Coca leaves – South American medicine

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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.

(More about the Cretaceous period)

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.

Coca leaves, like coffee or cocoa, 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.

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.

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.)

(More about the history of tobacco)

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 home

By |2018-05-30T00:00:28+00:00September 10th, 2017|Science, South America|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Coca leaves – South American medicine. Study Guides, September 10, 2017. Web. December 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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 Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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