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Innovative use of alkalis in the ancient Americas

Utilisation novatrice des alkalis dans les anciennes Amériques
Robert Charles Bradley


Nixtamalization, from the Náhuatl nixtamalli, is a process in which maize is soaked in a vessel containing an alkali solution. The alkali processing of maize is essential in preparing corn for human consumption because it releases lysine and tryptophan and, most importantly, niacin. Without these, when the primary dietary staple is unprocessed maize, the result is malnutrition and disease, pellagra. Nixtamalization originated in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica but there was a paucity of corn processing in pre-Hispanic South America, even though corn was ubiquitous in both regions at a very early date. However, coca was similarly soaked in an alkali solution, with saliva, in the chewer’s mouth in ancient South America. Therefore, the coca chewer also processed plant material, coca, in order to release trace amounts of cocaine along with the vitamins B1, riboflavin and vitamin C. In this paper, I will briefly discuss corn processing in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and compare it with the ancient tradition of coca chewing in South America, emphasizing the ingenious adaptation of these counter intuitive techniques as survival strategies.

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1Nixtamalization, from the Náhuatl nixtamalli (Karttunen 1983: 171; Staller and Carrasco 2010: 346), is a process in which maize is soaked in a vessel containing an alkali solution. The alkali processing of maize is essential in preparing corn for human consumption because it releases lysine and tryptophan and, most importantly, niacin. Without these, when the primary dietary staple is unprocessed maize, the result is malnutrition and disease, pellagra (Katz et al. 1974). Nixtamalization originated in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica but corn processing was conspicuously absent in pre-Hispanic South America, even though corn was ubiquitous in both regions at a very early date (Staller et al. 2009). However, coca was similarly soaked in an alkali solution, with saliva, in the chewer’s mouth in ancient South America. Therefore, the coca chewer also processed plant material, coca, in order to release trace amounts of cocaine along with the vitamins B1, riboflavin and vitamin C (Josephson 1974). In this paper, I will briefly discuss corn processing in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and compare it with the ancient tradition of coca chewing in South America, emphasizing the ingenious adaptation of counter intuitive processing techniques as survival strategies. I will continue with a brief discussion of coca varieties, then end with an examination of coca chewing in the Western and non-western realms. The concluding remarks section of this paper emphasize the great antiquity of alkali processing in the Americas, point out the lack of maize processing in South America and question the Western criminalization of coca leaves.

Maize processing

  • 1 A digression here is necessary for the highland preparation of mote, which today involves adding wo (...)

2Zea maize mutated from Balsas teosinte, in southern Mexico, thousands of years before the Common Era (Ranere et al. 2009). In the Early Preclassic, 850 BCE, the Maya people of Mesoamerica began processing maize to make tamales (Staller and Carrasco 2010: 358-59). By this date the Maya had somehow discerned if maize was a dietary staple it required alkali processing. The archaeological evidence for the nixtamalization process first appears on the south coast of Guatemala between 1500 and 1200 BCE (Staller and Carrasco 2010: 317). Perhaps the Maya familiarity with lime as a building material expedited their ingenious adaption of quicklime to the table but without nixtamalization, “there would be a considerable degree of malnutrition in societies where corn is the major part of the diet” (Katz et al. 1974: 767). Therefore, alkali cooking of maize was and is a vital component of intensive maize agriculture in Mesoamerica, yet significant traditions of nixtamalization [of maize] are lacking in pre-Columbian South America, a region with substantial evidence of extensive maize cultivation (Katz et al. 1974: 771).1

3But Staller, following Sauer (1950), has suggested that while in Mesoamerica maize is consumed as a grain, the region’s daily bread so to speak, in the Andean realm of South America it is used as a vegetable, or perhaps more succinctly a fruit (Staller et al. 2006). The vegetable or fruit component of maize takes the form of chicha beer in South America, at once an ever-present refreshment, offering of tribute, and centerpiece of ritual feasting and exchange (Staller el al. 2006; 451-54; Jennings and Bowser 2009). What chicha is not is a dietary essential. Indeed, there are many eating patterns and crops that easily fill in the void left when the sustaining nutrition of alkali-processed maize is removed from the development of pre-Columbian civilizations in South America. For instance, Moseley’s waning, but relevant, ‘maritime hypothesis’, which has the ancient coastal Peruvian civilizations thriving on fish protein, is but one alternative to intensive maize agriculture (Moseley 1974). Research has also pointed to the diversity of nutritional Andean crops (potatoes, manioc [cassava], quinoa, tarwi etc.), which could easily provide the carbohydrates and calories necessary for the rise of civilizations in both the coast and mountains of South America (Burger and Van der Merwe 1990).

Coca varieties and coca processing

4I would suggest that coca is the Andean realm crop most favorably compared to Mesoamerica’s omnipresent alkali processed maize. Unfortunately, most of the studies related to Erythroxylum, the botanical name for coca, inextricably link the leaf to the modern drug cocaine. From the first Western contact, these inquiries have mimicked the early Spanish priest’s study of indigenous religions in the Conquest era, in that the ultimate focus of both was eradication of the subject. An exception to this destructive process occurred when the Spanish gleaned that coca increased colonial labor productivity, causing the crown to take control of coca production (Rostworowski 1988). Cocaine was first isolated from the leaf by Albert Niemann in 1859 (Gootenberg 2008: 22). Cocaine was initially accepted as a wonder drug but in a few decades the addictive and destructive qualities of the substance became apparent (Stolberg 2010: 137-138). In contrast to cocaine’s volatile one-hundred-and-fifty-year history with the human race, benign instances of coca chewing have been recorded back to 6000 BCE (Dillehay 2010: 948) and it is likely that this estimate of the antiquity of human consumption of coca is conservative.

5Chewing coca is perfectly legal in the Andean nations of South America. Coca acts as a mild stimulant and helps ward off fatigue, hunger and thirst; therefore, it is sought after in this rugged and difficult mountainous environment. Coca is a social lubricant, ceremonial offering and stimulant that was shared by both emperors and peasants in western South America. The term coca comes from an Aymara word for “bush” or “tree”, but in the pre-Columbian era, each variety of coca had its own unique indigenous appellation (Plowman 1984: 130-137; Rostworowski 1988: 65). Botanist Timothy Plowman’s was responsible for isolating the four varieties of Erythroxylum, which contain cocaine, in particularly the most important of the four: tupa coca. The term tupa coca defines a special type of coca with small leaves and it is referenced in the early seventh-century Quechua dictionary of Jesuit Diego González Holguín (Holguín 1989). Plowman identified two species of Erythroxylum, Erythroxylum coca (Coca) and Erythroxylum novogranatense (Novo). He further classified each species of plant into two varieties. Tupa coca, the focus of this investigation, is scientifically classified as Erythroxylum novogranatense var. truxillense (Plowman 1979,1984). Tupa is a Quechua word for royal and an appellation of high esteem used in the name of the greatest Inca imperial conqueror Tupa Inca. This particular variety of coca was most preferred by the Inca nobility (Murúa 1962; Holguín 1989; Rostworoski 1973; Plowman 1979: 52; Dillehay et al. 2010: 940). Novo truxillense is named after the Peruvian North Coast city of Trujillo, or, more specifically, the parched region that typifies this ancient part of northern Peru. All species of coca flourish in consistent temperatures, 50 F to 90 F, (Acock et al. 1996) and like three of four related varieties, Novo truxillense thrives in altitudes of 500 to 1500 masl, although the altitude range of Novo truxillense extends upward another 300 m to about 1800 masl. But in contrast to the other three varieties, Novo truxillense can sustain the dry conditions of the arid yunga zone of coastal Peru (dry mountain foothills).

6Wintergreen oil (methyl salicylate) is found in the leaves of Novo truxillense. This essence has made the leaf popular with the campesinos that chew the plant on a daily basis, and it is likely that the unique flavoring of this variety promoted the assignment of the appellation tupa for this plant in the pre-Columbian era. Tupa coca has always been cultivated for its taste. Tupa coca is so aromatic Peruvian historian María Rostworowski has even suggested that it was used as an ingredient in pre-Columbian food preparations (Rostworowski 1988; Villavicencio 2007: 128). Indeed, the process of chewing coca mimics the ancient method of making corn tortillas, tamales and hominy, which were and are the daily bread of the Mesoamerican world. As previously mentioned nixtamalization is a technique in which maize is soaked in a solution of quicklime (CaO). Likewise, coca is soaked in a solution of quicklime and saliva in the chewer’s mouth (an elaborate discussion of this ritual will follow shortly). Also, Betel chewing in Asia is a similar tradition to chewing coca as both involve the use of slaked lime (Rooney 1993). Quicklime, CaO, is produced when calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is heated in a kiln. The chemical reaction is CaCO3 (Calcium carbonate) + Heat = CaO (calcium oxide or quicklime) + CO2 (carbon dioxide). The source of calcium carbonate in this decomposition can be myriad: pulverized limestone, chalk, travertine, marble, marl, seashells and coral (Wingate 1985: 9-22). Pre-Columbian people extensively used seashells, a very pure form of calcium carbonate as an alkali (Engel 1957: 68; Shady 2003) and this is also widely used in Betel chewing in the Pacific (Rooney 1993). Besides breaking the corn down and making it physically easier to work into tortillas the quicklime and water mixture releases niacin and vitamins in the corn and reduces incidents of protein deficiency. A coca chewer also processes the coca with the strong lime alkali and in the mouth of the chewer the trace amounts of cocaine are extracted along with the vitamins B1, riboflavin and vitamin C (Josephson 1974).

Coca chewing and the modern Western World

Tupa coca’s flavor component was also sought out by commercial interests seeking an additive for tonics in the nineteenth-century, the most famous of which was Coca-Cola (Plowman 1984: 138). But any positive reference to the tupa coca plant by this company was rendered impossible by the scandal that erupted at the beginning of the twentieth-century over cocaine in patent medicines and soft drinks. Coca-Cola did have small amounts of cocaine added to the drink mixture, but in the early years of the twentieth-century, cocaine was removed because of the bad publicity associated with the drug’s addictive qualities. The negative press caused by this additive would haunt the company for decades and scandal has fostered a cultural of denial in reference to any association with the plant (Pendergrast 1993: 90-91). In the nineteen-eighties Coca-Cola definitively stated that “ingredients from the coca leaf are used but there is no cocaine in it and it is all overseen by regulatory authorities” (May 1988: D1).

A number of problems arise from this explanation. Coca-Cola (pre-nineteen hundred) likely added both the coca leaf for flavoring (Erythroxylum novogranatense var. truxillense) and the drug cocaine into the mix. Sometime after nineteen hundred the cocaine was removed from the blend but coca leaves were still part of the formula, because the unique flavor element of Coca-Cola implies the addition of the savoriest type of coca. Botanist Tim Plowman has pointed out that extracting cocaine from tupa coca is an extremely difficult process, especially compared to the extraction process concerning the other three varieties, so this type of coca has always been poorly suited for cocaine production (Plowman 1984: 138). Tupa coca is best as a source of flavor. So, the company statement is at its core accurate but instead it should read, Erythroxylum novogranatense var. truxillense is used for flavoring but the cocaine contained in the leaf remains inert when making Coca-Cola because it is not processed by an alkali”.

  • 2 The coca sold in these transactions is not tupa coca. Cuzco is hundreds of miles from Peru’s North (...)
  • 3 Creating an outlawed substance in Peru occurs when the coca leaves are mixed with chemicals like ke (...)

Many Western travelers become acquainted with coca chewing on their quest to experience Machu Picchu. A New Age spirituality often compliments this encounter with the Andean other and the chewing of coca is a ritual activity often associated with this mission. On any given day the parking lot of Cuzco’s airport is full of older Quechua speaking women hawking small bags of a dozen leaves to foreigners going to the hotel buses.2 Usually the exchange of coca and money is accomplished out in the open, but the Western visitors always seem a bit nervous with the transaction, even though many must have thoroughly read their guidebooks and therefore know that chewing coca is legal in Andean countries.3 When the tourists conclude their business they typically retreat to their rooms and chew the leaves in private. But this entire experience is completely spurious because the venders seldom sell the foreigners cal (CaO), or the little balls of quinoa ash, gum and lime called llypta (llipta, llujt’a, ilipta and tocra) (Gagliano 1994: 7; Gootenberg 2008: 16). Ash is also used as the alkaline processing agent (Katz et al. 1974: 768-9) because approximately one third of the chemical composition of wood ash is CaO (Misra et al. 1993: 111). The availability of wood ash suggests that cinders are the more primitive precursor to the more difficult to manufacture quicklime. But again, Dillehay et al. have shown examples of CaO production, related to coca chewing, 8,000 years in the past. What is even more striking is that the lime from the site he investigated was produced by precipitating lime from calcite (Dillehay et al. 2010: 949). The importance of finding an early workshop dedicated to making quicklime cannot be over emphasized.

  • 4 In a summer 2003 trip to La Paz I had my first experience with the small Bolivian bags of coca and (...)

7Without these alkalis, chewing coca leaves has less effect on the human body and is more like the mate de coca (coca leaves tea) served in the Andes, including in upscale Cuzco establishments. The vendors, of course, know that a ball of llypta should complement any purchase free of charge, but at the Cuzco airport most sellers will feign ignorance if they are challenged for not providing this catalyst at no extra charge. To a certain extent the reluctance of the vendors is reasonable, because giving a free class on masticating coca leaves and a strong alkali in one’s mouth, to effete Western travelers, is a daunting task for any campesino intent on making a few extra Soles for the day. But about two and a half miles away from the airport, a one-pound bag (libra) of coca leaves can be purchased in the San Pedro market, with complimentary llypta, for approximately the same price as the small glassine packages of ten or twenty leaves at the airport. The cost for a small bag of leaves can be fifteen soles ($5) or more, which is an outrageous price that only remains viable because of the naiveté of the steady flow of visitors into the region. In other areas of Peru, for instance the upper Marañon in the northeast, a libra bag of tupa coca leaves, available here, but not in Cuzco, will cost about fifteen Soles, cal (CaO) included. Small bags of coca leaves are common in other southern Andean regions. In La Paz Bolivia, for example, street hawkers sell coca in small packets similar to those hawked at Cuzco’s airport, but these bags have a ridiculously low retail price (in cents) and often come with a ball of llypta.4

8Unlike the solitary chewer alone in a luxury hotel room, in Andean communities, coca chewing is a social practice, reinforcing communal relations (Julien 1998).

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Coca chewing session in the village of Chilchos, 2010

Photograph by Robert Bradley

  • 5 The gourd is called a calero in Spanish but the Quechua term puro is likely more ancient and theref (...)

9Nicola Sharratt has chronicled the history and importance of chuspas, coca bags, in Andean social practice (Sharratt 2014: 13). When an Andean coca aficionado chews coca, the leaves are masticated in the mouth and the chewer can then either bite off a pinch of llypta or add small amounts of CaO from a lime gourd to the pulp lining their inner cheek.5 A lime gourd is a small bottle gourd typically finished with horn at the top and a horn handled pin, which fits snugly to the top of the lime gourd. The two-inch pin is more precisely a spoon. Imagine a small knife that fits into a bottle shaped sheath. The chewer licks the metal spoon and dips the metal into the gourd to extract lime. Getting the right amount of lime on the end of the spoon requires practice. The llypta or lime releases trace amounts of cocaine in the leaves and puts the drug, and nutrients, into effect. Prowess in chewing is an acquired skill focusing on the right mixture of macerated leaves and lime. The juice from the process should be kept in the mouth as long as possible, before the inevitable spitting. Repeated swallowing of the juice is not recommended because loss of appetite and diarrhea can follow. A quid of coca leaves can pleasantly last for a half of an hour or more depending on the amount of leaves the chewer can add to the mash in the cheeks without triggering the gag mechanism. Ultimately the quid becomes stale and the entire ball of leaves (bolo) needs to be expelled. The process is then repeated. In Andean communities these chewing sessions, typically beginning around dusk, can last well into the night.

10Despite the mystique associated with coca chewing, most foreigners are typically revolted by the experience. Chewing coca can be compared to chewing tobacco. Developing a proficiency in dipping smokeless tobacco is also an acquired skill. The chewer must keep the proper amount of tobacco in their mouth then expel the tobacco and spit at the right time and in the right place. Like chewing coca today, this practice is more suited to a rural environment where freedom of the hands for hard work is often required. Specifically, both chewing tobacco and coca provide a respite for the agricultural worker. The cosmetics of tobacco chewing have kept this custom from gaining popularity in the modern world. In the same way coca chewing also entails practice. Spitting is also required and it is interesting to note that the habit of expectorating is not considered rude in Andean villages. The green mash on the lips and teeth, necessary by-products of the process, also present a repugnant barrier to most Western travelers. Therefore, they typically are not open-minded enough to acquire the skill necessary to become a coquero. Finally, the Western travelers who have been instructed correctly and given coca with the proper alkali are almost always disappointed by the mild effect of the leaves. By Western standards the ‘high’ from chewing coca is hardly worth the considerable effort. As the anthropologist Enrique Mayer put it: chewing coca is like going through the Andes on a donkey while using cocaine is like streaking through the region on a jet airplane (Pacini and Franquemont 1985: 35).

  • 6 This came up in a personal conversation with the former mayor of Chachapoyas, Dr. Peter Lerche.

11Coca chewing is also frowned upon by the upper classes in western South America. To the Euro-centric elite of Peru’s coastal cities chewing coca is anathema because the practice is indicative of the indigenous working class. Take, for example, this provincial Andean paradigm. In the northern highland capital city of Chachapoyas, I have been told of a group of small business owners, who have worked their way up from their impoverished campesino origins. The current prosperous state of these burghers has forced them to chew coca in secret so that they are not seen as regressing to their previous working-class origins.6

Coca chewing traditions and the pre-Columbian world

12In contrast, coca chewing was indicative of high status in the pre-Columbian Andean world. Elite Moche figures, certainly enjoying tupa coca, are thematic in the ceramics recovered in the northwest desert region of Peru (Donnan 1976: 35; Mujica and Maio 2007: 215).

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Ceramic of man chewing coca, Moche culture 1-800 CE, Museo Larco, Lima

Photograph by Robert Bradley

  • 7 Because the Kogi homeland is located far away from the Peru’s North Coast, the coca that the mamas (...)

13Today the most pristine example of pre-Columbian ritualized coca chewing exists in the mountainous region of Columbia’s Caribbean Coast. The Kogi people of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta massif are a Chibcha-speaking group from the ancient Tairona culture. They number about ten thousand individuals and live in and around small villages of this isolated region (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990; Oyuela Caycedo, 1998). The Kogi retain many of their ancient traditions even in this modern era. Priests, called mamas, who have elaborate rituals in connection with the use of coca, rule them. Andean scholars have used ethnographic evidence, gleaned from the Kogi way of life to gain insight into the practices of highland pre-Columbian peoples (Burger 1992). All of the mamas carry a bag, which contains a lime gourd and stick along with a small bag of coca leaves.7 The gourds are about five inches long and a hole is placed in the top of the container to hold the alkali instrumental in the coca chewing process. The alkali used by the Kogi also references the pre-Columbian era because it is created by burning bivalvular seashells on a carefully constructed pyre. The white powder derived from this process is then sifted into the gourd (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990: 16-18). Interestingly, each mama has two lime gourds: one for daily coca chewing and one set aside for ritual occasions (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990: 18).

14Coca chewing among the Kogi is highly ritualized in every aspect. Among the Kogi and most highland Andean societies, the practice of chewing coca is confined to the men. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff noted that the mythology of coca’s creation is decidedly matrilineal in that the plant originates from the earth mother (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990: 19). The wooden stick that the Kogi use to extract the lime from the gourd is oversized compared to the many metal pre-Columbian examples in museum collections. Again Reichel-Dolmatoff noted a sexual aspect to the large wooden spoons in that the wood of the spoon must correspond to the paternal line of the owner (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990: 17). When the Kogi chew coca, the excess saliva and lime on the spoon are rubbed off on the top of the gourd in a circular motion. Over time the accumulation forms a yellow crust of yellowish white lime. The size and shape of this crust confers status and therefore the owner of an old lime gourd will prominently display the container (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1990: 18).

15As previously noted, Tom Dillehay has shown instances of coca chewing taking place 8,000 years ago in the Nanchoc Valley (Zaña River) of Peru’s North Coast (Dillehay et al. 2010: 950). Similar evidence from Ecuador has been found dating from 8850-4650 BCE (Stolberg 2011). In addition to uncovering a quicklime manufacturing facility, Dillehay identified the coca leaf in his archaeological find as Novo truxillense (Dillehay et al. 2010: 948). Earlier archaeological records have confirmed that ancient coastal Peruvians used bottle gourds and mytilus shells to hold their lime, at sites dated 4,000 BP (Engel 1957; Shady 2003). But Dillehay showed evidence of the earliest example of coca chewing at Nanchoc was likely accomplished by using a llypta ball of quicklime mixed with water, ash and salt, rolled into a ball as the alkali. It was then masticated with coca to release the alkaloids, one of which was cocaine (Dillehay et al. 2010: 949). It is interesting to note that a choice of different flavored llypta balls, accompanying any purchase of coca in Cuzco’s San Pedro market, is offered: a bitter one or a sweet one with sugar added. But in this ancient time bottle gourds were readily available on the North Coast of Peru, as the myriad uses for them would range from simple containers to floaters for fishing nets. Therefore, one would expect to see gourds associated with coca consumption; Dillehay’s evidence of llypta as the proto-typical caustic agent for coca chewing is then a fantastic discovery.

16In northern Peru, the puros or caleros are commonly used in the practice of chewing coca. But these gourds are dissimilar to those of the Kogi in that they are not fitted with a stick but instead the previously mentioned metal lime spoon is the standard. Most pre-Columbian examples of lime gourds seem to mimic this model but often the archaeological spoons are made from precious metals, which are likely indicative of the chewer’s elite status. In the pre-Columbian era (Moche, Chimú, Inca) coca chewing was defined by the use of the puro (Donnan 1978: 116-119; Plowman 1984: 142; Villavicencio 2007: 52). Some scholars believe coca chewing was restricted to elites in the pre-Columbian world (Matienzo 1967; Julien 1988: 129) but John Murra suggested that the ordinary activity of coca chewing drew interest from both peasants and lords in the pre-Hispanic era (Pacini and Franquemont 1985: 49-52). After the arrival of the Spanish, the population of aboriginal South America was decimated by disease (Dobyns 1963) and the remaining indigenous populations were given coca for stamina to perform the back-breaking labor required in the Colonial age (for instance Julien noted an increase in coca production after the silver strike at Potosí, Julien 1998: 129). Because of the poverty associated with this era it is likely that many of these native workers expeditiously chewed coca with llypta. Today the tradition of using puros to hold the lime, for coca chewing, continues in the northern part of Peru and Colombia but not in the former Inca Imperial core around Cuzco. I have taken artisanal gourds made in the Utcubamba River Valley of the Department of Amazonas to Cuzco and to La Paz Bolivia. The artisanal gourd I showed a woman selling coca leaves at the bottom of the salt mines at Maras, just outside of Cuzco, was a source of amazement, but she was completely ignorant as to its use. When I asked for an alkali to accompany the coca I purchased from her, she produced llypta. I had a similar experience buying coca on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia. The woman who sold me the small, but very inexpensive, bag of coca leaves was enthralled by the carved artwork on my puro but she had no idea how to use the gourd, but she did provide free llypta when asked. This gum-like ball has a rather sweet taste again indicative of the previously cited sugar flavor additive. In the southern Andes, some ritualized elements of the pre-Columbian tradition for chewing lime appear then to be lost. This is curious because the city of Cuzco was the ‘navel of the universe’ for the greatest pre-Columbian state in South America, the Inca Empire. Therefore, one would expect the tradition of chewing coca with elite paraphernalia (puros) to have endured in this historic region, but this is not the case. Perhaps the tradition of associating coca with workers, developing out of the Colonial age, made the practice socially impractical for the mestizo aristocracy? Indeed, puros are not used by coqueros in and around the north central Peruvian city of Huaraz. This Andean city is located near the three-thousand-year-old pre-Columbian center of Chavín de Huántar and less than one hundred miles from the Inca provincial hub of Huanuco Pampa. The region figures prominently in the history of at least two expansionistic Andean states, yet use of puros is unknown. Therefore, a vital question for future study must be ‘at what geographical point going southward in Peru does the puro become a forgotten pre-Columbian heirloom’. Perhaps this investigation could be tied to a comprehensive survey and investigation into the type of calcium carbonate used in the pre-Columbian manufacture of CaO. For example, quicklime containers (gourds) and spatulas could be examined for shell and travertine. The Andean field could benefit greatly if more lime processing centers, like the one unearthed by Dillehay et al. at Nanchoc could be identified as a quicklime source in the vicinity of a pre-Hispanic ruin. Travertine is sourced today for industrial use, so perhaps an oral tradition or Colonial record exists which recorded the sourcing of this material during the pre-Columbian era?

17Archaeologist Tom Dillehay has suggested that human manipulation of coca, leading to the variety known as tupa coca, could have begun in the Upper Marañon Valley of northeastern Peru (Dillehay et al. 2010: 940). I have worked in this region for more than a decade during the course of my research, and during this time I have come to appreciate the importance of coca chewing to the farmers of the Andean world. My discussions about the direction of a particular pre-Columbian trail or the location of an important ruin are always prefaced by a long period of chac bola: coca chewing. Indeed, it was in the remote part of Peru where I first became interested with the topic of coca and the techniques of chewing coca. The area that Dillehay implied as the point of origin for tupa coca likely corresponds to the coca-growing region west of the Yumal Pass, which leads into the Marañon River Valley district of Cocabamba.

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Low relief figure of a man chewing coca from the Tintero at Kuelap, Chachapoya culture, 700-1400 CE

Photograph by Robert Bradley

18The coca from this Valley is celebrated for its delicacy and flavor and certainly this description is consistent with pre-Columbian references concerning tupa coca (Plowman 1984: 138; Dillehay 2010: 940). I previously mentioned the price of a libra of coca leaves as around five dollars US. Buying a bag of coca leaves for several dollars might seem like nothing to a tourist in Cuzco but this price is dear to the cash-strapped campesinos of Peru.

Concluding remarks

19It is hard to imagine what food preparation was like in Europe and Asia before the arrival of the Spanish in the New World. The trifling gold and silver of the Mexica and Inca people pales in comparison to the treasure of corn, the potato, the tomato, chocolate, and hot pepper. Enduring foodstuffs were the great gift pre-Columbian peoples sent back to the Old World (Coe 1994). Coca leaves fall into the celebrated company of these wonderful foods when framed within the Andean world. Coca is not a drug but a foodstuff, intimately entwined with survival in one of the harshest geographical regions in the world for human habitation. Reductionist Western scientists created the profane from the sacred, maligning the ritual of coca chewing in the process, when they began synthesizing cocaine (Eliade and Trask 1959). In the hamlets and villages of the Andes coca is used today, as it was in the pre-Columbian past, as a tonic for consumption (Julien 1998). The comparison of chewing coca and maize processing, first presented in this paper, links the Mesoamerican world with the Andean world and is indicative of the indigenous resourcefulness in applying natural science to problems of nutrition and survival.

20The counter-intuitive use of quicklime in the Americas was an outstanding human advancement. I say counter-intuitive because adding a bitter, and ultimately poisonous, alkali chemical to something that will be chewed, swallowed and absorbed into the body defies common sense. Yet the outcome of this processing is survival. It must be noted that the ancient West also has an example of alkali processing of foodstuffs in the Roman use of wood ash to cure green olives for consumption (Palladius 1807: 328). The birch-ash treatment of Lutefisk and lye dipped pretzels are more modern examples of Western alkali processing. But clearly, alkali processing of food occurred earlier and was more widespread in the ancient Americas and necessity seems to be the driving force for this adaptation. Nixtamalization provided the nutritional base, which supported the rise of large polities in Mesoamerican. In the Andean world, alkali processing of coca delivered the nutrients and a drug in a region of parched deserts, intimidating mountain altitudes and thick forests. Additionally, the Andean alkali processing of organic matter is most audacious because the ‘cooking’ takes places in the individual’s mouth.

21Archaeological fieldwork at Nanchoc revealed a quicklime production workshop. This production site systematically synthesized CaO from precipitated calcite deposits more than eight thousand years ago (Dillehay et al. 2010: 949). It is curious that marine shells, a limitless source of calcium carbonate easily foraged, were not fired. And the calcite deposits were mined even though the people working the calcite into lime had a source of CaO readily available, simple wood ash. Producing quicklime requires some technological advances and safety measures, whereas wood ash, the alkali used to make llypta, could have been extracted easily from any ancient fireplace. Also, the use of wood ash alkali would likely predate the production of CaO in both Mesoamerica and Peru, however it would be extremely difficult to confirm archaeologically. This hypothesis would suggest that coca and maize processing are likely much more ancient than what Mesoamericanists and Andeanists now believe. The findings at Nanchoc not only tell of early North Coast people’s resourcefulness in extracting the vital essences from coca in the most expeditious manner, they also suggest that CaO production could have originated in the Andes and then migrated to Mesoamerica. However, all of the assumptions presented in here require further investigation.

22It is likely that maize processing was not essential in the Andean world because the diversity of nutritional Andean crops (potatoes, manioc [cassava], quinoa, tarwi etc.), easily provided the carbohydrates and calories necessary for the rise of civilizations in both the coast and mountains of South America (Burger and Van der Merwe 1990).

23Finally, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has deemed coca cultivation an international crime indistinguishable from the cultivation of the opium poppy. But for purposes of commerce, Convention article 26, completely outlawing coca leaves, was mitigated by article 27, which is as follows:

“The Parties may permit the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavoring agent, which shall not contain any alkaloids, and, to the extent necessary for such use, may permit the production, import, export, trade in and possession of such leaves” (United Nations Conference for the Adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1963).

24This statement protects the use of coca leaves for commercial interests, for example in flavoring Coca-Cola, but it ignores the ancient everyday use of coca leaves by Andean farmers. Also overlooked is the purchase and use of coca flavored tea, chocolate and candies. For the past two years, my coca tea and candies have been confiscated by customs officials when my luggage passed through Mexico City. No explanation was given for the removal and thankfully my equipment was not impounded. Perhaps this appropriation is only the result of the keen drug-dogs? But the previously mentioned UN policy, a flavoring agent with no alkaloids, does nothing to clarify the legality of shipping these products. Indeed, “coca tea is regularly consumed by the people of some countries in South America. In addition, travelers to these countries may purchase the tea and return with it to their native countries” (Jenkins et al. 1996). But consumption of this tea will result in a positive cocaine urine analysis test up to twenty hours after consumption (Jenkins et al. 1996). Remember, even though the cocaine has no alkali activator when it passes through the tea-drinkers system, the individual still urinates the inactive cocaine alkaloids. Again, taking this into consideration article 27 seems woefully outdated.

25The first step in creating cocaine involves mixing coca leaves with petrochemicals, which is then processed into an illegal paste (pasta). Using an alkali like CaO is the ancient way of releasing small amounts of cocaine in the mouth of the individual chewer and this ritual consumption has never had any link to the world of narco-trafficking. The Convention obviously needs to be furthered amended to outlaw the use of the industrialized chemical processing of coca leaves for the production of cocaine and certainly tupa coca, because of its profound historic, religious and social significance, and the plant’s incompatibility with the narcotics trade, should be exempt from any international restrictions. Finally, the sale, consumption and carrying of coca flavored products should also be clearly removed from any criminal taint.

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1 A digression here is necessary for the highland preparation of mote, which today involves adding wood ash to large boiling kernels of corn. Sergio Zapata Acha has the tradition of preparing mote, muti, motti, going back to the early conquest era, however the earliest references to this food only refer to cooking it and not the addition of an alkali for processing the corn. Zapata Acha’s first citation of alkali processing with wood ash, comes from J.J. von Tschudi, who wrote at the end of the colonial era in South America. This is after three-hundred years of the Columbian Exchange; therefore, it is easy to imagine that a tradition of processing maize had traveled to the Andes from Mexico (Zapata Acha 2009: 499-500). Finally, juniper ash is used in native American cooking to create an alkali solution (Sherman and Dooley 2017).

2 The coca sold in these transactions is not tupa coca. Cuzco is hundreds of miles from Peru’s North Coast, which is the place of origin for this variety.

3 Creating an outlawed substance in Peru occurs when the coca leaves are mixed with chemicals like kerosene and processed into an illegal paste (pasta).

4 In a summer 2003 trip to La Paz I had my first experience with the small Bolivian bags of coca and llypta.

5 The gourd is called a calero in Spanish but the Quechua term puro is likely more ancient and therefore more precise.

6 This came up in a personal conversation with the former mayor of Chachapoyas, Dr. Peter Lerche.

7 Because the Kogi homeland is located far away from the Peru’s North Coast, the coca that the mamas chew is of the species Erythroxylum coca and not the species Erythroxylum nova, which encompasses the variety Erythroxylum novogranatense var. truxillense (tupa coca) (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1990: 2).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1.
Caption Coca chewing session in the village of Chilchos, 2010
Credits Photograph by Robert Bradley
File image/jpeg, 128k
Title Figure 2.
Caption Ceramic of man chewing coca, Moche culture 1-800 CE, Museo Larco, Lima
Credits Photograph by Robert Bradley
File image/jpeg, 240k
Title Figure 3.
Caption Low relief figure of a man chewing coca from the Tintero at Kuelap, Chachapoya culture, 700-1400 CE
Credits Photograph by Robert Bradley
File image/jpeg, 955k
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Electronic reference

Robert Charles Bradley, « Innovative use of alkalis in the ancient Americas  », Anthropology of food [Online], Articles VARIA, Online since 21 October 2019, connection on 18 November 2019. URL :

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About the author

Robert Charles Bradley

Honors College, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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