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The Coca leaf and its Importance in the Inca Culture

Coca leaf: ancestral treasure of the Incas and symbol of connection with nature and spirituality.

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The first traces in Peru of the use of coca leaves by ancient cultures date back more than 3,000 years, as bags containing coca leaves as offerings have been found in mummies and pre-Hispanic tombs.

What is coca leaf

The scientific name of the coca leaf is Erythroxylum Coca, the bush where the leaves that are then used by man emerge is of medium size, it is a plant that usually grows in climates and altitudes located in an intermediate zone, normally between 800 and 2,500 meters above sea level. 

The first years of life of the coca bush require special care and attention, but after this stage, the bush is strong enough to produce up to four harvests per year, yielding up to 1200 kilograms per hectare. The average lifespan of the coca 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 coca leaf

The coca leaf naturally possesses the following alkaloids: 

  • 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 fats 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 the papaya itself) is a ferment that contributes to digestion.
  • Hygrin helps the production of saliva when there is a lack of oxygen in the environment.
  • Globulin, which regulates oxygen deficiency in the environment, as well as being a cardiotonic.
  • Pyridine increases blood supply to the brain, while accelerating its formation and growth.
  • Quinoline which helps to prevent the formation of dental cavities together with calcium and phosphorus.
  • Conine, which is a very efficient anesthetic.
  • Cocamine is also a powerful anesthetic.
  • Reserpine helps regulate blood pressure while supporting bone cell formation.
  • Benzoin helps with the formation and growth of muscle cells and also prevents food from decomposing.
  • Inulin helps regulate bile secretion and its storage in the gallbladder, facilitates liver function, balances melanin production and helps eliminate harmful substances from the body, among other properties.

The coca leaf besides possessing all the mentioned alkaloids is also a very complete food because it possesses Vitamins B1, B2, C, iron, calcium and proteins.

What was the use of coca leaves by the Incas?

In the Andean world, in the world of the Incas, coca leaves had a great variety of uses and were also attributed a series of almost magical qualities.

The consumption of coca leaves by country people, farmers, has been a custom that dates back to the time of the Incas and can still be appreciated today. To consume coca leaves in this way, three or four leaves should be put in the mouth, along with a little baking soda, a mixture that produces a numbing sensation while providing a shot of energy and vitality, this being one of the main reasons for its consumption. Usually those who are chewing coca leaves in this way can work long days without feeling tiredness or cold, due to the anesthetic effect of its alkaloids. 

Chewing the coca leaf was also recommended as a way to heal toothaches, stomachaches and other physical ailments by ancient Inca doctors or shamans.

The coca leaf was used by the amautas or Inca sages to try to foretell the future by reading the leaves for clues or omens of what was to come.  It is believed that by throwing the coca leaves into the air, letting them fall and then carefully observing the way the leaves settle on the ground when they fall can help predict events that are yet to happen, discover where stolen objects are located and who stole them, among other uses.

Similarly, the Inca populations paid tribute to 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 dug in the ground and various products and offerings are placed in it, 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 would gather around a table filled with coca leaves, a meeting whose purpose was to consecrate the divine union between man and the spiritual beings of the Andes, as well as to strengthen their identity, customs and reinforce social ties.

The exchange of coca leaves with other products such as meat, potatoes, beans, vegetables was also a very common practice during the reign of the Incas, that is, coca leaves were also an important part of the Inca economy. 

The Incas had a system of couriers throughout the length and breadth of their territory, those in charge of transporting the parcels were known as 'Chaskis', usually young men of athletic build who traveled the empire on foot. This group was one of those who made the most use of coca leaves, because its consumption allowed them to do their work and travel long distances without feeling fatigue.

As can be seen, the Incas put the coca leaf to many different uses and it formed a fundamental part of their social, economic and s

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