Science, Eugenics, and Indigenismo in Peru: The Coca Debates, 1920–50

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Adam W. V. Warren, University of Washington, Seattle
This paper examines the role of science and eugenics in debates about coca consumption and the racial politics of modernization in Peru between 1920 and 1950. It focuses, in particular, on two scientists who studied coca’s effects on highland indigenous populations, Carlos Enrique Paz Soldán and Carlos Gutiérrez Noriega. Through analysis of these figures’ publications, the paper problematizes how indigenista political and intellectual movements influenced Peruvian race science. As both a eugenicist and a proponent of social medicine, Paz Soldán founded the hygienist Instituto de Medicina Social in Lima and participated in leftist political movements during the 1920s. Through his research, he made eugenicist claims about the deleterious consequences of indigenous coca use while embracing the goals of prominent indigenista intellectuals. He believed coca caused harmful but reversible social and health problems among indigenous people. US-trained Gutiérrez Noriega, on the other hand, used laboratory experiments to make bolder, more pessimistic eugenicist claims about the long-term effects of coca consumption on mental capacity. He experimented in the 1940s on animals, mental patients, prisoners, and others in Lima with large doses of coca and cocaine, measuring responses with the latest psychological tests and medical equipment. He eventually transferred his laboratory to Huancayo to conduct field research on indigenous shepherds, peasants, and mineworkers. Comparing such groups to his largely mestizo subjects in Lima, he proposed that chronic coca consumption produced long-term conditions of mental, physiological, and cultural degeneration among the country’s highland indigenous groups. Such degeneration, he believed, was difficult if not impossible to reverse, hindered the country’s efforts at modernization, and rendered “Indians” permanently unfit for full citizenship. Through comparison of these scientists and their disagreements about the permanence of coca’s “deleterious effects,” this paper documents how eugenicists engaged indigenista concerns and became authorities on indigenous society and questions of modernization.
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