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Portada / Useful information for travel to Peru / Data for traveler / The Coca leaf and its Importance in the Inca Culture

The Coca leaf and its Importance in the Inca Culture

The earliest evidence in Peru of the use of coca leaves by ancient cultures dates back more than 3,000 years. Here we will tell you about the importance of this plant in Inca culture.
Coca tea is the primary remedy for altitude sickness.

The coca leaf was a very important part of Inca culture, however, not all inhabitants could consume it. This privilege was reserved for the Inca royalty, who also controlled its production and consumption.

Currently, this plant is marketed in the city of Cusco and other cities with Andean descent. It is available as coca leaves alone, or in infusions, extracts, candies, chocolates, and even alcoholic beverages.

What is the Coca Leaf?

The scientific name of the coca leaf is Erythroxylum Coca, a medium-sized bush that typically grows in climates and altitudes ranging between 800 and 2,500 meters above sea level.

The coca leaf bush requires special care and attention, it is strong enough to produce up to four harvests per year, yielding up to 1200 kilograms per hectare. The average lifespan of the coca leaf bush is estimated at 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 coca leaf naturally contains the following alkaloids:

  • Cocaine, which has anesthetic and analgesic properties. The amount of cocaine in coca leaves ranges between 0.5% and 1%.
  • Egnonine, 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 melanin production for the skin.
  • Papain, (the coca leaf contains more of this substance than papaya itself), is an enzyme that aids digestion.
  • Hygrine, helps produce saliva 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 flow to the brain, while speeding up its formation and growth.
  • Quinoline, which helps prevent dental caries along with calcium and phosphorus.
  • Coniine, which is a very efficient anesthetic.
  • Cocamine, is also a powerful anesthetic.
  • Reserpine helps regulate blood pressure while aiding bone cell formation.
  • Benzoin collaborates in the formation and growth of muscle cells and also prevents the decomposition of food.

  • Inulin aids in liver function, balances melanin production, and helps eliminate harmful substances from the body.

Besides containing all the alkaloids mentioned, the coca leaf is also a very complete food, containing Vitamins B1, B2, C, iron, calcium, and proteins.

How did the Incas use coca leaves?

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

The consumption of coca leaves by farmers has been a custom dating back to the times of the Incas and is still evident today. It provides a burst of energy and vitality, which is one of the main reasons for its consumption.

Typically, those who chew coca leaves in this way can work long hours without feeling tired or cold, due to the anesthetic effect of their alkaloids.

Chewing coca leaves was also recommended as a way to heal toothaches, stomach pains, and other physical discomforts.

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

Similarly, Inca populations paid tribute to Mother Earth or Pachamama at the start 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 community members congregated around a table full of coca leaves. This meeting was intended 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 bonds.

The exchange of coca leaves for other products such as meat, potatoes, beans, vegetables was also a very common practice during the time of the Incas, meaning that coca leaves also played an important part in the Inca economy.

The Incas had a postal system across their territory, and the couriers, known as 'Chaskis', were usually young men of athletic build who traveled the empire on foot. This group made extensive use of coca leaves, as their consumption enabled them to perform their duties and cover great distances without feeling fatigued.

As can be seen, the Incas gave very diverse uses to the coca leaf and it was a fundamental part of their social structure, economy, and spirituality, hence they considered it a sacred plant.

Frequently Asked Questions About Coca Leaves

What is the coca leaf and what is its origin?

The coca leaf is a plant that contains various properties with pharmacological effects. It acts as a mild stimulant to combat ailments such as pain, thirst, hunger, and altitude sickness.

This plant is native to the Amazonian Andes, where it is used in infusions. It holds religious significance, having been used for ceremonies and rituals since the time of the Incas.

How did the Incas use the coca leaf in their daily lives?

The Incas used the coca leaf in religious rituals and as an offering to the gods. Additionally, its consumption was restricted to the Inca nobility because it was considered sacred.

What are the medicinal benefits of the coca leaf?

The coca leaf offers numerous benefits as it contains a wide variety of vitamins, in addition to alkaloids, each with its unique properties. However, one of its main qualities is its ability to energize the consumer, enabling them to perform activities without feeling tired.

How does the coca leaf relate to altitude sickness or soroche?

Using coca leaf in infusions for altitude sickness is very effective, as this plant provides an energy boost, helping the body to adapt to high altitudes. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this remedy, making it an ancient tradition.

How is coca tea prepared to alleviate altitude sickness?

Preparing coca tea is simple: just place about 6 to 7 leaves in a cup with boiling water and let it steep. It is important to drink it while it is still hot to maximize the effect.

What other uses did the coca leaf have in the Inca culture?

The coca leaf was considered a mystical plant that only the Inca could consume; its main uses were for religious ceremonies and forecasting the future. This plant was also part of the Inca economy, as it was used as barter to exchange products with other peoples.

Can the coca leaf be found outside Peru?

While the coca leaf is primarily grown in Peru, it is also possible to find it in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia.