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From one particular case—cocaine—we can draw a few epistemological and transhistorical links.

The story of cocaine starts with Erythroxylum coca , the coca plant. See Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 2ff. (Cocaine the alkaloid, the derivative first extracted from coca leaves in 1860, has a different history, which I will bracket for a moment.) Coca is an innocuous-looking plant, growing in small shrubby bushes to a height of four to six feet in wet, humid areas. It flourishes mainly on the eastern slopes of the Andes throughout the region stretching along the western side of South America from Colombia down through Peru to Bolivia and reaching as far east as the first stages of the Amazon Basin (ibid., 3). The historical heart of the coca region is the Peruvian montaña and the Bolivian yungas .

This story begins well before the sixteenth century, when the Spanish invaders of Ancient Peru were impressed by the Incans’ regular use of the coca leaf. Studies have dated this beginning to about 20,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering groups first moved into the central Andes of South America. See Joseph Kennedy, Coca Exotica: The Illustrated Story of Cocaine (Cranbury, NJ–London: Associated University Press/Cornwall Books, 1985), 13-19; Tim Madge, White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 23. Coca could hardly have been overlooked if these groups conducted a rudimentary testing of plants by tasting the leaves, which would have shown coca could numb the sting of a cut lip or reduce toothache pain. Those gatherers also became aware that coca could be chewed to increase physical energy and mental alertness, and to fight hunger and cold; infused to remedy stomach disorders; and employed to ward off parasites. Some of the earliest direct archaeological evidence of coca leaf use dates to 2500-3000 B.C., both to the ceramic lime pots and figurines of coca chewers (with cheeks bulging on one side) linked to the Valdiva culture on the coast of Ecuador and to the Asia I cemetery site on the south-central coast (Peru), where bodies were wrapped with mats that held personal belongings, including snuff trays, tubes, and bags filled with coca and powdered lime. The presence of lime indicates that users knew the leaves would yield their greatest effects when chewed in combination with an alkaline powder, See Kennedy, Coca Exotica , 15; Streatfeild, Cocaine , 4, 11. meaning that experimentation "with the leaf" must have taken place even earlier and that chewing coca was already part of an ongoing social practice.

Joseph Kennedy, writing about coca use in public ceremonial gatherings conducted by shamans in La Florida, the first urban center in Peru, states that “coca was a firmly established part of Peruvian life at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ,” Kennedy, Coca Exotica , 16. when nomadic hunting and gathering had almost completely disappeared. It was here that—together with extensive settlements and agricultural activities—trade networks developed, facilitating the flow of goods and services across the Andes. By this time, coca was high on the list of those items taken from the eastern slopes across the Amazon Basin and toward the Pacific coast. As Rivera Cusicanqui has emphasized and as Taussig remarks in his book on shamanism and colonialism, See Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Las fronteras de la coca: Epistemologías coloniales y circuitos alternativos de la hoja de coca (La Paz: Universidad Mayor de San Andrés/Ediciones Aruwiyiri, 2003); Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago–London: University of Chicago Press, 1987). ancient trade routes constituted mobile transcontinental frontiers, serving as zones of formal and informal exchange of foods, herbs, medicines, magical practices, and other services, successively reactivated in the course of the last millennia. Alternately combated and appropriated by Christian missionaries and trading companies, and intercepted and overridden by colonial and later national borders, they have constituted zones of movement and conflict up to the present. These residually persistent trade routes represent a kind of submerged yet active global contact zone. Informal globalization thus started thousands of years ago.

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Source:  OpenStax, Emerging disciplines: shaping new fields of scholarly inquiry in and beyond the humanities. OpenStax CNX. May 13, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11201/1.1
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