Erythroxylum Coca and Its Discontents: A Neurohistorical Case Study of Cocaine, Pleasure, and Empires


Physiological processes such as pleasure offer empires a way to establish power and maintain social hierarchy. In South America, the plant Erythroxylum coca—a natural source of cocaine—offers one way to trace the interaction between a physiological agent in history and the growth of empires. Chewing coca was regulated by the Incas. The Spaniards initially forbid it until they recognized the usefulness of the plant for increasing productivity in high mountain regions, after which it became highly commodified. Later, in processed form, its use spread to Europe, where a changing society pursued its hunt for pleasure in new ways.