The coca plant, from the family Erythroxylaceae, is more than a simple shrub for the people of the Andes where it grows. For them it is a magical and medicinal plant used to cement friendship, and as an intermediate to communicate with Gods, plus a stress reliever and tonic. The coca leaf has great significance in Peru, where it provides native people with a currency with which to barter, as well as being a main ingredient for everyday life and ceremonies.
The history of the coca plant, and its links with Andean and Peruvian culture, stretch back a good 6500 years prior to the Spanish conquest. Coca leaves were used by magicians and medicine men to help heal the sick and liaise with supernatural forces. Wise healers and respected members of society were privileged to be able to harness the powers the plant possessed, and use them positively to ward off evil and give thanks at harvest time.
Coca leaves became special to royalty, and were burnt during ceremonies to show honour to idols of the people. When the conquest occurred, the Spanish saw the positive way chewing coca leaves gave workers strength and endurance. It helped them to work day after day, with little food, and left them in good spirits. The Spanish then encouraged the practice, as the results of workers labour was profitable for them.
There was a time when the Catholic church condemned the coca plant, but they eventually realised it could bring them monetary gain. For them, wealth followed in the form of a 10% tax on coca. This allowed the growth of coca, and its use to flourish. Chewing coca leaf became an integral part of daily life for the majority of people in and around the Andes. It was, and still is commonplace for individuals to chew coca leaves on and off all day. This kept, and continues to keep stress at bay, and apparently doesn’t produce the mind altering results of cocaine.
There is great speculation about the great medicinal properties contained within coca leaves, although many more studies need to be carried out to provide more information. We do however, already know that coca increases endurance, decreases hunger, relieves stress and has great nutritional properties. The leaves contain various nutrients a human body requires, such as vitamin C, thiamine and calcium. It is also known to help with altitude sickness, otherwise known as hypoxia, and is utilized by mountaineers who climb the Andes. Drinking mate tea, made from coca leaves, can aid digestion and provide relief from anxiety.
Today coca still has many uses, particularly within local culture. Many old traditions still continue into modern life, as fortune tellers and magicians use the leaves in ceremonies to protect themselves and others from supernatural forces, and commune with idols. It is rare that any social ceremony takes place without the presence of coca, and when a couple get married they usually plant a coca field to ensure the continuation of abundance within their family.
The coca leaf in Peru is the equivalent of wealth. It may be used in exchange for goods, chewed with friends, offered as a sacrifice to the heavens or to heal ailments and encourage prosperity to flow. It’s unlikely that any other plant is held in higher regard, or revered any more than the coca plant for its amazing qualities.