History of the Coca Leaf in Peru Cultural Focus

The coca leaf is a plant native to north western South America. It is generally thought that coca originally appeared in the northern Andes, where conditions for it to grow uncultivated were optimal, and that as the benefits of coca were realised it was cultivated throughout the Andean region.  Coca leaves are widely consumed in Peru as coca tea, mate de coca, or by chewing the leaves. Coca is sometimes combined with llipta, a mix of plant ashes and lime, which improves flavour and helps release the alkaloids within the leaf whilst it is being chewed.

The coca leaf suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, physical exhaustion and altitude sickness. The leaf is also nutritious and has a mild stimulant effect. Coca is ingrained not only in day to day Peruvian life but in the social, religious, cultural and economic history of the Andean region dating back thousands of years.

The mythological origins of coca come from the Indians of the high Andes who believe that the sun god asked the goddess of the moon to plant the coca leaf to assuage the poverty and hunger of the hard working people in the region. Since coca leaf has its origin in an area where people were most in need of it this is seen as divine intervention in human affairs by the Andean pantheon.

The earliest concrete evidence of coca leaf use dates from the Norte Chico civilisation. Coca has been found in mummies dating back to this period, around two or three thousand years ago, and evidence of coca use has been found at sites associated with the Norte Chico.

The Incas revered the coca leaf as sacred and reserved the use of it for nobles and certain workers such as the chasquis messengers. Coca also played a strong part in ritualised Incan religious ceremonies such as the worship of the Sun God, sacrifices to the gods and burial rites.

Coca was used for medicinal purposes both in the Incan and pre-Incan ages. The plant has the qualities of a local anesthetic and in the Inca period in particular there is evidence that coca leaves were used to ease the pain of trepanning operations. Coca leaves are still used by modern day Andean women to speed up the process of childbirth and ease labour pains.

In Peruvian culture reverence is given to natural entities such as rivers, hills and mountains. The kintu ritual is one example of how coca leaf is used in line with this spirituality. To make a kintu three perfect coca leaves are selected and stacked on top of one another. The leaves are held out to a mountain or other natural symbol and breath is blown across the leaves. This offering makes a connection with Pachamamma (Mother Earth).

Coca leaves are used to invoke the spirits for protection and good fortune and to give thanks when these blessings have been enjoyed. When a man wishes to marry coca leaves are presented to the father of his intended bride. If the leaves are accepted it is symbolic of the union being approved.

Coca tea is often recommended by Peruvian hoteliers and tour guides because it eases stomach problems and headaches and increases oxygen absorption in the blood. This combats the effects of altitude sickness. Tourists can buy coca products in the Andes but these products cannot usually be taken out of the country due to the fact that the leaf is used in cocaine production. The amount of cocaine ingested in coca tea or by chewing coca leaf is tiny and there is no psychotropic reaction. Despite this pressure exists worldwide to ban the chewing of coca leaves.

This pressure has met with strong resistance by the Andeans who feel that their culture is being oppressed. For them coca is an integral part of social interaction, spirituality, health and work. The future of the coca leaf is uncertain but what is certain is that the Andean people will stand by a tradition which is as much their way of life as it is a cultural heritage dating back to antiquity. In many ways the coca leaf has come to symbolise the preservation of Andean culture itself.