In today’s modern society, the copaiba plant is most commonly known for biodiesel and essential oil. However, copaiba is a natural resource that has been accessible to humans throughout time, and people have utilised it in a number of ways. Copal resins which come from the copaiba plant have been highly valued by cultures in Mesoamerica and South America for centuries. After Europeans came to the Americas, copal resins became important in European and American society as well. From medicine and incense to lacquer and varnish, the history of copaiba and copal resins will blow your mind!
What is Copaiba?
Copaiba is a type of copal resin that occurs in certain types of trees that grow in South America. These trees, scientifically known as the Copaifera genus, are a type of legume plant that grows in tropical regions of the world such as South America and Africa (2). Copaifera trees are perennial trees that normally grow to heights of 2-6 metres and will bloom flowers that produce fruit during the spring and summer months (3). Copaifera trees originate from the different areas in Africa as well as the northern region of South America. Copaifera trees are most commonly found in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. The most commonly-used type of copaifera is C. officinalis from South America, but there are 47 different species of copaifera (2). Twenty-eight of these species are native to the American continent, but the copaifera tree can be found throughout the world in countries such as Sierra Leone, India, Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean (2).
One of the things that distinguishes the copaifera tree from other trees is that its unique makeup allows it to store a massive amount of resin. The canals and cavities of the copaifera tree have the ability to expand to the point that one tree can contain gallons of resin (3). The resin from the copaifera tree, copaiba, is extracted from the trunk of the tree. Copaiba resin is one of the main ingredients in modern biodiesel and when this resin is steam distilled, it is transformed into copaiba oil (2). Chemically, copaiba is composed of sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, b-caryophyllene, a-bergamotene, a-copaene and b-bisabolene (1). Not only does this chemical composition make copaiba extremely useful to diesel engines, it’s also attractive as an essential oil with its aromatic scent (1).
Copaiba Across Time
When the Europeans first came to the American continent, the Native tribes were already well aware of copal resins, such as copaiba, and their benefits. As copaiba was not specifically mentioned until after the arrival of the Europeans, the date of when copaiba was originally discovered is unknown. However, copal is specifically mentioned in the creation stories of the Maya, indicating that copal resins such as copaiba had been discovered by people in ancient Latin America long before the arrival of the European colonists. Archaeologists do not have any concise dates for these creation stories, as all of the original stories written down by the Maya were destroyed by the Spanish in their conquest. However, the earliest known depiction of the Maya creation story dates back to 300 BCE (10), which could indicate that copal resins such as copaiba were discovered over 2,500 years ago! Copaiba was first mentioned in 1534 in a report that was sent to Pope Leo X, but the copaifera tree was not mentioned until 1648 (3). By 1677, copaiba was listed in the London Pharmacopoeia, an official publication containing a list of medicinal drugs with their effects and directions for their use. This indicates that it had been brought to Europe by this time (3).
The name copaiba is derived from the Tupi Indian word cupa-yba which roughly translates to deposit tree (3). This term refers to both the copaifera tree and the copaiba resin that is stored inside the tree. More commonly, copaiba is often referred to as copal oil. Similar to copaiba, the word copal originates from the languages of Native tribes in Latin America. However, copal comes from the Nahuatl word copalli which translates to incense (2).
Copaiba Medicinal Uses
In the Amazon, local tribes would ingest copaiba to treat respiratory issues, urinary tract infections, skin diseases and a plethora of other illnesses. The Native people would also use copaiba for external issues such as healing wounds and treating skin ailments (5). Along with this, records stated that copaiba possessed anti-inflammatory properties(3). One particular report by Spanish missionary described how he witnessed copaiba resin's ability to help seal grievous wounds, though he stated that copaiba could be used to treat anything except bullet wounds (6).
Due to there being no written records of copaiba before the arrival of the Europeans, it is possible that copaiba and copaiba oil could have been used for a number of other functions as well. Records of how copal resin was used by other societies in ancient South America and Mesoamerica may help shed some light on this.
Along with the uses associated with copaiba, copal resin is reported to have been used for muscular pain relief when distilled into oil (9). Mesoamerican and South American cultures would also burn copal resin and use the smoke as a treatment for headaches, congestion or other problems that could arise from prolonged exposure to the cold (9). Some Mesoamerican cultures would brew copal resins such as copaiba into tea that would be used to treat bronchitis, coughs and rheumatism (9).
Among European and American pharmacies in the 19th and 20th centuries, copaiba was used to treat skin ailments such as chronic gonorrhea, eczema, herpes and psoriasis. Along with that, copaiba oil was marketed to treat asthma, sore throat, bronchitis, ulcers and genito-urinary tract conditions (3). Pharmacies around this time also marketed copaiba oil for miscellaneous purposes such as an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive, not to mention a diuretic, laxative, purgative and even a snake bite remedy (3)! Although it is uncertain that copaiba oil successfully cured all of these ailments, this essential oil was well known among pharmacists and thought to have an ability to help relieve pain, rheumatism and respiratory issues, and have an ability to rejuvenate and improve skin health (5).
Along with medicine, Europeans and Americans would add copaiba oil to cosmetics. Copaiba oil would often be added to soap, shampoo and perfume to scent these cosmetic appliances (3). Not only would the copaiba oil make these cosmetics smell better, it would also have a number of benefits to the skin and hair (2). As a result, cosmetics with copaiba oil in them were a highly-valued commodity, and often could only be afforded by the elite of the Western World (5).
The Aztecs would also use copal for their necklaces, both as pendants and as adhesive to ensure that their necklaces would not fall apart (4). Similarly, the Aztecs would also use copal resin to glue precious stones and other adornments to their ornamental masks (7). They would even use copal resin to decorate their teeth by using its adhesive properties to glue precious stones to their teeth! Because copal resins were so highly valued in Mesoamerica, only the most elite members of these societies had access to them (4). As such, incorporating copal resins such as copaiba into their beauty products was a way for them to visibly display their wealth and status.
Similar to copaiba for medicinal uses, it is difficult to say how early copaiba was used for personal care. This is because of the lack of records until the arrival of the Europeans. However, there are records of how copal resins were used as beauty products in South America and Mesoamerica. According to Spanish reports, the Aztecs would use copal resin in makeup (4). Archaeologists speculate that the Aztecs made use of the adhesive properties in copal resin to help bind the materials that they used for their makeup in order to make sure that the pigment would stay on when applied (4).
Copaiba in Trade
Copal resins such as copaiba were highly valuable trade commodities. Due to the value placed on copal, a large part of ancient Mesoamerican economies consisted of copal trade. Cities and regions cultivated encouraged the cultivation of copal groves and those that had native copal trees in their area were at a huge economic advantage (4). Copal resin would be traded for food, jewellery, precious stones and other valuable materials such as quetzal feathers (4). After European colonists came to the Americas, copal resins were incorporated into the European economy to contribute to the pharmaceutical and carpenter industries (5).
Cultural and Religious Copaiba
In addition to being important for treating physical ailments, copaiba also had significant cultural value to several societies. In many South American tribes, copaiba was revered by the people for both its physical and spiritual benefits, and there was an entire system of spiritual-based rules that men were expected to follow when harvesting copaiba (3). In order to have a successful copaiba harvest, it was believed that a man had to make himself worthy of the copaiba by keeping himself pure before harvest. This meant that a man had to stop having sexual relations with his wife a few days before he sought out the copaiba, and keep himself pure until the harvest was over (3). The one harvesting the copaiba was supposed to harvest during a full moon, and was told to drill into the side of the tree that is facing the sunrise (3). This indicates that the cultural significance of copaiba is also linked to the astronomical beliefs of the South American tribes. However, no one outside of these tribes knows for certain what type of relationship that was: do the sun and moon give power to the copaiba as it is being harvested? Or did they give power to the harvester as he drilled for the copaiba? In Panama, copaiba also had cultural significance and was considered to be a powerful element. The Yaviza people often mixed copaiba with honey and gave it to their newborn children. This was meant to impart essential knowledge to the child and to ward off hexes that could harm them (2).
Among the Maya, copal resin was used for a number of different ritualistic purposes. Most commonly, the Mayans would burn copal resin as incense for spiritual cleansing (6). The Mayans and Aztecs would also offer copal to their gods as an object of high value (6). Archaeologists have found many pieces of copal left in temples and figurines with copal at their centres (7). The Mayans revered copal resin so much that they would even cover the base of their ceremonial daggers in it (4).
Copal resins were also valuable to Mesoamerican and South American cultures because they believed these types of resins were extremely powerful and could grant different abilities. Copal resins would also be used in ceremonies meant to help cleanse the body of impurities and in ceremonies meant to help guide people to their purpose in life (4). Along with these physical and spiritual beliefs, a number of Mesoamerican cultures believed that copal resins could grant someone the gift of foresight, and they would try to see the future by looking through copal oil or objects made of solidified copal resin (9). Other times, they would burn copal resin and inhale the smoke to induce visions of the future. Some tribes would even use smoke from copal resin to help them diagnose illnesses (9). According to historical records, the medicine men of some tribes would read copal smoke to understand what ailed their patients (9).
Religiously, it is said that copal resins were used to connect Mesoamerican cultures to deities associated with maize (4). Because maize was the main source of food for ancient Mesoamerican societies, it was extremely important to them on both a practical and spiritual level. By association, copal resin was highly revered as well (4). The association between the sun, moon and copal resins is hinted to in South American religious records, and is reflected in Mesoamerican beliefs as well. The Mayan Popol Vuh says that the sun, moon and stars brought copal to the earth when they came into existence, and it’s possible that the cultural association with astronomy may have been a wide-spread belief in ancient Latin America (4). Spiritually, many Mesoamerican cultures believed that copal resin had powerful protective properties and could be used to guard oneself against sorcery, illness or misfortune. In addition, the Maya believed that copal resin could be used to treat fear, sadness, envy and grief (9).
Interestingly, the practice of using copal resins such as copaiba in religious ceremonies did not disappear under the Spanish. Instead, copal resins have been incorporated into religious practices in Latin America (9). In Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Venezuela and many other countries, copal is used in the incense burners of Catholic churches year-round (7). Priests use copal incense from resins such as copaiba to bless parishioners and to absolve them of their sins (7). The fact that copal-based practices were able to survive such as huge ideological shift reflects just how important copal resins such as copaiba are to cultures in Mesoamerica and South America (3).
Other Uses for Copaiba and Copal Resins
Along with being used for medicinal and cultural purposes, the Native tribes in South America would also use copaiba and copal trees for practical purposes. In particular, the Amazonian tribes would often use copaiba oil as an insect repellent. Because copaiba oil is safe for the skin, the Native people would rub it on their skin and dab it on their clothes and other items that they wanted to protect from the bugs. It was also used to fix broken furniture, pottery or baskets (8). When fixing broken furniture, they would use the resin's adhesive properties to glue the broken pieces back together, but when fixing broken pottery or baskets the resin was used as a sealant to patch up any cracks or broken areas (8). Along with these uses, some records state that certain tribes would make sandals out of the bark of copal-bearing trees such as the Copaifera tree. According to these accounts, these copal-sandals were particularly mud-resistant and were extremely useful to travellers or runners (9).
In Mesoamerica, copal resins were often used to make paint because the sticky resin could often act as a binding element that would hold pigment together. Corresponding to this, 19th century Europeans used copaiba for its adhesive elements as well. They would use copaiba oil to help them make tracing paper, lacquer, varnishes and paints (5). Some artists would even add copaiba oil to their paints in order to make them darker and help bind the pigment elements (5). Europeans found copaiba oil particularly useful for varnish to bring out the natural look of wood (5). By the late 19th century, copaiba oil played a significant role in Europe's wood industry (5).
Copaiba’s Uses at Young Living
Copaiba oil has a uniquely sweet aromatic profile, which helps create a relaxing atmosphere when it is diffused or applied topically. Copaiba is a great addition to your daily routine and skin care, and if you add it to a neutral moisturiser you can use its fragrance and moisturising properties. It can also be applied following activity for a comforting cooldown. Find your own bottle of this ancient natural remedy today!Shop Copaiba Oil
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