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The Incan empire emerging from the Cuzco valley in the twelfth century made clear even then how thoroughly a single plant could become central to political interest. In the fourteenth century, when the Incans' influence extended across the territory stretching from northern Ecuador to central Chile and integrated millions of Indians across hundreds of tribes and cultures, they faced the challenge of how to combine expansion, administrative and logistic integration, and ceremonial sanctification. The coca leaf turned out to be of invaluable help in these endeavors. See Kennedy, Coca Exotica , 20-24. It became the divine plant, catalyzing biochemical effects, desire, power, and myth, to be distributed henceforth in restricted form. Vast territories of the Andean world adopted a politics of organizing and circumscribing trade, with coca being the strategic commodity and denominator for control purposes: a single culture trait, physiological stimulant, and medical device shared by many of the tribes under Incan rule. And as Garcilaso de la Vega writes, “it was unlawful for any of the local people to use coca without permission from the [Incan] governor.” Garcilaso de la Vega, "El Inca," Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin: Texas University Press, 1966), 330. In his Comentarios Reales , coca (“cuca”) ranks higher than gold and silver: it is “ la principal riqueza del Perú .” Garcilaso de la Vega, “El Inca,” Comentarios reales , intro. y notas de María Dolores Bravo Arriaga (México, D.F.: SEP, Dirección General de Publicaciones y Bibliotecas/UNAM, Coordinación de Humanidades, 1982), chapter XV.

Although millions had chewed the leaf before the rise of the Tawantinsuyu (the Incan empire), the Incan state combined life and coca most thoroughly—politically, economically, spiritually, medicinally, and sexually. This was the situation that the Spanish invasion—what the Incans called Pachakuti , or the total disruption of space and time—terminated in 1532-33. The Catholic Church was suspicious of a “magic plant” that seemed even more dangerous than the fruit that led Adam and Eve into Original Sin. Since it looked profane and unappealing, it had to possess a dark side. For the Indian people, coca was associated with the concept of huaca —a sacred quality resident in a thing, place, or person. Joseph Kennedy, Coca Exotica , 26. Ecclesiastical authorities and Church people were upset with this pagan concept of the sacred that ran counter to their idea of God’s transcendence as a reign of purity. Chewing coca daily, or “offering the plant to idols” (viewed as demons), See Garcilaso de la Vega, “El Inca,” Comentarios reales , chapter XV. was suspicious. At stake were conflicting concepts not simply of divinity (monotheism vs. polytheism) but also of materializing (or suppressing) relationships with the divine; in other words, the tension between Christian representation and pagan enactment of the divine—a delicate matter of political theology.

From the outset of colonization, the war waged by the Spanish Crown and the Church against the use of coca was nurtured by a scholastic—that is, doctrinal—drive. But colonial governments had to give the problem a somewhat different spin for reasons related to the lucrative nature of the growing coca trade, the popularity of the leaf, and its potential for helping people carry out hard work. The colonialists’ coercion of Indian laborers into gold and silver mines, where they were forced to endure extreme hardships, was abetted considerably by providing the laborers with coca rations. Promotion of coca leaves by European and Creole merchants as a stimulant and appetite suppressant helped destroy traditional food-exchange cycles. See Kennedy, Coca Exotica , 36-38. Other factors uprooting the culture of communities turned coca into a treatment for increasing hunger pains and a more or less efficient remedy for a long list of disasters caused by colonial rule.

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Source:  OpenStax, Emerging disciplines: shaping new fields of scholarly inquiry in and beyond the humanities. OpenStax CNX. May 13, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11201/1.1
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