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One Wild Ride: A Short History Of The Coca Leaf

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The coca leaf has a deep and fascinating history. Here are some of the highlights, and here are suggestions about where you can go to find out more.

A deep relationship with ancient people

From archeological evidence, we know that the coca leaf has been used by civilizations across the Americas for many thousands of years. Excavations all over Peru, spanning across ages and between cultures, continue to uncover statues that are a testament to the value that coca played in the lives of ancient people. One of the most common things that archeologists find are statues, paintings, and carvings of royalty who have balls of coca tucked into their cheeks.

The legend of the Goddess of the coca leaf

One story about the origin of the coca leaf explores a mystifying mythical figure known as the Coca Goddess. According to Inca lore, this bright green being was so beautiful that any man who gazed on her body immediately fell in love with her. She was indifferent to the feelings of her endless suiters and continually left these poor men behind, driving them crazy for her love. In order to end the terror that she was bestowing on the empire, the Inca king sent a party to capture her and to kill her. From the place that they buried her body, a plant quickly grew, which was the same color as her body. It is said that those who chewed these leaves felt relief from her absence, and the plant quickly spread across the empire.

Western society goes crazy over cocaine until realizing that it was a horrible drug

Photo: Scott Montgomery

Back in 1860, cocaine was synthesized from the coca leaf for the first time by the German Chemist Albert Niemann. The drug quickly made its way into the world and became popular with US presidents, the pope, European monarchs, and scientists. Other notable users of cocaine were the czar of Russia, the Prince of Wales, Thomas Edison, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Sigmund Freud, Auguste Rodin, Henrik Ibson, Emile Zola, and Sara Bernhardt.

The by the dawn of the 20th century, companies started mixing the drug into a range of products. It was being habitually consumed by millions of people. The most renowned product was, of course, Coca-Cola, which was marketed to people as a medicine. People who went to drug stores to purchase it would refer to it as their “shot in the arm.”

It wasn’t until 1906 when Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its beverages, because of increasing public outcry. By this time, people were waking up to horrific side-effects of cocaine; masses of people were suffering from addiction and life-destroying addictions.

The powers that be try, again and again, to eradicate it from the world

Photo: Scott Montgomery

Once word got out about the many downsides of cocaine, colonialists in the Americas started blaming it for why indigenous people were poor and not able integrate into society. People aggressively tried to wipe it off of the continent. As Wade Davis notes in his book “One River,” “Every possible ill, every source of embarrassment to the bourgeois sensibilities, everything keeping [Peru] from progressing, was blamed on the plant.”

Scientists take a look at the leaf. What they discovered blew their minds

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1974 that the first scientist, Jim Duke, actually studied the chemical composition of the coca leaf. Not surprisingly, he realized that the coca leaf was more packed with nutrients than any plant he’d ever seen. By comparing the leaf to 50 other foods regularly consumed in Latin America, he found that, according to Wade Davis, “coca ranked higher than the average in calories, protein, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A, and riboflavin.” He also found that the leaves contain more calcium than any edible plant that had ever been studied before. 

The wisdom of the coca leaf

Photo: Scott Montgomery

Thankfully, the coca leaf survived society’s attempts to banish it from the planet. People still chew it in the Andes, and honor it with ceremony; most importantly, with the qintu, a tradition of offering coca leaves, with prayer, back to mother earth. There are also many people who still honor the age-old tradition of reading the coca leaves in order to provide patients with guidance and insight into their lives.

How and why to enjoy the coca leaf while in Peru

Photo: Scott Montgomery
If you want to chew some coca, get yourself to any market within the Andes, and buy yourself a bag. Vendors might ask you if you also want to also buy some llipta, which many people use with the coca leaves to activate its effects. Though the grey and black chunks look a bit sketchy, most of them are organic materials (plantain, stevia, quinoa, mint, and cacao) which have been burned into an ash. It’s best to start with the sweeter lliptas: stevia, mint, or plantain.

Where to go to learn more

Go to Cusco’s Coca Museum

Check out the book, “One River,” by Wade Davis. Though this amazing book is about much more than the coca leaf, there is one chapter, titled “The Divine Leaf of Immortality,” which explores the history of the coca leaf

 

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Scott Montgomery is a multi-medium storyteller and holistic creative, a travel guide and transformational coach, whose core mission is to help others to live authentically with purpose and intention in order to make an impact in the world. After earning his masters degree in creative writing at Arizona State University in 2013, he made the move to Peru in order to write about indigenous communities of the jungles and the Andes, and to explore what this might have to do with his own life path. These years of traveling and living across the country have helped him to embrace a more purposeful lifestyle that's guided by the values of collaboration, creativity, and transformation. To find out more about what Scott's up to and how you can get involved, visit his personal website www.voyagewithscott.com