The first vestiges found in Peru on the use of coca leaf by ancestral cultures date back more than 3 000 years old, they have been found in mummies and pre-Hispanic tombs, bags containing coca leaves as an offering.
The scientific name of the coca leaf is Erythroxylum Coca, the shrub where the leaves that are then used by man emerge is medium-sized, it is a plant that usually grows in climates and altitudes located in an intermediate area, usually between 800 and the 2 500 m.a.s.l
The first years of life of the coca leaf bush require special care and attention, but after this stage is over, the bush is strong enough to produce up to four crops per year, yielding up to 1200 kilograms per hectare. The average life of the coca leaf bush is estimated to be 60 years.
The natural habitat of this plant is the eastern Andes of Peru and Bolivia, but it can also be found in Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador.
Natural properties of the Coca leaf
The following alkaloids can be found naturally in the Coca leaf:
- Cocaine, which has anesthetic and analgesic properties. The amount of cocaine in coca leaves is between 0.5% and 1%.
- Egnonin, which can metabolize both fat and carbohydrates, in addition to thinning the blood.
- Atropine which is an anesthetic.
- Pectin which is an absorbent and antidiarrheal and regulates the production of melanin for the skin.
- Papain, (the coca leaf has more of this substance than papaya itself), is a ferment that contributes to digestion.
- The hygrina helps saliva production when there is a lack of oxygen in the environment.
- Globulin, which regulates the lack of oxygen in the environment, besides being a cardiotonic.
- Pyridine increases blood supply to the brain, while accelerating its formation and growth.
- Quinoline that helps prevent tooth decay along with calcium and phosphorus.
- Conina, which is a very efficient anesthetic.
- Cocaine is also a powerful anesthetic.
- Reserpine helps regulate blood pressure while helping bone cell formation
- Benzoin helps with the formation and growth of muscle cells and also prevents food from breaking down.
- Inulin, helps regulate bile secretion, as well as its storage in the gallbladder, facilitates the functioning of the liver, balances the production of melanin and helps eliminate harmful substances from the body, among other properties.
The coca leaf apart from having all the alkaloids mentioned is also a very complete food because it has Vitamins B1, B2, C, iron, calcium and proteins.
What use did the Incas give coca leaves?
In the Andean world, the world of the Incas, coca leaves had a great variety of uses and were also attributed a series of even magical qualities.
The consumption of coca leaves by the people of the countryside, of the farmers has been a custom that dates back to the time of the Incas and that can still be appreciated today. To consume the coca leaf in this way, three or four leaves must be put in the mouth, along with a little baking soda, a mixture that produces a feeling of numbness while providing a stroke of energy and vitality, this being the main reason for its consumption. Usually those who are chewing coca leaves in this way can work long hours without feeling tired or cold, due to the anesthetic effect of their alkaloids.
Chewing the coca leaf was also recommended as a way to heal toothaches, stomachaches and other physical discomforts, by the ancient doctors or Inca shamans.
The coca leaf was used by the Inca amautas or sages to try to predict the future, when reading the leaves in search of signs or omens of what would happen. There is a belief that, by throwing the coca leaves in the air, dropping them and then carefully observing the way in which the leaves settled on the ground when falling can help predict events that are yet to happen, discover where stolen items are and who stole them, among other uses.
The Inca populations paid tribute to the mother earth or Pachamama at the beginning of the rainy season or fertile season with a ritual known as 'payment to the earth' in which a hole is made in the ground and in it various products and offerings are placed, including the sacred coca leaves to ensure a good harvest and a good year.
In the Andean world there was a social gathering known as 'Hallpay' where the members of the community gathered around a table full of coca leaves, a meeting that was intended to consecrate the divine union between man and The spiritual beings of the Andes, in addition to strengthening their identity, customs and social ties.
The exchange of coca leaves with other products such as meat, potatoes, beans, vegetables was also a very common practice during the empire of the Incas, that is, coca leaves were also an important part of the Inca economy.
The Incas had a postal system throughout their territory, the people in charge of transporting the parcels were known as ‘Chaskis’, they were usually young men of athletic build who traveled the empire on foot. This group was one of the most used to coca leaves, because their consumption allowed them to fulfill their work and travel great distances without feeling fatigue.
As you can see, the Incas gave very different uses to the coca leaf and this was a fundamental part of their social, economic and spiritual structure, hence they considered it as a sacred plant.