"Mama Coca": A Study on the Presence of Cocaine In Inca Society
Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography
The landscape of the Central Andean mountainside exhibits a rich variety of vascular plants that are periodically separated by high-altitude forests and woodlands. Within this myriad of flora, a most unremarkable shrub that bears a great resemblance to an orange tree –albeit with paler leaves- can be found (Mortimer, 6). Erythroxylum, a genus that features over 250 species, is perhaps easily overlooked in its natural setting, but one of its varieties is in fact unavoidable on a world scale. Not only is it known to be the source behind the most lucrative illegal drug industry on the planet, which pulls in an incredible revenue of $92 billion dollars per year, it was also the motivation behind the first anti-drug campaign, the indulgence of inquisitive minds such as Sigmund Freud, and the fuel of both wars and economies. Known as Erythroxylum coca, or cocaine, this substance had gained a reputation long before its slanderous past as portrayed in modern history. Instead of being considered a dominant evil, cocaine –in the form of the coca leaf- served as a pillar of life for one of the most incredible Empires ever to exist; the Inca. From the early 13th century onward, the children of the sun exalted this plant and integrated it as an active presence in every aspect of existence. It would provide the Inca with a source of survival even after their realm was cast into darkness by the Spanish in the 1500s, upon which the sacredness and true characteristics of coca faded into the shadows with the remains of the civilization, born of the Sun.
The Incans, whose civilization arose from the depths of Lake Titicaca, began their incredible history embodied in the forms of the mythological personalities of Manco Ccapac and Mama Ocllo (Mortimer, 32). From the empire’s legendary founding at Cuzco onward, the children of the sun prospered under increasingly complex political, social, religious and cultural institutions. While these spheres of society were often interwoven, one practice –characteristic of all the aforementioned institutions- was possibly the most binding, and unarguably the most interesting; the chewing of coca leaves, or perhaps more blatantly stated, cocaine use.
While this might seem controversial by present-day slander of the substance, it must be understood that coca use, mainly thru chewing, was not simply a time-squandering recreational drug for the Incans. While being used as a method of attaining a state of euphoria, it surpassed the physical consequences and provided a symbol and source of endurance and vitality, which can account for the devotion to this plant as seen in its legends of origin. One of these tales related to the creation of coca refers to the death of a beautiful but morally loose woman, who –upon being cut in half- produces the coca plant, or “mama coca”. (Karch, 3) The social conduct of disallowing the use of coca until a man’s first physical encounter with a woman arises directly from this folklore, but furthermore, the circumstances of the plants creation from both the aforementioned tale and others such as one concerning the god Inti, grants it an aspect of sacredness and divinity, as is evidenced through its prominent role in most, if not all, religious ceremonies and traditions.
The appearance of coca in religious ceremonies is boundless, but a general pattern of use can be distinguished; and that is as either a form of sacrifice or as an aid in attaining spiritual insight through ingestion. In reverence to the dead, for instance, coca leaves were offered to the mummies of the deceased, in order for the soul of the departed to be strengthened and sustained. Not only were the mummies buried with a number of pouches filled with the substance, they also passed onto the next life with the leaves placed in their mouth (Mortimer, 69). The plant also served as offerings to a variety of deities such as the earth goddess, Pachamama, through whom the hopes for a full harvest might be fulfilled, and often provided the most important sacrifice during festivals such as that of the Sacred Fire (Mortimer, 73). When serving as a masticatory, a higher level of revelation could be reached by those of the with the proper religious authority, while other uses, such as the burning of the leaves and the coinciding reading of the smoke, allowed individuals of divination to communicate with the spirit world (Streatfeild, 16).
But it was in other realms than that of the abstract that coca served so many pivotal roles. Politically, it remained an underlying factor. Not only did it serve as a form of tribute to the government, especially from conquered regions that were known for their superior coca production, but it also sustained and supported the administrative regime. In turn, during times of low agricultural yield and widespread famine, coca would be redistributed as a supplicant source of nutrition to aid the populace in survival.
The emperor himself, who was believed to be divine, always had the substance on his person, hanging about his waist in a small pouch known as a chuspa. The Inca monarchs, as well as all other future candidates for this position, were only allowed the privilege of coca chewing after the completion of an extensive initiation, after which they would receive their first chuspa and use of the royal coca (Mortimer, 38).
Royalty were although not the only ones to institute “mama coca” into their everyday life. Runners of the kingdom, or individuals who relayed information throughout the empire, were allowed a certain amount of coca from strategically placed storehouses, which would aid in sustaining them from one destination to the next, while others, such as soldiers, orators, and historians, partook in the leaf in order to increase mental acuity (Hafen, 35).
Coca was also commonly integrated into every day life, albeit more for the elite. Most Incan cloths, for instance, were intricately woven with several patterns, and would in almost all instances feature the coca leaf within its grand design. As was the case with pottery or sculptures, such as that of an Incan Venus, which was often depicted clasping a spray of coca in her hands (Mortimer, 56). The concept of the coca leaf was also used in measuring distances throughout the empire, based upon the ground that could be covered by an individual under the influence of the plant, while through the duration of the cocaine’s effects, time could be measured. Perhaps coca was the most culturally important when serving as an anesthetic to the practice of trephining, a procedure that would result in the opening of holes in the skull in order to relieve pressure, cure mental illnesses, or treat a variety of other complaints (Hafen, 36). Accordingly, cocaine remained an integral part of Inca culture and life, well to the end of the 1500s.
It is at the turn of the 16th century that the implications of coca use were drastically distorted through the provincial mindedness of Western conquerors. The egocentric view that caused the apparent innocent act of coca chewing to be transformed into a cardinal sin arrived along with Amerigo Vespucci and other subsequent emissaries of Europe. Seen as nothing more but a barbarian habit of a primitive people, the use of coca was immediately denounced by European society, including the Pope, who soon upon learning of the masticatory practice, called for what would become the first anti-drug campaign.
The efforts to stem the tide of Incan cocaine use although soon ceased with the downfall of the great empire, signaled by the murder of the great Inca monarch, Atahualpa. It was subsequent to this occurrence that the Spanish began to understand the potential that coca could provide. Not only would the despairing Incan populace trade and buy the substance, which had fallen under Spanish supervision, but they would also accept the plant as payment for labor; labor to attain unsurpassed treasure of gold and silver. With the profitability of the coca industry realized, Spain began to support its overseas mining expeditions and royal coffers with the revenue that the drug commerce provided.
But while European nations began to flourish from the product they would come to denounce again and again, the Inca, whose lives were intangibly related to the substance, fell into despair. It seems that coca chewing was one of the few cultural aspects that was able to survive the downfall of the empire; and it is to this effect that the remaining Incans clung to the plant and its traditional use. They steadfastly demanded to receive coca as payment for their exploited labor in the hazardous mines, such as those at Potosi, or required it as profit from working the coca fields, which proved to be a deadly endeavor as well. It seems almost as if their fate was blatantly evident to them, and that through the continued practice of coca chewing, the reality of their fast-approaching end might not have been so hard to accept.
The Spanish conquerors would have been the last to keep this vital element from the Inca. They were aware of the veneration towards the coca leaf, which to them met with indifference, but were even more conscious of the effects that coca chewing procured. Individuals who masticated the plant often worked an unnatural amount of time with little or no other nutrients. It was an excellent way to supply the labor force, with apparent little cost to the Spanish themselves. Naturally, there remained even in the New World, opponents to the practice, but it was a fairly un-influential minority of Spanish priests, who argued that the drug stood between the Incas and the Catholic Faith. All others who co-habited with those of the fallen empire decided that the salvaging of souls would not be as lucrative as all other endeavors, so use continued fairly unhindered.
Exploitation of Inca labor procured through a newly founded drug economy sadly characterized the end of what had once been an incredible land ruled over by a culturally and politically superior empire. The act of coca chewing, which had enhanced the Inca way of life now served simply as a device to ease the suffering of a sealed fate that had been delivered by a provincially minded people, ignorant to anything beyond their egocentric sight. Furthermore, Europeans –upon comprehension of the purpose and effects of cocaine- tragically corrupted its use, ravaging the practice of coca chewing of its previously divine state and transforming it into a universal threat, embodied in a costly, dangerous, and illegal industry that persists into modern times. It is incredible how easily the sacredness and divinity of a “barbaric” ritual was so easily corrupted by the “civilized” man.
Mortimer, W. Golden. Peru: History of Coca. “The Divine Plant” of the Incas. New
York: J.H. Vail & Company. 1901.
Karch, Steven B. A Brief History of Cocaine. Taylor and Francis Group, CRC Press.
Streatfeild, Dominic. Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography. London: Virgin. 2001. Hafen, Brent. Cocaine. Hazelden Foundation. 1981.
 Estimate given by Dominic Streatfeild in his book, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography.