Friday, August 03, 2007


The name coca (Erythroxylum coca) comes from an Aymara word meaning simply "tree." In Andean cultures, the leaves of the coca tree have been primarily chewed to obtain the benefits. From ancient times, indigenous people have added an alkaline such as crushed seashells or burnt plant ashes to the leaves in order to activate the pharmacologically part of coca. Literally dozens of different plant species have been utilized by different groups; the coqueros (coca users) were wise not only in how to use the plants, but in how to combine them in order to facilitate the release of active principles.
Coca is used as a folk medicine for ailments as diverse as toothache and altitude sickness. Coca has been and continues to be of importance not only for social and medicinal purposes, but the coca leaves themselves also show significant amounts of nutrients, including more iron and calcium than many of the food crops grown in the Andes. There is the belief among some Peruvian scientists that the low incidence of osteoporosis among Andean Indians is due in part to the high level of calcium in the leaves.
Scientists in Europe took little interest in coca until 1859, when an Italian neurologist, Paolo Mantegazza, wrote about the hygienic and medicinal virtues of the leaves. In 1860, a year later, a German chemist isolated the chemical responsible for the plant's power, cocaine. Carl Koler found cocaine could act as a local anesthetic in eye surgery. As the years passed, scientists found cocaine paralyzed nerve endings responsible for transmitting pain. As a local anesthetic, it revolutionized several surgical and dental procedures.
In the 1860's, a variety of ailments began to be treated with products derived from both coca and cocaine. A number of coca tonics became available, including a red Bordeaux wine combined with an extract of select coca leaves, called Vin Tonique Mariani. Manufactured in Paris, this elixir became the most popular prescription remedy in the world and was used by many celebrities, perhaps the most noted being Pope Leo XIII, who awarded the wine a Vatican gold medal and carried it around in a hip flask.
Cocaine, coca's derivative, has found many uses in developed countries, some positive and some quite detrimental. Today in medicine, coca has given us the chemical blueprint for a number of man-made substances that have local anesthetic properties of cocaine without the side effects. But in politics world-wide coca has become controversial due to the illegal use of its cocaine derivative. Many would like to see coca eliminated completely. Andrew Weil, an ethnobotanist and medical doctor, wrote, "Washington wants to eradicate coca. But Andean Indians contend that is a mistake to demonize the plant they hold sacred, and a surprising new coalition of scientists and politicians agrees."

Retrived from:
MEDICINES THAT CHANGED THE WORLDSteven R. King, Ph.D., Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc., South S.F., CAAdapted from Pacific Discovery, Vol.45, No. 1, pp.23-31, Winter, 1992.

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