April 2013

Coca and its “True Elixir”

The history of coca has been indicated by a constant debate among those who demonize it and the ones who find its virtues, even sacred.

By: Walter Sánchez Canedo
Instituto de Investigaciones

Advertising in 1879

For the Andean society, before the arrival of the Inca, the consumption of the coca leaf was associated to a religious and political management. Its extensive and expansive practice as an state cultivation were given during the mandate of the Inca Wayna Qapac at the end of the fifteenth century and, according to some documentary sources, its use was found restricted to an Inca elite and to the large ethnic gentlemen. Acosta, in its Natural History and Morale of the Indies, indicates: “The Inca Gentlemen used the coca as a real and given thing; and in their sacrifices it was the most offered thing, burning it in honor of its Idols” for which “was not lawful to the plebeian to use the coca leaf without license of the Inca or its Governor.” Upon remaining associate to the solar state worships and to the Inca (“son of the Sun”), it had a sacred rank.

The Spanish conquerors, who arrived in the decade of 1530, very quick recognized its potential as a leaf that permitted the natives not just work alone in a ritual linking, but like a product with such a large demand that was easily marketable. It is the economic factor that motivates to that many Spaniard to be involved quickly in the commerce of the coca leaf, with large economic returns. Nevertheless, due to that, the coca leaf was found related to the association of natives to rituals purposes and religious, the church will initiate very quick its demonizing linking to a evil order connected with idolatrous practices. The Jesuit Acosta, an educated pursuer of the Andean religions, mentioned already in the 1580’s decade that all the associated factors to the coca leaf generated “large disputes and considerations of Lawyers and Wise, about if all the small farms of coca would be take off ,” concluding with resignation that “at the end they have remained.” Such permanence seems not to be owed just to one decision, product of the dense debates that generates this leaf, but to three central reasons: (1) it was “so estimated from the Indians” that “they appreciate it above manners” inside its rituals and among its daily diet, that was impossible to eliminate (2) the Hispanic colonizers discover that “work forces and strength in the Indians, because it seen facts that they cannot be attributed to imagination, how it is to walk with a fist of coca doubling day’s journeys, without eating at times another things, and other similar acts,” and (3) because “so much money worth its deal” that many Spaniards become richer with its cultivation, transportation and commercialization mainly toward the Potosí mines where it was required and distributed among the Indigenous that went to the mit´a (work forced that the Spanish Crown had imposed to many local groups).

The yungas of Cochabamba were coca producer areas. This cultivation had been expanded during the government of the Inca Wayna Qapac

In the leading decades of the colony (1538-1600), the yungas of Cochabamba were coca producer areas. This cultivation had been expanded during the government of the Inca Wayna Qapac (toward end of the fifteenth century), mainly in the yungas of Pocona, where they stand out two Incas productive centers: Chuquiuma and Arepuchu. The Hispanic grocers, upon having clear awareness of the great demand among the natives mainly for the works in the mines, monopolize the production and commercialization, exporting large quantities to Potosí, the mines of Porco and to Chuquisaca. Such exporting boom would have a short duration, now that very soon the colonial politics will pass to prompt other areas of coca production—as Songo in La Paz—, generating the fiasco of the production in the yungas of Cochabamba generating such scarcity that barely covered the local consumption. Such downward trend of production is so strong that, toward 1793, the Governing Manager of the Province of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Francisco de Viedma indicated: “Although that the new Yungas of yuracares give some portion of coca, it is not enough to provide the province”. For such reason, a part of the coca for internal consumption was imported since the yungas of La Paz.

Bale of coca
Photo: Walter Sánchez

With the republic (1825) the use and consumption of the coca continues being massive among the natives, mainly in the country side, although one must recognize that the elites were also consumers’ habitual of this leaf.

Its stimulating virtues, recognized by all the social sectors make that from end of the 19th century the initiation of an urban style of intellectuals, who begin to investigate and to promote those qualities, arriving, even to intents of industrializing it. This “boom” is so strong that toward 1879, in the city of La Paz, the “Pharmacy and Italian Drugstore”, offered a “true elixir of coca” as a specialty of the house, the same one that was consumed and demanded by the population due to its nutritious and medicinal effects. In Cochabamba, the main pharmacies and drugstores of the city: “La Boliviana,” the “Americana,” “La Europea,” and “Comercio,” they offered a “wine of coca” that was publicized by its curative and healing virtues, being also, very required by containing good dose of alkaloid.

This is the moment in which coca reaches a new form of consumption, different to the chewing (pijcheo in Quechua), in the shape of a strong and stimulating beverage, and appreciated by the local elites.


Instituto de

Translated by
Eslyn Escudero

Calendario Abril 2013

>Quinto Festival Infantil “Chiquival” Auditorio Christian Valbert de la Alianza Francesa
(La Paz Nº 784 casi C. Carrillo) Organiza: Alianza Francesa - 12 de abril

Cuenta cuentos “Cabra-cadabra”
(a cargo de Ana Balletta para niños de 3 a 6 años) 16:00

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