Latest news from Till Valley Archaeological Society

On September 6, the Till Valley Archaeological Society welcomed Professor Maria Chester to talk on Following The Coca Shrub Throughout The Americas. Maria has visited TillVAS in the past and is an expert on South America.

Wednesday, 20th September 2017, 9:00 am

She explained that domestication of wild plants is fundamental for food, therefore we need knowledge of wild plants, particularly where they can be found.

Coca grows in harsh conditions and can grow well in altitudes up to 2,000m above sea level. There are two species in South America and both are very potent.

Ancient cultures in South America used coca leaves and some of the oldest mummies found have coca remains in their mouths. Many statues have been found with a lump in the cheek indicating chewing coca, including one of a shaman with a container for coca leaves similar to those used today.

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Today, the people of South America chew coca leaves as a mild stimulant and sustenance for working in harsh conditions. They can suppress hunger for up to 48 hours, which aids work production. They are also used in fertility rituals and religious ceremonies.

Europeans were introduced to coca in the late 15th century by the Spanish, but the significance was not fully recognised until the 1970s. Coca leaves are full of vitamins and minerals, but this is largely ignored, although some pharmaceutical studies are beginning.

Coca-cola developed from coca leaves and kola nuts from Africa. It was allegedly first produced by Colonel John Pemberton, who was wounded in the American Civil War and looked for an alternative to morphine, although it appears it was already being sold in Paris as a coca wine. Until 1905 coca leaves were still used in its production.

Cocaine was developed in Germany about 1855 and became the drug of choice in America in the 1980s. This resulted in changing the South American economy due to the dominance of drug cartels.

In the Andes it is normal to use coca leaves in everyday life and the population is healthy. It is Europeans who have used the leaves to make cocaine, resulting in attempts to prohibit the use not only of cocaine, but also coca leaves. Maria said: “Coca is not white, it is not black, it is green.”

This was an illuminating talk, as was apparent from the many questions which followed.

The next meeting is the annual James IV Memorial Lecture at 2.30pm, on Sunday, October 8, at Etal Village Hall, when Jordan Evans from the Royal Household in London will speak on Mary Queen of Scots.

Tickets are £5. Send a cheque payable to TillVAS and an SAE to Maureen Charlton, East Flodden Cottage, Milfield, Wooler, NE71 6JF. Alternatively reserve tickets by email to [email protected] or telephone 01668 216091.