Coca leaves in early Central and South America
Welcome to Quatr.us Study Guides!

Coca leaves

green plants and women harvesting them
Coca farming

April 2016 - Like potatoes and tomatoes, coca plants grow wild in the Andes Mountains of South America; they probably evolved around the same time as the other flowering plants, around 120 million years ago. The plants make cocaine in their leaves, probably to keep animals from eating them.

clay pot in the shape of a woman chewing coca leaves
Woman chewing coca leaves
(Uruguay, ca. 500 BC-500 AD)

When people first arrived in South America, about 13,000 BC, they probably started chewing coca leaves right away, because coca leaves, like coffee or cocoa, help you stay awake longer and work harder than you could otherwise, and helps you not feel pain, too. People mixed coca leaves with powdered lime (burnt limestone) to make them less acid to chew. Doctors prescribed coca to both men and women to help with arthritis, cancer, or other serious chronic pain.

mask of a man with a bulge in one cheek
Mask of a man chewing coca
leaves (1200s AD, Columbia)

By the time the Valdivian people in Ecuador were farming potatoes, about 3000 BC, they were probably also farming coca. By 2000 BC, Norte Chico people were also farming coca. Moche and Inca people, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, also farmed and chewed coca. Inca rulers also sacrificed coca to their gods by burning it. People chewed coca as far north as Nicaragua in Central America. (Further north, the Maya, Arawak, and Aztec chewed tobacco instead, also mixed with lime.) Across the Andes mountains in Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, the Tupi and Guarani people chewed coca leaves too.

South American science

Bibliography and further reading about coca leaves:

More about South and Central America
Quatr.us home


Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Check out our new ebook: Short and Simple: Ancient Greek Myths! - just out! Twenty-five easy to read, illustrated stories, from Pandora to Medea, Icarus, and the Trojan Horse (you can read these online as samples). Get it this week for just $14.99, five dollars off the regular price of $19.99.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Quatr.us Study Guides
  • Publisher: Quatr.us
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a Quatr.us "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article
Quatr.us is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 19 September, 2017
ADVERTISEMENT