Many Latin American cultures use the coca leaf in day-to-day life. The first use of coca was noted in coastal Ecuador about 5,000 years ago. It was so important in pre-Columbian Andean cultures that elite Incans restricted use of coca to just the noble classes. However, gradually its usage broadened, and by the time of the Spanish conquest, almost everyone had access to coca. To this day, coca is found in a variety of products and its consumption is an integral part of life for many people in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and other countries.
Coca is the natural source from which cocaine is derived. It is a shrub in the Erythroxylum family, which is comprised of different plants native to South America. The species E. coca and and E. novogranatense contain the alkaloids needed to produce cocaine. E. coca originates in the eastern Andes.
Scientific evidence dates coca usage back to Nazca, Moche, Chiribaya and Inca cultures. Archaeologists have evidence of the use of coca from deposits of alkali on human teeth and images of in Peru's Ayacucho valley caves. This took place between 5250-2800 BC. Recovered ancient ceramic pots also showed that coca was in use in coastal Ecuador around 3000 BC.
For the ancient Andeans, coca was an important part of daily life. It was used for celebration and also had medicinal properties. It helps treat fatigue, dental issues, headaches, asthma, impotence and much more. Coca tea, called Mate de coca, was a common drink throughout Andean populations and is still available. In fact, it is frequently served in tourist establishments to treat nausea and dizziness caused by altitude sickness. Many members of indigenous communities commonly chew on the coca leaf.
Ancient cultures began to chew coca by folding the leaves and placing them between their rear teeth for chewing. This unique way of consuming coca was first observed by Amerigo Vespucci in Northeast Brazil in 1499 AD. However, there is also ample archaeological evidence that confirms this practice.
Coca was also part of the religion of the Andean people who lived in Peru, Boliva, Ecuador, Colombia and parts of Northern Chile and Argentina. While these beliefs began in pre-Incan times, they continue on today. Coca leaves are read like tea leaves for divination and used in shamanic rituals. People in some parts of South America even chewed the leaves before meditation.
Even in recent times, coca remains important to the people of some South American countries and some usages are completely legal. For example, the governments of Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela have recommended the use of it in common products including tea, soft drinks, gum, condoms and toothpaste. They are even interested in exporting these goods to boost their economies. Representatives advocating these goods also seek to convince the world that coca is not just used for producing cocaine, but that it contains valuable vitamins and minerals and can be used in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.