Coca-chewing is common among the Indians of the Andes, as well as among some lowland tribes of the Amazon basin, and as far north as Central America. Chewing an average of 58 grams of leaves per day releases roughly 250 mg of cocaine. Hydrolosis produces ecgonine and benzoylecgonine (Fuchs 1978). Ecgonine blocks secretion of erthropoietin which alleviates polycythemia symptoms (fewer red blood cells require less oxygen). Ecgonine also raises blood glucose levels for four or more hours (relieving stress and postponing hunger; Burchard 1975, 1976; Bolton 1973, 1979).
In the highlands, coca leaves are chewed with 2-4 grams of ashes (preferably from the quinoa tree, the ashes from which ashes are high in potassium) per day. In Amazon jungle tribes which raise coca, leaves are usually pounded into a powder and mixed with ashes and cassava flour, or added to a lime paste (Wiedemann 1979). There is dispute among analysts about whether the alkaline ash inhibits hydrolosis in the mouth or not.
The reasons given by Indians for chewing coca leaves are remarkably consistent from answers given to the early Spanish chroniclers (Zarate, Cobo, Cieza de Leon) to those given to contemporary anthropologists. The primary reason given is to assuage hunger and thirst. Chewing coca is also said to increase strength, to decrease drowsiness and fatigue, to reduce pain and dizziness at high altitudes (hypoxia), and to reduce sensations of coldness. Early in their exploitation of Indian labor, the Spanish discovered that by supplying coca leaves their Indian laborers could be worked long hours exposed to the cold (or to adverse conditions in mines). It was sufficiently effective that growing coca for export to other Spanish colonies rivaled (and for a time surpassed) work in the mines for Indians in 16th century Peru.
Fabrega and Manning (1972) asked 40 adult males in a highland Quechua village whether various herbs afforded relief from 18 locally recognized illnesses. Those for which 60 or more percent identified coca as an effective remedy are as follows: El hambre (hunger sensations) 100% Dolor de estomago (acute stomach ache) 100% El frio (chill from exposure to cold and/or cold rain) 98% Dar fuerza (diminished physical strength-inability to work)93% Dar animo (lack of will to work) 93% El fiero (chronic tiredness with progressive weakening) 73% El colico (severe gastrointestinal problems) 73% El soka (chronic tiredness with weight loss) 73% El makurke (exhaustion after exessive physical activity) 65% La gripa (upper respiratory infection) 60% Some other acute and chronic conditions were thought by a minority of the sample to be amenable to treatment by coca, as well.
Reasons for coca-chewing collected by other observers over the course of five centuries are consistent with systematic analysis of Fabrega and Manning. There does not seem to be a distinct Quechua illness comparable to “altitude sickness” or “high altitude stress,” but the native classifications can easily be related to symptoms of exertion at high altitudes. In particular, the well-attested raising of glucose levels relieves feelings of hunger. Bolton (1979) reported that whites and mestizoes in the highland use alcohol to raise glucose levels. Coca is both cheaper and interferes less with work, and it is the Indians who perform the hard physical labor, often in hazardous conditions.
Although coca-chewing is listed as a culture trait in lowland regions (where altitude sickness could not be a problem), native reasons have been little reported for jungle tribes. The major exception is Salser (1970), who also found coca-chewing to be a substitute for alcohol consumption, a substitute more compatible with labor, in particular labor far from home. Like highland Indians, the Cubeo reported that coca deadens hunger. Besides making working distant fields easier, coca chewing was also believed to keep nighttime hunters alert. The Cubeo also claimed that regular coca-chewers had fewer toothaches. Wiedemann (1979) reports pre-Columbian use of coca leaves as a local anesthetic. Moguex shamans spit chewed leaves on whatever part of the body is pained. Aymara plaster coca leaves on the face for headache or tootache, and massage sprains with coca concotions (Tschopick 1945). Until the Bishop of Lima banned coca chewing in the middle of the 16th century, Europeans used the leaves to prevent colds and dental decay.
I have my doubts about both those uses. Neither chewing coca leaves and ash in the Andes or drinking lots of coca tea had any effect of which I became aware on me. In that dehydration is a particular problem for humans in high altitude, the water in coca tea is probably more useful than the traces of cocaine are. Gingko biloba may help enhance blood flow. My headaches were relieved by Tylenol ever four hours – exactly every four hours. I remember that when I stayed in Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, I woke up at four hour intervals.
Bolton, Ralph (1973) Aggression and hypoglycemia among the Qolla. Ethnology 12: 257-277.
— (1979) On coca-chewing and high-altitude stress. Current Anthropology 20: 418-420.
Buck, Alfred A., Tom T. Sasaki & Robert I. Anderson (1968) Health and Disease in Four Peruvian Villages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Burchard, Roderick E. (1976) Myth of the Sacred Leaf. Ph.D. thesis, Indiana University.
— (1975) Coca chewing. Pp. 463-484 in Vera Rubin (Ed.), Cannabis and Culture. The Hague: Mouton.
Fabrega, Horacia Jr. and Peter K. Manning (1972) Health maintenance among Peruvian peasants. Human Organization 31: 243-256.
Fuchs, Andrew (1978) Coca-chewing and high-altitude stress. Current Anthropology 19: 277-291.
Montesinos A., Fernando (1965) Metabolism of cocaine. Bulletin on Narcotics 17,2: 11-17.
Mortimer, W.G. (1901) Peru – History of Coca. New York: Vail.
Salser, J.K. Jr. (1970) Cubeo acculturation to coca and its social implications. Economic Botany 24: 182-188.
Tschopick, Harry (1945) The Aymara. Handbook of South American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology.
Wiedemann, Inga (1979) Folklore of coca. Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie 104: 278-309