Archive for the ‘Coca’ Category

As the prehistoric period begins to close up everywhere—even in the isolated crannies and corners of the world—millennia of prehistoric drug use have left us with no understanding at all of why people use psychoactive dugs. Human beings eat and drink only those substances which nourish their bodies, drugs excepted. They don’t eat soil or grasses  except under bizarre conditions. A half answer might be that we use drugs because drugs satisfy us just as food does. But this begs the question, why should feelings of reward attach to drugs when those same feelings do not attach to any substance accept those that our bodies need ?

In a reversal of natural sequencing, the answer to ‘why do individuals use drugs?’ became clear  following research into ‘why do some individuals overuse drugs?’

 This research began in the USA in the 1960s, following the influx of what seemed excessive student drug use and multiple drug use on US campuses. At the time, the current explanatory paradigm emphasized the causal relationship between drug seeking behaviour and physical dependence, a physiological state which could be empirically verified. Accordingly, early experiments used as subjects already drug dependent animals; it being both unethical and difficult to use people in this type of investigation.

Laboratory animals quickly learn to self administer most of the drugs commonly used by individuals for non‑ medical, recreational purposes. These included  opoids, barbiturates, alcohol, anesthetic gases, local anesthetics, volatile solvents, and central nervous system stimulants like  phencyclidine, nicotine and caffeine. However, animals avoided using substances ignored by humans. This indicated, at first thought, a causal relationship between physical  dependence and drug‑seeking behaviour.

 But logic and  empirical observation led to further investigation.  It revealed that some drugs which do not produce physical  dependence nevertheless produce drug‑seeking behaviour in  experimental animals.  Moreover, it was realized that, even with drugs that produce physical  dependence, the initial drug‑seeking behaviour could not be  attributed to physical dependence since this takes time to  become established.  The general text book Goodman and  Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (1985) describes  this research thus:


Such observations suggest that pre‑existing psychopathology is not a requisite for initial or even continued drug taking, and that drugs themselves are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence (Gilman et al. 1985:534).

  Although  wild animals do not have comparable access to drugs, there  are numerous examples of them ingesting psychoactive  substances.  There is a close association between reindeer and the psychoactive fly‑agaric mushroom in Siberia (Furst  1972:101).  It is commonly accepted that grazing animals  prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate.  Altogether, there is  increasing evidence that animals seek out psychoactive  experiences.  Researchers from the University of California  claim knowledge of more than 2,000 cases of animals  consuming psychoactive substances, of which 310 were  investigated and their use found to be ‘intentional and  addictive’ (Greenberg 1983:300).


Simultaneous with the above research, a rush of interest began in the newly unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon least fifty chemical compounds named neurotransmitters. The latter controlled and coordinated flows of information between the  neurons within the brain, including data about  emotions, memories and pleasures.

 The main chemical transmitters  include dopamine, acetylcholine, nor epinephrine, serotonin,  gamma‑amino butyric acid, and the recently discovered opoid  peptides. Each possesses a specific molecular and spatial  arrangement which enables it to ‘plug’ into a receptor in a  target neuron, rather like a key into a lock.  The neuron is thus activated, information passes from one neuron to the  next, and the neurotransmitter, its function accomplished, decays.

 This may seem far distant from  packing a cone or sipping gin and tonic.  Here is the connection. Humans and non- human animals are not the only natural phenomena containing neurotransmitters. Some plants contain (almost) identical chemicals.  A unique situation results. The nicotine in  tobacco, for example, fits receptors designed for  the acetylcholine receptor and, once plugged into the receptor, nicotine  activates the same processes that acetylcholine can activate. Similarly, morphine from opium poppies fits receptors  for the body’s endogenous opiates… and so on. 

However, one difference exists  between plant chemicals and the mammal neurotransmitters of  which they are analogues. Plant neurotransmitters are  much more resistant to inactivation by biotransformation  processes. Therefore plant neurotransmitters often become potent neurotoxic  agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).  Thus, the effect of  psychoactive drugs is to potentiate or inhibit  neurotransmitters, or alter their synthesis, storage or  release.  By this means drug use modifies memory, learning,  emotions, mood, and perceptions of self and others (Levine  1978:344). 

That leaves unanswered the question, “why do drugs make us feel good?”


Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods: The ritual use of hallucinogens.London. George Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, M. (1983). Natural highs in natural habitats. Science News, 124, 300-301.

Gilman, A.G., Goodman, L.S., Rall, T.W, & Murad, F. (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapeutics. New York. MacMillan.

Kosterlitz, H.W., and Hughes, J. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fishman (Ed) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the bases of addiction. Abakon. Verlagagesellschaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Drug actions and reactions. Boston. Little Brown and company.

Schuster, C. (197) Drugs as reinforcers in monkey and man. Pharmacological Reviews 27:511-251

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The above example is a prototype which has many permutations. One variant has in-coming Europeans seizing control of an indigenous drug, which until this point has been restricted to a small elite class of the prehistoric or near-prehistoric community. Europeans then proceed to make the drug secular and available to the whole population. Over centuries, elite consumers have been indoctrinated with traditional drug control mechanisms. But the bulk of the population have not.  Many become drawn to the drug and its new availability, and the Europeans–the drug traders–gain wealth, power and control. 


The Incas, the Conquistadors and the Erythroxylum coca bush form a gruesome example of the above: one which put tribute into the pockets of Catholic prelates; transformed 10 000 Spaniards into coca plantation owners or administrators less than two decades after conquest, and left thousands of indigenous people condemned into slavery. The cruel and lethal Potosi silver mines are said to be to the 16th century what Auschwitz was to the 20th century.

 Erythroxylum coca  grows on the eastern slopes of  the Andes, and it is the plant source of the stimulant, cocaine. Nobody knows how long people have used coca. But consumption must have begun prior to 4000 BP, because by this time, people were trading the drug  between local regions of the Andes (MacNeish 1977). A story lies here too, but one unknown to me  at present.


Europeans knew nothing of coca prior to the Conquistadors’ Invasion in 1532, and probably only the Inca upper classes chewed coca at that time. All classes of Inca, however, were consuming the drug soon after the invasion.

 The  coca trade was a lucrative one, and some settler coca plantations made 80,000 pesos yearly. However, it was not the cash return which was significant  about coca. Just as alcohol was useful in recruiting labor in ancient Europe, and Afrikaners used alcohol to procure labor and wealth from African miners, the Spaniards used control over coca to manipulate  Peruvians into working in silver mines like Potosi. The silver extracted was the principal source of Spain’s wealth in the New World (Hemming 1983:368; Gutierrez Noriega 1951:146). One of the earliest Spanish commentators, Father Blas Valera had this to say about coca in 1609:

 The great usefulness and effect of coca for laborers is shown by the fact that the Indians who eat it are stronger and fitter for their work; they are often so satisfied by it that they can work all day without eating…It has another great value, which is…the income of the bishops, canons and other priest of the Cathedral Church of Cuzco [the Inca capital city] is derived from  the tithe on the coca leaf [10%] , and many Spaniards have grown rich, and still do on the traffic in this herb.


 A similar situation could well have occurred when the British invaded Australia. The new arrivals occasionally observed hundreds, perhaps  thousands, of  Aboriginal people waiting at desert waterholes for supplies of a drug ‘pituri’ to  become available. The first known white to try this still mysterious substance wrote that it effects on him were like two stiff brandies. In fact, pituri was a nicotine-rich psychoactive substance  which Aboriginal people produced from a desert bush  Duboisia Hopwoodii. Like coca, only the elite individuals could use pituri; in this case revered senior men.

Europeans occupying Aboriginal land along pituri trade routes began to seize supplies of pituri to manipulate blacks. Missionaries swapped pituri for tribal weapons and paraphernalia. Kidman ‘the Cattle King’  (and Nicoles’ ancestor)  used it to ‘ginger up his black workers’  (Farwell 1975:50). Many other references exist of other pastoralists using the drug this way and some Europeans used it themselves (Bancroft 1877:10),  at least one western Queensland hotel served whiskey stiffened with pituri as a ‘knockout drop’ (Coghlon: pers comm).

Perhaps the most bizarre use of pituri occurred during the 1890s. There was considerable public pressure by white Australians against the Chinese and the importing of opium (McCoy 1980:73).  The Chinese cook at Glenormiston Station in the Mulligan-Georgina area (that is in the pituri producing region) seized the opportunity and shipped supplies of pituri to Melbourne  as a substitute (Coghlon: pers com). Despite all this interest, pituri did not ‘take off’ as coca did in Peru and  British settlers missed a commercial opportunity.


MacNeish 1977
Hemming 1983
Gutierrez Noriega 1951
Farwell 1975
Bancroft 1877
Coghlon: pers comm
McCoy 1980

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 I see the danger coming nearer and nearer, that owing to the enormous influence wielded, directly and indirectly, by those who are concerned in upholding the [drug] traffic, we are approaching a condition of things perilously near the corruption of our political system [authors’ emphasis]. 
                                                                           (Rowntree and Sherwell 1900:107)

Anxiety about drug use feels modern: the message above could be yesterday’s. Filed perhaps by authorities from Bogotá, Bangkok, the Mexican/US border, or other nodal areas of drug trading, it claims that demand for psychoactive substances is so voracious as to rend the social and political fabric. In fact, the speaker is an Englishman, former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. He addresses the British House of Commons about the consequences of high alcohol demand. The year is 1901.

Rosebery’s consternation introduces my topic. Drug use has great antiquity, and not just as a source of pleasure. In the distant past, as now, people used drugs as tools for social bonding, for contact with the Sacred or spiritual for expressing identity, for manipulating others, and as aids in confronting culturally-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drugs occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.

The earliest known and dated association between humans and psycho-active substances goes back more than 50,000 years to the Neanderthal burials at Shanidar Cavein northern Iraq.  Here the deliberate enclosure in a grave of a group of non‑food plants, including the mind-altering Ephedra genus, suggests drug use connected with spiritual beliefs (Furst 1976:4).

According to archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt  from the University of Oxford, it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life, and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens’ that is about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era (Sherratt 1995).  Supporting evidence for this comes from  linguistic, mythological, and philological research.  It indicates Palaeolithic hunters (i.e. Ice Age Homo sapiens) consumed psycho-active substances, most probably hallucinogens, right across the Northern Hemisphere during this period.

In that harsh world, neither gods nor God figured in peoples’ cosmology. Ice Age hunters were simple animists. They believed that all living things contained spirits—the mega-fauna they stalked or trapped, the lichen, mosses and  small game they sometimes acquired when  ice and snow  permitted. To get in touch with, and influence, this alternate world, prehistoric people consumed hallucinogens. Priestly figures—shamans—interpreted the resulting visions.

The successful shaman was part anchorman, part saviour,  part metamorphosed animal. Prehistoric art displays his set piece: antlered or horned head gear, a shepherd’s crook, a neckpiece strung with paws of the giant cave bear or other hunting insignia. Drawing upon drug-induced hallucinations, the shaman became  ‘master of animals’ with  an ability to visit the spirit world, to summon up game, and to plan and ensure triumphant hunts.

The shaman’s oeuvre included other performance events: staging rituals and ceremonies designed to enhance fecundity among both band members and the animals on which the group depended, and actions designed to maintain the stability of the group. The latter involved mediating social discord and curing illness, again through the interpretation of drug-induced visions. Many successful shamans are thought to have become group leaders.

Most of us today would believe that hallucinogens were ineffectual tools for the social, political and economic tasks to which Palaeolithic peoples applied them. But in evaluating the past, it needs to be remembered that ‘the consolations of imaginary realities are not imaginary consolations’. In that period, life was precarious: food was often scarce, and the need to slaughter individual mega-fauna on any one day could become critical in  avoiding starvation.  On the other hand, attacking a woolly mammoth or a half-ton bison with wooden spears tipped with sharpened stone could just as certainly  threaten the group’s existence. The weapons were too frail to kill large animals at first blow, and the struggle to dispatch a wounded, enraged beast might cause enough death and injury so that the hunting bands might again face extinction, this time from the weakening of the small band.


Gradually the climate warmed. The ice retreated. People continued to drift and settle across much of the world, all the while maintaining their interests in psycho-active substances. Did agriculture develop from the need to regularize drug supplies? Nobody knows. But certainly when our ancestors turned to cultivating plants rather than simply picking them wherever they could be found, mind-altering plants were among the earliest they selected for experimentation.

Cannabis sativa was one of the first four crops involved in the origins of Chinese agriculture in the 8th millennium B.P (Ho 1977). The people of Middle America domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) as early as maize, their staple food. Coca, (Erythroxylum coca) the plant source of cocaine, appears archaeologically about 5,000 B.P. inCentral Peruin a horticulturalists’ camp. Opium, a member of the native Mediterranean flora, was a cultivated plant in the early Neolithic in Middle Europe, and by the late Neolithic, archaeological remains in Swiss lake villages indicate a fully domesticated  plant, in the sense that, like cereals, opium had lost its self-seeding mechanism. (Sherratt 1995:28 ).

Unlike each of the above psycho-active substances, alcohol was unsuitable for  hunter-gatherers. The latter’s wandering lifestyles meant that all their needs had to be met by items of low bulk and weight. Not surprisingly then, alcohol was not one of the earliest psychoactive substances people consumed. What is thought to be the first archaeological traces of alcohol coincide with the first permanent homes humans built. These were, in turn, associated with the beginnings of horticulture. This was at Catal  Huyuk inAnatolia, around 9 000 BP (i.e. Before the Present ) according to archaeologist  Mellaart (1967).

Drugs as highly-prized items in trading also shone in the murky past. They are not a phenomena of the last few centuries as people are inclined to think, nor the result of technical developments in transport, nor a product of capitalism. Psychoactive substances were frequently, perhaps almost always, present as valued items when long-distance exchanges first linked together communities with different environments, cultures and histories.  In fact some researchers  suggest that demand for psychoactive substances may have been the initiating factor in the development of inter-regional trade, or, similarly, that because of their wide acceptability, drugs became the ‘gold standard’ without which inter-regional trade might neither have developed nor endured.

Trade in wine was undoubtedly a mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean economy in Greek and Roman times according to archaeologist A. Sherratt. A mark of that era as it is of our own was the regional production of especially desirable vintages. And in researching the same dynamic to the north-west of Europe, archaeologist M. Dietler [ 1990:390 ] claims wine was the primary commodity of trade between the Mediterraneanand the Iron Age peoples of western Europe. Dietler also emphasizes the extreme importance of alcohol as a mechanism for recruiting a labour-force throughout much of prehistory from the Neolithic onwards.

Although people first domesticated tobacco in Middle America, by the time Columbus arrived in the New World there were probably no Indian populations from Canadato the tip of South America who did not either grow tobacco or obtain it by trade (Furst  1976 ).  About 4000 B.P. people were trading coca leaves in association with surplus coca production in the Peruregion. Use of the betel nut mixture probably began in Malaysia, but it spread widely throughout South-East Asia about 2000 years ago, possibly in conjunction with the spread of Hindu and Buddhist missionaries.

When Europeans first made contact with West Africa about 1450, a highly developed economy already existed there. It possessed elaborate trading systems, both local and inter-regional.  A caffeine-based stimulant Kola nut (Kola niida) was the economic basis of this wholly African trade. So strong was kola’s appeal, that at times the trade covered a distance of about 3,500km, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean in the north and down to the Volta Riverin the south. The historian J. Goody (1964) argues that the  regional significance of the African state of Dagoma may be due to its control over kola trading.

Today, it is probable that all societies utilize psychoactive-substances to one degree or another. A survey of the Probability Sample File, a group of 60 files from the Human Research  Area Files chosen so as to meet probability sampling requirements (Lagace 1974), suggests that more than 92 per cent of all societies use mind-altering substances. Even in Muslim communities, which publicly renounce drugs, many individuals consume one or the other of the psychoactive stimulants: tea or coffee, or the stronger kola and qat. The United States, which regards so harshly the importation and use of cannabis, opiates, and cocaine, has tolerated amphetamines in professional baseball since 1970. T. J. Quinn, Sports Writer for The Daily News, in November 2005 described amphetamine use in professional sport as ‘so common it is almost quaint’ with club houses commonly having two pots of coffee on stand-by. One carries the label ‘coaches’ coffee;  the second, laced with amphetamines, is ‘players coffee’.


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