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Origin of the Cocoa Leaf

Updated on December 30, 2014

The Cocoa Leaf


Introduction to the Cocoa Leaf

Cocaine’s pattern of use among the indigenous Peruvians or Andean population originated from the development and use of the coca leaf located in the region “where the Amazon basin meets the foothills of the Andes” (Gootenburg 2008, p. 16). Peru is known for producing half of the world’s coca plant located in Tingo Maria on the eastern region of the Andes Mountains (Drugs, 1990). The Peruvians and the white Europeans both participated in the use and development of cocaine; however, the stimulant was embedded in the Andean culture whereas the Europeans discovered the concoction centuries later in marketable goods and for aesthetical and surgical reasons. Eventually, catalyzing the global cocaine market as world commodity.

Peruvians Use of the Cocoa Leaf

First and foremost, the coca leaf serves as the precursor to the development of cocaine. Historically, coca became prominent among the Andean population for medicinal, cultural and work-related purposes. The coca leaf was known as a stimulant that contained vitamins, aided in digestion, eased the adaptation to high altitudes, processed glucose at a quicker rate, and known to suppress hunger and stress during work-related activities (Gootenburg 2008). This multi-purpose leaf became a sacred and coveted good within the Andean community and was a prominent aspect of their indigenous identity. By 1860, the development of cocaine was derived from one of the coca leaf’s fourteen alkaloids. The potent stimulant was used in a variety of ways such as smoked, injected and snorted, known to cause an elevated level of energy in the human body, constricting and quickening the cardiovascular system (Gootenburg 2008).

Europeans Use of the Cocoa Leaf

In contrast, the early use of coca in the sixteenth century was predominantly rejected among the European colonists and medical professionals. This leaf was not culturally, socially or politically accepted within the European society due to its affiliations with “defeated Andean gods” and its mysterious energizing abilities were deemed as “devilish witchcraft” (Gootenburg 2008, p. 19). Since the success of the coca plant was geographically restricted to the Peruvian region, the Europeans remained skeptical of its stimulant nature, producing a prolonged delay of globalization in the European region. By the 1800’s, the growth and expansion of the botany field and scientific curiosities encouraged merchants, scientists, and chemists to travel to the Andean region, seeking the status of the unknown plant.



Transformation from Cocoa Leaf to Cocaine

Among the numerous research attempts for exploiting the coca plant, a German, Albert Neiman, was coined for developing alkaloidal cocaine from a leaf of the coca plant (Gootenburg, 2008). After this monumental development, further experiments and research was conducted eventually concluding that cocaine was acceptable in the medical field as an anesthetic for “nose, throat, dental, any eye operations” (Gootenburg 2008, p. 29). The scientific curiosities of doctors, chemists, herbalists, and pharmacologists, sparked European, Peruvian, and American interest and competition, contributing to the accelerated use of coca and processed cocaine in market goods and for medicinal purposes. As the Europeans were discovering cocaine’s ability to assist in medical procedures and with it some negative side effects, a Peruvian pharmacist named Alfredo Bignon contributed to the technological science behind Peruvian coca and cocaine, catalyzing the world market for cocaine trade and consumption as a global commodity (Gootenburg, 2008). Between the 1840’s and 1860’s when interest in cocoa spread across the globe, Bignon participated in a national movement centered around the cultural, historical, and medicinal aspects of coca and cocaine in an attempt to further research on its homegrown resource (Gootenburg, 2008). Coca fascination and mania throughout the world contributed to the Peruvian research developments and assisted in cocaine’s use as global commodity.

During this time frame, Sigmund Freud published essays and research on cocaine’s medicinal properties. Thus, Americans began using cocaine for treating a myriad of things, from labor pains to hay fever to toothaches as well as treating wasting diseases, and prominently used as a local anesthetic during surgeries (Gootenburg, 2008). From 1880-1890s, cocaine aspired to be a medical solution for multiple ailments across the globe, serving as pain medicine, health elixirs known as Coca-Cola, treating neurological problems, and cure for opiate addiction, leading to eventual high demand for processed cocaine into the early 1900s (Gootenburg, 2008).

Once societies learned of coca and cocaine’s stimulant properties, the leaf and the drug were introduced into the global market place as Coca tonics, elixirs, coca tobacco and was embraced as the feel-good drug and cure all for “pain, aches, or imaginary ills” as well as pain blockers for medical surgeries (Gootenburg, 2008, p. 27).


The pattern of use of cocaine among the indigenous Peruvians was embedded into the cultural aspect of their everyday life and represented a coveted part of their national identity. Cocaine’s pattern of use among the Europeans was not welcomed immediately into their society for social, political, and cultural reasons. Once scientists conducted research on coca and cocaine centuries later, the Europeans as well as Americans used the products for marketable goods such as wine and elixirs as well as for medicinal purposes. Cocaine was then accepted as a legitimate drug in Europe and North America for its surgical and non-surgical health reasons as a modernized drug and cure all for numerous health ailments.


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