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Coca farming

History of coca leaves: Coca farming in the Andes Mountains

When did coca plants evolve?

Like potatoestomatoes, and tobacco, 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, in the Cretaceous Period.

Cretaceous period
South American medicine
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Coca plants make a poisonous substance called cocaine in their leaves. That’s probably to make their leaves taste bad and make you feel bad, to keep animals from eating them.

Woman chewing coca leaves (Uruguay, ca. 500 BC-500 AD)

Woman chewing coca leaves (Uruguay, ca. 500 BC-500 AD)

When did people start chewing coca leaves?

But in small quantities, cocaine can make you feel pretty good. When people first arrived in South America, about 13,000 BC, they probably started chewing coca leaves right away.

Early South Americans
History of coffee
History of chocolate
Where does tea come from?

Coca leaves, like tobacco, coffee. cocoa or tea, help you stay awake longer and work harder than you could otherwise. They help you not feel pain, too.

Doctors used coca leaves as medicine

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.

What is limestone?
Sedimentary rocks

When did people start to farm coca plants?

By the time the Valdivian people in Ecuador were farming potatoes, about 3000 BC, they were probably also farming coca. By 2000 BCNorte 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 coca leaves.

History of potatoes
Who were the Moche?
When was the Inca Empire?

Mask of a man chewing coca leaves (1200s AD, Columbia)

Mask of a man chewing coca leaves (1200s AD, Columbia)

Where did people chew coca leaves?

People chewed coca as far north as Nicaragua in Central America. (Further north, the MayaArawak, and Aztec chewed tobacco instead, also mixed with lime.)

History of tobacco
Andes mountains
Guarani people

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:

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