THE COCA LEAF: ANTHROPOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL ISSUES WITH THE SACRED LEAF*
* Chapter extracted from the thesis of Sdenka Silva. Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Sociology.
Coca is a plant whose historical significance dates back to before the conquest of the Incas, in Andean prehistoric times:
"... amidst small groups of nomad tribes which inhabited the Andes during the immediate post-glacial period".'
the coca leaf was used (and still is) by the Aymaras, Quechuas and many other Andean cultures.
The earliest coca leaves were discovered in the Huaca Prieta settlement c. 2500 - 1800 BC in the northern coast of Peru positive proof that the natives of South America were using coca for a series of purposes for more than four thousand, five hundred years. 2
All pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes have left evidence of usage of these leaves. Similarly, there is ample evidence that coca was one of the oldest domesticated plants in the New World. Its use extends over an area which includes Peru Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
The first mention found on the leaf, was one made by Father Tomas Ortiz, and later on many more chroniclers will mention the leaf starting with the cartographer and explorer Americo Vespucci. Cieza de Leon also devoted extensive paragraphs of his writings to the Coca plant.
In 1558, Acosta asserted in this respect:
"To speak truthfully, I cannot be convinced that this is all a figment of the imagination. I am rather inclined to believe that there is, in fact, another force and spirit in the natives because there are no effects that can be attributed to imagination, which is how, with the help of a handful of coca leaves, they can walk for days without food, at times other such things and other similar works." Further ahead in his work, the chronicler adds: "The Lords used coca as a royal object and a gift, and during their sacrifices, it was the one thing they most often offered, burning it in honor of their idols." This same author notes that the leaf was used by the fortune teller (yatiri), by the magician (paco) and the native doctor (callawaya).
The chroniclers also busied themselves in recording the powers and uses attributed to coca by the natives: to forecast coming events, to cure several ailments and its function as a mediator with the Andean Pantheon through offerings. Such offerings were carried out during disasters, (drought, flooding, frost, and hail), or during the cycles of regular life, particularly related to Mother Earth (pacha Mama), and fertility. It is because of this that the coca was considered (and still is), a sacred plant endowed with magical powers, representing the intermediary to make contact with supernatural forces through special rituals. 3
The economic transformation generated during the Colonial period changed the value of coca leaves as a barter item. Many researchers indicate that at a given time during the Colony, the price of coca leaves was such that they were used instead of gold and silver. Poma de Ayala maintains that the Spanish conquerors changed it into a form of payment.
During the Republican period, the coca plantings did not lose their importance. Based on this crop, the powerful association of land owners of Yungas was created, which starting in 1830, acquired a strong influence in national and departmental politics, their members becoming prominent individuals in the national elite.
Historians have emphasized the importance of coca for the mining industry, maintaining that the natives refused to work in the mines without their coca ration. The relation of mining to coca was so close that even the prices of the former depended on the prices of ores. Nicanor Fernandez stated at the beginning of the century with respect to the coca/mining relation:
"Coca, when chewed in small quantities (chakchar or acullico), is an efficient bond to knit the fabric of fraternization and amiability among fellow countrymen". 9
Socially, coca is offered and handed out to extend and strengthen the kinship and reciprocal relationships, so dearly needed in the Andean world to achieve prestige, power and social integration. 10
Before starting work on the farm, together with their relatives, friends and community members who work with the owner (and will reciprocate their cooperation in the future), coca, drinks and cigarettes will be passed around. They all give thanks for the gift, choose three leaves blowing into the direction of a mountain which will protect them and the community, and pray to the spirits. Then, slowly, they begin to chew the leaves. The owner will pay homage to the ancestors and to Mother Earth, burying some coca, cigarettes and candy in the ground, invoking their ancestors (Peru).
In the Andes, the work day is divided into three or four shifts, with a break between shifts when coca is chewed after their meals. The same is done when performing community work, where their authorities will hand out the coca leaves. In the Bolivian Yungas, thanks to the leaf, the ayni or reciprocal institution has been extended considerably because coca is a permanent crop which requires good care for the future. Under the ayni, the work performed for others is done with the same care as for their own property. The harvest under the reciprocation system is done by the women and this is the social event par excellance, they don their best clothing, blue skirts in contrast with the green coca fields and reddish brown earth. The young men of the community look for a suitable partner, the women flirt about, there is laughter, tales, and gossip. The harvest is the major workshop for social control by the community.
In farming communities, the practice of reciprocation for work shows that labor is a community resource, shared by all members as if they all belonged to a single domestic unit, and it is work which will establish the rank of the community member."
In the Andean area, all ritual and religious ceremonies subsist and are quite common, with slight variations.
The purpose of the use of coca, in a magical sense, is to protect the individual against witchcraft, curses, bring good luck and predict the future.
Without coca, it would be impossible for the fortune teller to forecast the future, or to indicate what is the ailment of his patients and how to cure it. He would be able to understand the punishment inflicted by Mother Earth, the guardian spirits and other god protectors. Without coca they cannot protect the future and avert curses, for this practice coca is chewed and then burned. It is given to their animals when celebrating fertility rites. It is very important for there to be an abundance of coca, alcohol and food on these occasions because these are symbols of abundance in the future of the believers. Otherwise, the ceremony is useless. 12
In a religious sense, coca is used humbly to give thanks for blessings or to make offerings to the gods. All traditional Andean rituals are celebrated around the coca leaves. All present must chew the leaves under the direction of the fortune teller (yatiri). Likewise coca is indispensable in preparing the offerings for the ancestors, to Mother Earth (Dacha Mama) as an act of thanks giving for good harvests, health and thriving of their livestock.
"The gods, the Incas, and the ancestors in ancient and sacred times, dictated the rules for social and individual use of coca. The use of this plant as dictated by custom, in agricultural feasts, at work or during the ceremonies of their vital cycle, is to enter and experience the mythical and primeval space-time continuum of the gods, cultural heroes and their ancestors". 13
Coca will always be present in all important moments of their life because it is not only a product, but heritage as well. It is not only the most important element of their survival, but it also represents what is sacred to them, their culture, traditions and their endurance against abuse and exploitation.
"Like people, it must never be killed, uprooted, nor should the leaves be cast away... I interpret your sickness and all other ill fortune as a punishment from Pacha Mama for having eradicated the coca -it is sacred- is it not true?".14