Coca: Much More Than a Simple Plant

Royal official, Juan de Matienzo, once recommended to King Philip II of Spain that "to do away with coca is like denying the existence of Peru." The coca leaf has been entrenched in every part of Peruvian culture for as long as people have lived in this region of the world. It is a part of religious and spiritual ceremonies, business transaction and family celebration.

The earliest coca leaves were discovered in the Huaca Prieta settlement, which has been dated back to 2500 BC. Traces of coca have been found in Peruvian mummies tracing back 3,000 years, and other evidence traces the practice of chewing coca with lime to at least 5,000 years BC, around the same time as people first arrived in the Andes after the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers.

An Aymaran legend tells how Khono, the god of snow and storm, burned the land of all vegetation in a fit of anger. The only plant left was the coca plant. The hungry Aymaran people ate it, and discovered that coca leaves also helped them to endure the cold.

The Incas knew the coca leaf as the divine plant, a gift of the sun god Inti and the moon mother Moma Quilla. Another Inca legend tells that Manco Capac, the demigod founder of agriculture and the Incan empire, brought the coca plant to the Incans as a reward for their hard labor in the fields. During the rule of the Topa Inca Yupanqui, the coca leaf was considered so sacred that it could only be cultivated by the highest and most favored classes.

In Peruvian folklore, Kuka Mama ("mother coca") was a goddess of health and joy, whose severed body grew into the first coca plant.

After the Spanish conquest, many traditional uses of the coca leaf where replaced with more utilitarian uses, specifically the plants' seemingly ability to take away fatigue and ease hard labor. This change may have originally been encouraged by Spanish missionaries. Much later, a 1940 decree declared coca a basic article, an everyday necessity, and it was required that coca be available and sold in all Peru's mining and railroad towns.

However, the spiritual significance of the coca leaf remains. Coca leaves are still used to give thanks for blessings or to make offerings to the gods. Farming communities gather together before starting work to share coca, drinks, and cigarettes. The owner of the farm pays homage to the ancestors and to Mother Earth by burying some of the coca in the ground. Finally, all give thanks for the gift and chew coca together. Coca leaves are offered to Mother Earth for safe travels and passages. Births, death, marriages and more are all solidified with rituals and/or exchanges involving coca leaves.

Mate de coca, an herbal tea made with coca leaves, is a very common drink in Peru. The look and taste of mate de coca is similar to green tea, slightly bitter with a hint of sweetness.

The other way to consume coca leaves is by chewing. In Peru, each small bag of coca leaves usually comes with a small solid block known as llucta. This is made up of limestone and ash, flavored with other herbs, such as anis. The proper way to chew coca leaves is to break off a piece of the llucta and roll it into a few coca leaves, then place it into the back of your mouth until it has been soaked through. By the time your tongue has gone numb, it should be ready to chew.

Medicinally, coca leaves are used to boost energy, take away headaches, fatigue, thirst and is commonly used to prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness. It is common for travelers to be greeted at their hotels with a hot-cup of coca tea. In addition, many women chew leaves during child birth to speed the birth process along, induce strength and reduce pain.

From its earliest uses, coca leaves have always been present at all important moments of community life. Today, the history and traditional use of the coca leaf in Peru are a solid part of ethnic and national identity.