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Coca and the Mountain
Observations into the Worldview of the Quechua of Panao

by Terry P. Smith

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Coca as a source of information

Just as the Virgin Mary is believed to have used coca to inquire about the wellbeing of her son, the Quechua of Panao value coca for its ability to provide information. Kuka willan (coca tells) is the source of information one needs for making the more pivotal decisions in one's affairs and life. Coca may be used by an individual to seek answers to some questions while a 'casual' seer or a 'professional' chrajchrakuj (one who knows how to chew or divine) will be consulted according to the criticalness of the issue. Examples of these three levels of expertise are presented in the following discussion.

Individual use of coca

Migration to the differing ecological zones is a pattern of life among the Panao Quechua. Each zone has a distinct planting and harvest season which requires much travel; from the chrakra up to the puna is normally a day's walk; from the chrakra down to the yunka is at least a day's travel by road, then a walk of some distance. Travelers want to be assured that their journey will be uneventful, thus they inquire of the coca, "Will it be good?" This inquiry is made by cupping a few choice coca leaves in the hands then quietly asking them the question. Upon spreading the hands out, one reads the coca's response. The upper face of the leaf, the dark green surface, is kara alli (the face is good), thus indicating a positive response to one's question; the underside of the leaf is chapa (a bad omen or negative response), and the stem indicates that there will be problems. Hulshof (Boldó, 1986: Chap. 4) reports these generalities about coca leaves: "Smooth, small and green leaves signify children; discolored and tattered leaves, sickness; wrinkled and folded, misfortune; and long leaves, journeys."

Coca's responses are held to be true and more reliable than a person's word. Pickett (1987) reports that coca's responses may be used as valid legal testimony.

The individual may also want to be assured of success before making a request of another person, for example a request for a loan of money. The coca's response will determine whether the person makes the request or not.

For issues which are more critical, a man may turn to a kinsman or friendly neighbor and request that he or she inquire of the coca on his behalf. This individual is a casual diviner, a 'semi-pro,' rather than a professional.

Casual use of coca

The 'casual user' of coca is one who knows how to listen to what the coca says and can read or understand what the leaves say after they have been chewed. His or her credibility is established through successful practice for friends and neighbors. The following example demonstrates the typical practice by casual coca chewers.

A woman who had been suffering from gallstones for several months called a casual chrajchrakuj to her home and requested her to "chew coca on my behalf." The suffering woman wanted to know if the treatment she was presently trying was going to be effective. She then proceeded to give her neighbor a small handful of leaves (approximately twenty-five leaves) so that she could inquire of the coca on her behalf. The neighbor cupped about six leaves in her hand, held them close to her mouth and softly asked the coca, "Will it be all right?" Then after chewing the leaves a short while, she removed a bit of leaf from her mouth with her fingers, put it into her hand, and read the results. This process was repeated three or four times until the coca told the answer to the question. She also considered whether the coca was sweet or not: sweet is a positive indicator; bitter is a negative response. Then she made payment to insure that the coca would reply again if intercession were made at some future time.

Expert use of coca

For the critical issues of life one consults the expert chrajchrakuj. This expert knows how to chew the coca, listen to its responses, and he or she also talks to the Mountain. Thus the expert use of coca provides direct communication with the Mountain or as the Quechua say, "Father Grandfather is the big powerful one here on this earth. He is our God on this earth." Being a real diviner, however, is not for the faint-hearted. A session may last all night or proceed continuously for four or five days, and if the Mountain is not satisfied with the efforts, he will kill the diviner.

Choosing a wife is a major decision in a society in which the family is the predominant social unit. Marriage is not the union of two individuals but rather of two social units. With life so dependent upon the availability of land within the different ecological zones as well as the dedication to work it well, emotional attraction between two young people is definitely not basis enough for contracting marriage. A young man will indicate his preference to his father or to an uncle so that he can intercede on his behalf, but before any decision is made, a chrajchrakuj will be consulted to see what the coca will say. This expert will repeatedly chew coca, adding lime from his big lime gourd (jatun isku puruwan), which is said to increase the release of alkaloids. He will also smoke cigarettes and drink liquor. Cud after cud is chewed until the diviner believes the coca has provided the answer. If a good leaf appears in the cud with the dark surface up, the intermediary is told to go ahead and try to arrange the marriage with the woman's parents. However, if the response is negative, the young man is told that he should forget about the woman, that she would die after the marriage or that she is to marry someone else. For these services, the diviner is paid one to two days' wages.

In decisions concerning marriage, business, crops and animals, or concerning the purchase of new fields or animals, just the coca itself is consulted, not the Mountain. But for an illness whose origin is not readily recognized, it is assumed that an enemy has cast a spell and the chraj chrakuj will need to seek the intervention of the Mountain.

Coca, a source of health

The medical benefits of coca have been disputed by the western world for many years. However, the Andean people have trusted in its curative powers for centuries. Today modern technology presently acknowledges that one hundred grams of coca contains 100% of the RDA of vitamins B1, B2, and C, as well as contributing significant quantities of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin A to the diet. Physically, it also promotes stamina, relieves pain, and reduces inflammation. Psychologically, it generates a sense of social wellbeing and counteracts depression.

Coca is used medicinally in a limited sense. A woman may make coca tea when she has a headache and just does not feel well. For a headache she would repeatedly bite a large coca leaf to moisten it and then plaster it to the area where the headache is felt most acutely. Coca's more prevalent use as a source of health is for the benevolent dynamic it establishes between the sick person and the Mountain. When the Mountain is happy with the sick person, the curse of an enemy will be broken and he or she will get better.

Document created: June 6, 1997