One of my all-time favorite books is Wade Davis’s One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. It is full of harrowing adventures, heroic feats in the name of science and a deep respect for traditional Amerindian botanical knowledge as studied by the legendary Richard Evans Schultes and his protégés Timothy Plowman and Davis himself. What? You haven’t read it yet?
Writing with exemplary eloquence about the importance of Erythroxylum novogranatense to the indigenous groups living in what is now known as Colombia, Wade Davis says: “This was the coca of the thirteenth century Muisca and Quimbaya goldsmiths, the stimulant of the unknown people who carved the monolithic jaguar statues and massive tombs at San Agustín in southern Colombia 1,500 years before Columbus…”
He continues by highlighting the extraordinary cultural significance of this plant: “In the Andes, to use coca is to be Runa Kuna, of the people, and the chewing of the sacred leaves is the purest expression of indigenous life. Take away access to coca, and you destroy the spirit of the people […]
The Inca revered coca above all other plants. For them it was a living manifestation of the divine; its place of cultivation a natural sanctuary approached by all mortals on bended knee.”
Davis’s traveling companion in South America, Timothy Plowman (1944-1989), was an accomplished expert on all things related to the genus Erythroxylum, particularly coca, about which he wrote:
“Coca plays a central role in the daily lives of many different groups of South American Indians, not only as a stimulant and medicine, but also as a unifying cultural and religious symbol.”
Plowman’s research highlights the spiritual value of this plant: “Ritual coca chewing enabled shamans and priests to meditate, to enter trance-like states, or to communicate with the supernatural world, even though coca produces slight mental distortions compared to hallucinogenic plants such as Datura and Banisteriopsis or even tobacco.”
For him, coca bridges the geographical diversity (highland/lowland) of the areas in which it is cultivated and unites different indigenous peoples in its uses: “In both the Andean and Amazonian cultures, reverence for coca is reflected in its widespread use in divination, both for shamanistic healing practices and for predicting the future.”