivia)
- Coca, Cocaine and the International Conventions Transnational Institute (TNI)
Based on an article from 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica
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