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"Chapter XV: The Coca Plant: cultivation, chewing, use, qualities"

from "Travels in Peru" (1854)
by Dr. J.J. Von Tschudi, A.S. Barnes & Co. (1854)
(click here for text of entire book).


Montaña of San Carlos de Vitoc -- Villages -- Hacienda of Maraynioc -- the Coca Plant -- Mode of Cultivating and Gathering it -- Mastication of Coca -- Evil Consequences of its excessive Use -- Its Nutritious Qualities -- Indian Superstitions connected with the Coca Plant -- Suggestions for its Introduction in the European Navies -- ...

The Montaña of San Carlos de Vitoc is, without exception, one of the most interesting districts of Peru. It has on the one side, and at a short distance, the populous villages of the Sierra, and on the other it borders on the forests, through which the wild Indians range in their hunting excursions. It was formerly the principal key to the missionary stations of the Pampa del Sacramento, the Chanchamayo, Perenc, and Upper Ucayali. It is only twenty leagues distant from Tarma, from whence the road leads through the fertile valley Acobamba, to Palca. Eastward of the latter place are the ruins of a fort, which in former times must have been a place of considerable importance. The wild Indians have repeatedly made hostile sallies from their forests, and it is only by this bulwark, which, with four small field-pieces, completely defends the narrow valley, that they have been checked in their advance on Tarma. An exceedingly steep path runs about a league and a half up the acclivity; then, becoming somewhat more level, it extends to the base of the crest, which at that part is about 14,000 feet above the level of the sea. Here the aspect of the Andes is by no means so imposing as that of the Cordillera, for the glaciers and steep rocky summits are wanting. The highest peaks rise only about 200 feet above the crest. As in the Cordillera, the eastern declivity inclines much more gently than the western, but the road is marshy, and is interspersed [page 310] with large hollows, into which the mules often fall and are killed. After passing over the Andes, two leagues further, we come to the hacienda Maraynioc, where numerous herds of cattle are kept. Round the hacienda there are potato plantations, and the potatoes reared here are so excellent, that they are celebrated throughout the whole Sierra. Every morning the sky is obscured by heavy clouds; it rains regularly two days in the week, and there are frequent falls of snow; yet notwithstanding this excessive humidity, a bad harvest is an event never to be apprehended. The cultivation of maize is, however, found to be impracticable here, for soon after germination the ears rot. A small stream flows past the hacienda, and after a course of about three leagues, it reaches the Montaña de Vitoc. Formerly, the road ran close along the bank of this stream, but in consequence of the repeated depopulation of Vitoc, it became neglected, and at length impassable. The way is now over the Cuchillo, or sharp edge of a mountain ridge, and it must be at least four times longer than the course formerly taken. From Maraynioc the road proceeds, for the length of a league, through a valley overgrown with brushwood, and then rises to a lateral branch of the Andes, which is almost as high as the main chain. The Indians call this ridge, Manam rimacunan ("Thou shall not speak!"), for a heavy wind, accompanied by drifting snow, blows constantly, and renders it scarcely possible to open the mouth to utter a word. From Manarimacunan, downwards, to the lower Montaña, the road passes over stones laid in echelon form, and through a very slippery hollow way, which descends rapidly downward, and is surrounded by almost impenetrable woods; the only open and level place is the field of Chilpes, which is a few hundred paces long.

Here it is highly interesting to contemplate the rapid increase of vegetation, and the varied changes in the animal world. From the brink of a ridge where only feeble vegetation can be seen, we descend a few leagues and speedily find ourselves in the region of the Cinchona tree, and in the evening we are among lofty palms. The first human dwellings seen on entering the Montaña are half a dozen small huts, forming the hamlet Amaruyo, formerly called Sibis, and immediately after we come to the village of Vitoc. It consists of about fifty wretched huts, and has a [page 311] small church, in which worship is performed twice a year for the inhabitants of the whole valley.

Vitoc is surrounded by two rivers, which unite in a sharp angle, called the Tingo, and which separate the valley from the territory of the wild Indians. The valley is deep, and the surrounding heights are broken by many quebradas. The soil is very fruitful, and the locality is less than some others infested with troublesome insects; yet it is but scantily peopled, for, besides the two villages and the Hacienda of Maraynioc, already mentioned, it contains only a few scattered chacras. The inhabitants of this, the most favored district of the Montañas, scarcely amount to 200. The villagers employ themselves chiefly in the cultivation of pines, which are sent to Lima. The Indians of Palca and Tapo bring them potatoes, salt, and butcher's meat, for which the villagers exchange their pine-apples. The fruit is conveyed by asses to the coast, where, however, it seldom arrives in good condition. The other productions of the Montaña are maize, oranges, bananas, paltas, Spanish pepper, &c.; but these articles are sold only in the Sierra. Each inhabitant of the village cultivates his own piece of ground, which he can enlarge when he pleases; but these people are too indolent to devote themselves seriously to agriculture. It is only when the governor in Tarma compels them to pay the annual contribution, that they make an effort to augment their earnings; they then seek a market for the products of their cultivation, and sell them for ready money. Vitoc and some of the villages in its neighborhood form altogether only one ecclesiastical community, whose pastor lives in Tarma the whole year round. He goes to Pucara only once in six or eight months, to read a couple of masses, and to solemnize marriages and christenings, but chiefly to collect fees for burials which may have taken place during his absence.

The plantation of Pacchapata is of considerable extent, but produces very little. The system of repartimientos, already described, by which the poor Indian is kept in a state of slavery by advances of clothing, meat, brandy, &c., is practised in this hacienda to a great extent. The laborer who is set down in the plantation-book as a debtor for ten or twelve dollars, has a good chance of remaining during the rest of his life a tributary [page 312] slave; for if he tries by prolonged labor to relieve himself from the debt the owner of the plantation causes brandy to be made, and this is too great a temptation to be resisted by an Indian. The butcher's meat given to the laboring Indians in general consists of Chalonas, that is, the dried flesh of sheep which have died in the haciendas of the hilly districts. For a meagre, tough, unwholesome chalona the Indian has to add a dollar and a half or two dollars to his debt, while a living sheep in the Sierra would not cost half the price. It is the same with other articles furnished by the haciendas. European importations, such as can be purchased at very low prices in the Sierra, are sold at high profits by the owners of plantations to the poor Indians, who have to repay them by long and severe labor.

At Pacchapata, besides maize, yuccas, and fruits, sugar, coffee, and coca are also cultivated. The sugar-cane grows in abundance, and is of good quality. An excellent kind of coffee is grown here; the bean is slightly globular, and its color is a greenish blue. In former times the viceroy used to send the coffee of Vitoc as a highly-esteemed present to the court of Madrid. The coca is also very fine, and yields three harvests in the year; which, however, is only the case in a few of the Montañas, as, for example, at Pangoa and Huanta. I may here subjoin some notice of this highly interesting plant.

The coca (Erythroxylon coca, Lam.) is a shrub about six feet in height, with bright green leaves and white blossoms. The latter are succeeded by small scarlet berries. It is raised from the seed, in garden-beds called almazigas. When the young shoots are one and a half or two feet high, they are removed to regularly laid out coca fields (cocales), where they are planted at the distance of about three spans from each other. The coca requires humidity; therefore, during the first year or two after it is planted in the fields, maize is sown between the matas, or young shoots, to screen them from the too great influence of the sun. When the leaves are ripe, that is to say, when on being bent they crack or break off, the gathering commences. The leaves are stripped from the branches, a task usually performed by women, and it requires great care lest the tender leaves and young twigs should be injured. In some districts, the Indians [ page 313] are so very careful in gathering the coca, that, instead of stripping off the leaves, they cut them from the stem by making an incision with their nails. The plant thus rendered leafless is soon again overgrown with verdant foliage. After being gathered, the leaves are spread out on coarse woollen cloths and dried in the sun. The color of the leaves when dried is a pale green. The drying is an operation which likewise demands great care and attention, for if the leaves imbibe damp, they become dark colored, and then they sell for a much lower price than when they are green. The dry coca is finely packed in woollen sacks, and covered with sand. These sacks are of various sizes and colors, in different parts of the Montañas. In Huanuco they are grey or black, and when filled weigh from 75 to 80 pounds. In Vitoc they are grey and white, and contain 150 pounds. In Huanta and Anco they are small in size, and black or brown in color, and contain merely one aroba. In the Montañas of Urubamba, Calca, and Paucartambo, the coca leaves are put into small baskets called cestos, and covered with sand. Great care is also requisite in the carriage of the coca, for if damp be allowed to penetrate the sack, the leaves become hot, or as the natives express it, Se calientan, and are thereby rendered useless.

The Indians masticate the coca. Each individual carries a leathern pouch, called the huallqui, or the chuspa, and a small flask gourd, called the ishcupuru. The pouch contains a supply of coca leaves, and the gourd is filled with pulverised unslaked lime. Usually four times, but never less than three times a day, the Indian suspends his labor, for the purpose of masticating coca. This operation (which is termed chacchar or acullicar) is performed in the following manner: some of the coca leaves, the stalks having been carefully picked off, are masticated until they form a small ball, or as it is called an acullico. A thin slip of damp wood is then thrust into the ishcupuru, or gourd, and when drawn out some portion of the powdered lime adheres to it. The acullico, or ball of masticated coca leaves, is, whilst still lying in the mouth, punctured with this slip of wood, until the lime mixing with it, gives it a proper relish, and the abundant flow of saliva thus excited is partly expectorated and partly swallowed. When the ball ceases to emit juice, it is thrown away, and a new one is [page 314] formed by the mastication of a fresh mouthfull of coca leaves. In Cerro de Pasco, and in places still further south, the Indians use, instead of unslaked lime, a preparation of the pungent ashes of the quinua (Chenopodium Quinua, L.). This preparation is called Llucta or Llipta. In using it a piece is broken off and masticated along with the acullico. In some of the Montaña regions the Llucta is made from the ashes of the musa root. The application of the unslaked lime demands some precaution, for if it comes in direct contact with the lips and gums, it causes a very painful burning. During a fatiguing ride across the level heights, where, owing to the cold wind, I experienced a difficulty of respiration, my Arriero recommended me to chew coca, assuring me that I would experience great relief from so doing. He lent me his huallqui, but owing to my awkward manner of using it, I cauterized my lips so severely that I did not venture on a second experiment.

The flavor of coca is not unpleasant. It is slightly bitter, aromatic, and similar to the worst kind of green tea. When mixed with the ashes of the musa root it is somewhat piquant, and more pleasant to European palates than it is without that addition. The smell of the fresh dried leaves in a mass is almost overpowering; but this smell entirely goes when they are packed in the sacks. All who masticate coca have a very bad breath, pale lips and gums, greenish and stumpy teeth, and an ugly black mark at the angles of the mouth. An inveterate coquero, or coca chewer, is known at the first glance. His unsteady gait, his yellow-colored skin, his dim and sunken eyes encircled by a purple ring, his quivering lips and his general apathy, all bear evidence of the baneful effects of the coca juice when taken in excess. All the mountain Indians are addicted more or less to the practice of masticating coca. Each man consumes, on the average, between an ounce and an ounce and a half per day, and on festival days about double that quantity. The owners of mines and plantations allow their laborers to suspend their work three times a day for the chacchar, which usually occupies upwards of a quarter of an hour; and after that they smoke a paper cigar, which they allege crowns the zest of the coca mastication. He who indulges for a time in the use of coca finds it difficult, indeed [page 315] almost impossible, to relinquish it. This fact I saw exemplified in the cases of several persons of high respectability in Lima, who are in the habit of retiring daily to a private apartment for the purpose of masticating coca. They could not do this openly, because among the refined class of Peruvians the chacchar is looked upon as a low and vulgar practice, befitting only to the laboring Indians. Yet, Europeans occasionally allow themselves to fall into this habit; and I knew two in Lima, the one an Italian and the other a Biscayan, who were confirmed coqueros in the strictest sense of the word. In Cerro de Pasco there are societies having even Englishmen for their members, which meet on certain evenings for the chacchar. In these places, instead of lime or ashes, sugar is served along with the coca leaves. A member of one of these clubs informed me that on the few first trials the sugar was found very agreeable, but that afterwards the palate required some more pungent ingredient.

The operation of the coca is similar to that of narcotics administered in small doses. Its effects may be compared to those produced by the thorn-apple rather than to those arising from opium. I have already noticed the consequences resulting from drinking the decoction of the datura.[98] In the inveterate coquero similar symptoms are observable, but in a mitigated degree. I may mention one circumstance attending the use of coca, which appears hitherto to have escaped notice: it is, that after the mastication of a great quantity of coca the eye seems unable to bear light, and there is a marked distension of the pupil. I have also observed this peculiarity of the eye in one who had drunk a strong extract of the infusion of coca leaves. In the effects consequent on the use of opium and coca there is this distinction, that coca, when taken even in the utmost excess, never causes a total alienation of the mental powers or induces sleep; but, like opium, it excites the sensibility of the brain, and the repeated excitement, occasioned by its intemperate use after a series of years, wears out mental vigor and activity.

It is a well known fact, confirmed by long observation and experience, that the Indians who regularly masticate coca require [page 316]but little food, and, nevertheless, go through excessive labor with apparent ease. They, therefore, ascribe the most extraordinary qualities to the coca, and even believe that it might be made entirely a substitute for food. Setting aside all extravagant and visionary notions on the subject, I am clearly of opinion that the moderate use of coca is not merely innoxious, but that it may even be very conducive to health. In support of this conclusion, I may refer to the numerous examples of longevity among Indians who, almost from the age of boyhood, have been in the habit of masticating coca three times a day, and who in the course of their lives have consumed no less than two thousand seven hundred pounds, yet, nevertheless, enjoy perfect health.[99] The food of the Indians consists almost exclusively of vegetable substances, especially roasted maize and barley converted into flour by crushing, which they eat without the admixture of any other substance. The continued use of this farinaceous food occasions severe obstructions, which the well known aperient qualities of the coca counteract, and many serious diseases are thereby prevented. That the coca is in the highest degree nutritious, is a fact beyond dispute. The incredible fatigues endured by the Peruvian infantry, with very spare diet, but with the regular use of coca; the laborious toil of the Indian miner, kept up, under similar circumstances, throughout a long series of years; certainly afford sufficient ground for attributing to the coca leaves, not a quality of mere temporary stimulus, but a powerful nutritive principle. Of the great power of the Indians in enduring fatigue with no other sustenance than coca, I may here mention an example. A Cholo of Huari, named Hatun Huamang, was employed by me in very laborious digging. During the whole time he was in my service, viz., five days and nights, he never tasted any food, and took only two hours' sleep nightly. But at intervals of two and a half or three hours, he regularly masticated about half an ounce of coca leaves, and he kept an acullico [page 317] continually in his mouth. I was constantly beside him, and therefore I had the opportunity of closely observing him. The work for which I engaged him being finished, he accompanied me on a two days' journey of twenty-three leagues across the level heights. Though on foot, he kept up with the pace of my mule, and halted only for the chacchar. On leaving me, he declared that he would willingly engage himself again for the same amount of work, and that he would go through it without food if I would but allow him a sufficient supply of coca. The village priest assured me that this man was sixty-two years of age, and that he had never known him to be ill in his life.

The Indians maintain that coca is the best preventive of that difficulty of respiration felt in the rapid ascents of the Cordillera and the Puna. Of this fact I was fully convinced by my own personal experience. I speak here, not of the mastication of the leaves, but of their decoction taken as a beverage. When I was in the Puna, at the height of 14,000 feet above the level of the sea, I drank, always before going out to hunt, a strong infusion of coca leaves. I could then during the whole day climb the heights and follow the swift-footed wild animals without experiencing any greater difficulty of breathing than I should have felt in similar rapid movement on the coast. Moreover, I did not suffer from the symptoms of cerebral excitement or uneasiness which other travellers have observed. The reason perhaps is, that I only drank this decoction in the cold Puna, where the nervous system is far less susceptible than in the climate of the forests. However, I always felt a sense of great satiety after taking the coca infusion, and I did not feel a desire for my next meal until after the time at which I usually took it.

By the Peruvian Indians the coca plant is regarded as something sacred and mysterious, and it sustained an important part in the religion of the Incas. In all ceremonies, whether religious or warlike, it was introduced, for producing smoke at the great offerings, or as the sacrifice itself. During divine worship the priests chewed coca leaves, and unless they were supplied with them, it was believed that the favor of the gods could not be propitiated. It was also deemed necessary that the supplicator for divine grace should approach the priests with an Acullico in his [page 318] mouth. It was believed that any business undertaken without the benediction of coca leaves could not prosper; and to the shrub itself worship was rendered. During an interval of more than 300 years Christianity has not been able to subdue the deep-rooted idolatry; for everywhere we find traces of belief in the mysterious power of this plant. The excavators in the mines of Cerro de Pasco throw masticated coca on hard veins of metal, in the belief that it softens the ore, and renders it more easy to work. The origin of this custom is easily explained, when it is recollected, that in the time of the Incas it was believed that the Coyas, or the deities of metals, rendered the mountains impenetrable, if they were not propitiated by the odor of coca. The Indians, even at the present time, put coca leaves into the mouths of dead persons, to secure to them a favorable reception on their entrance into another world, and when a Peruvian Indian on a journey falls in with a mummy, he, with timid reverence, presents to it some coca leaves as his pious offering.

Soon after the conquest of Peru, when the Spaniards treated the Indians and all their customs with contempt, coca became an object of aversion to the whites. The reverence rendered by the natives to the coca plant induced the Spaniards to believe that it possessed some demoniacal influence. The officers of the government and the clergy, therefore, endeavored, by all possible means, to extirpate its use, and this is one cause, hitherto overlooked, of the hatred with which the Indians regarded the Spaniards. In the second council held at Lima, in 1567, coca was described "as a worthless object, fitted for the misuse and superstition of the Indians"; and a royal decree of October 18, 1569, expressly declares that the notions entertained by the natives that coca gives them strength, is an "illusion of the devil" (una elusion del Demonio). The Peruvian mine owners were the first to discover the importance of the chacchar in assisting the Indians to go through their excessive labor, and they, together with the plantation owners, became the most earnest defenders of coca. The consequence was, that, in defiance of royal and ecclesiastical ordinances, its use increased rather than diminished. One of the warmest advocates of the plant was the Jesuit Don Antonio Julian, who, in a work entitled, "Perla de America", laments [page 319] that coca is not introduced into Europe instead of tea and coffee. "It is," he observes, "melancholy to reflect that the poor of Europe cannot obtain this preservative against hunger and thirst; that our working people are not supported by this strengthening plant in their long-continued labors."[100]

In the year 1793, Dr. Don Pedro Nolasco Crespo pointed out in a treatise the important advantages that would be derived from the use of the coca plant, if introduced into the European navies, and he expresses a wish that experiments of its utility in that way could be tried. Though it is not probable that Dr. Crespo's wish will ever be realized, yet there is little doubt that the use of coca as a beverage on board ship would be attended with very beneficial results. It would afford a nutritious refreshment to seamen in the exercise of their laborious duties, and would greatly assist in counteracting the unwholesome effects of salt provisions. As a stimulant it would be far less injurious than ardent spirits, for which it might be substituted without fear of any of the evil consequences experienced by the coqueros. After a long and attentive observation of the effects of coca, I am fully convinced that its use, in moderation, is no way detrimental to health; and that without it the Peruvian Indian, with his spare diet, would be incapable of going through the labor which he now performs. The coca plant must be considered as a great blessing to Peru. It is an essential means of preserving the nationality of the Indians, and in some measure mitigating the melancholy fate of that once great race which disease and excessive labor now threaten to destroy.

In former times the cultivation of coca in the Montaña de Vitoc was very considerable. Upwards of 4,000 arobas used to be annually forwarded to the market of Tarma. Now only fifty arobas are sent. Vitoc produces no fodder for horses or mules; those animals, therefore, are very lean and feeble in this district, and are usually unfit for work after two years. [page 320] Indeed, they suffer so much from the attacks of the blood-sucking bat and the gad-fly (tabano), that after being only a few weeks in the Montaña de Vitoc, their strength is exhausted, and they are scarcely able to reach the Puna. Black cattle, on the contrary, thrive excellently; but it is not possible to keep up herds, for the young calves are all devoured by the numerous animals of prey. The llamas, which the Cholos bring from Tapo to Vitoc, are so enfeebled and overcome by the journey, that on the second day after their arrival it is often found necessary to send them to a colder district.

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