Cultures & Traditions

Coca in the Andes

For thousands of years, the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) has played an essential role in the daily life and ritual practices of Andean peoples. Carried in bags as a common individual accessory, the coca leaves contain alkaloids that, when consumed, suppress fatigue and increase energy, counteracting physical effects caused by extreme altitudes. Coca leaves may be chewed, used for medicinal purposes, offered in ritual, or shared among family and friends as an integral part of Andean social lives.

During the late 19th century, global interest in coca developed regarding its perceived medicinal effects and flavor for beverages. Popular opinion toward coca shifted by the 20th century due to concerns about the addictiveness of its main alkaloid—cocaine. In 1961, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which designated coca as a narcotic. Since the treaty was established, international efforts to thwart cocaine production have stirred debate among certain Andean countries, for which coca is still part of the cultural heritage and indigenous practice. Coca leaves remain available today in Andean markets and are utilized by certain Andean populations.

Excerpt from

Kimberly L. Jones, PhD, Inca: Conquests of the Andes / Los Incas y las conquistas de los Andes, Gallery text, 2015.