Archaeological evidence from the Valdivia culture of southwestern Ecuador and elsewhere, including small ceramic figurines and containers, indicates that coca cultivation and chewing date back to at least 2500 b.c.e., making it likely that coca was among the first plants cultivated by the indigenous peoples of South America.
Known today as the gran remedio (great remedy), the plant’s small fleshy leaves are chewed, producing a mild narcotic effect that diminishes hunger and fatigue and produces an overall sense of well-being.
Traditionally viewed as a sacred plant, whose cultivation and ingestion were linked to various social rituals, coca was and remains integral to indigenous highland Andean culture, particularly among Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peoples.
The word coca itself derives from the Aymara word for tree. Several varieties of coca are cultivated in a variety of ecosystems, from windswept highlands to tropical lowlands. Its chemical composition, including its cocaine content, makes the plant highly resistant to pests and predators.
It will also tolerate many harvests a year, a harvest consisting essentially of plucking a portion of the shrub’s leaves. The lifespan of a single shrub will typically extend up to 40 years, while the plant itself will tolerate a wide range of soils and ecological conditions, making it, in these respects, an ideal cultigen.
The first documented use of coca by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas comes from the 1499 journal of European explorer Amerigo Vespucci during his second voyage to the New World, in which he described the practice of coca chewing among the inhabitants of a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. Later Spanish chroniclers decried the natives’s persistent use of coca, but proved unable to eradicate it.
The tens of thousands of indigenous laborers forced to work in the silver mines of potosí, for instance, routinely chewed coca, combined with ground seashells or other sources of alkalinity (which facilitates the body’s absorption of the plant’s active chemicals) in order to alleviate the effects of mine labor—a tradition that continued in Andean mines and elsewhere through the 20th century.
There is an important distinction between coca and cocaine. Coca refers to the plant and its leaves. Cocaine is but one chemical component of the plant, isolated and refined by chemical and physical processing. A chemical isolate, cocaine is highly addictive. Such chemical refinement is wholly antithetical to the traditional social and cultural use of coca leaves in highland South America.
Coca, in short, is integral to highland Andean culture. Many informed observers are convinced that contemporary efforts to eradicate the plant from the Andes in the U.S.-led “War on Drugs” constitute a direct assault on indigenous culture and are doomed to failure.
Suggestive of the continuing cultural and political vitality and power of coca in the Andes, in 2006 the newly elected president of Bolivia ran on a platform of defending cocaleros (coca growers) from the assault on their traditional lifeways.