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The fragrance of our mother coca

The coca leaf (Erythroxylum) has been part of the daily life of many Andean peoples of yesterday and today. Its consumption has deep social, economic and religious roots. It is present in offering ceremonies and in various rituals, and is highly valued in the recognition and maintenance of social ties. It is also very important in nutrition, as the coca leaf is higher in calories, carbohydrates and protein than the average of many other edible vegetables. It also has medicinal properties. Coca alkaloids act as a moderate stimulant that helps fight hunger, pain, fatigue and mitigate altitude sickness. Coca is consumed by chewing its leaves to form a bolus that lodges in the cheek, an act known in the Andes as acullico or chacchado. The earliest evidence (8000 BP) for its use is from the Las Pircas site, Chancoc Valley, northern Peru.

Trichocereus Pachanoj (Jill Plugh and Steven F. White©, 2022).

(Foto, Gonzalo Puga).

Chewing coca in the Andes

The representation of coca is rare in the art of the pre-Columbian Andes, although the act of chewing is, and in various forms. Ceramic sculptures of human figures with prominent protuberances on one of their cheeks are recurrent in the ceramic art of some cultures of the Ecuadorian highlands. There are also representations on Moche vessels from the coast of Peru, of certain characters in human form who chew coca in the context of elaborate ritual or social scenes.


The act of chewing coca is also documented by the same objects that are used in this practice, which are also represented being carried by different characters. Among them, the containers to store the powdered lime (llipta) and the sticks or pylons used to extract it while chewing the coca leaves stand out. Lime is an alkaline material that is made from vegetable ashes or calcined shells, and even from animal guano, and it is the essential additive that allows the alkaloids of the plant to be activated.

Botella pintada: Personajes mascando coca.

Cerámica. Cultura Moche, 1-600 DC. Costa norte de Perú.

Colección Museo Larco, Lima, Perú ML004112; PT 62. (270 x 152 x 154 mm).

(Foto, © Museo Larco).

Con el calero y el pilón en sus manos, el curandero masca las hojas de coca frente a su ‘mesa’ ritual.

Cabezal de un cetro ceremonial.

Metal. Cultura Moche, 1-700 DC. Costa norte de Perú.

Donación Sergio Larrain García-Moreno, MChAP 0483. (100 x 68 mm).

Consumir hojas de coca mezcladas con cal es el acullico, un antiguo hábito social y ritual andino. La llipta potencia el efecto estimulante de esta planta sagrada.

Recipiente para cal o lliptero y su pilón.

Hueso grabado. Cultura Chimú o Chancay, 1000-14000 DC. Costa central de Perú.

Colección Norbert Mayrock, MChAP 3415 a y b. (144 x 48 mm).

Botella con personaje mascando coca.

Cerámica. Cultura Nasca-Wari, 500-700 DC. Costa sur de Perú.

Colección Salinas de la Piedra, PT# 63. (195 x 130 mm).

(© Foto Julián Ortiz).

La protuberancia en la mejilla de estos personajes indica el acto de mascar coca en una actitud que parece quieta y solemne.

Mujer y hombre mascando coca.

Cerámica. Cultura Capulí, 800-1500 DC. Sierra norte de Ecuador.

Donación Sergio Larrain García-Moreno, MChAP 0029 (131 x 100 mm) y MChAP 0028 (154 x 80 mm).