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Ancient Indigenous Coca Use Aids Fight Against Prohibition

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Recent archaeological discoveries of chewed coca and calcium-rich rocks beneath house floors in the Nanchok Valley of northwestern Peru provide new evidence that Peruvian foraging societies chewed coca leaves 8,000 years ago, reported the BBC.

The rocks, burned and scraped to create lime, were likely chewed with the coca to release more of its active chemicals, according to BBC. Calcite is a “mineral used by coca chewers to extract alkaloids from the leaf,” reported

Millions of people in Peru and Bolivia use coca to “stave off hunger and fight altitude sickness,” reported BBC. The leaf is also used in teas and cooking, and has long been used by the Quechua people of the Andes and their Inka ancestors for medicinal properties and in sacred ceremonial rites.

The finding dates the first known coca use back by at least 3,000 years, said an international team in the journal Antiquity.

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Beyond deepening a cultural perspective of Peruvian foragers, the discovery gives backbone to indigenous peoples in an enduring debate. Since 2008, the United Nation’s International Narcotics Control Board has pushed for the two Andean governments of Peru and Bolivia to “abolish or prohibit activities… such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea,” in an effort to curb cocoa production, which is connected to cocaine -- extracted and purified from the leaves by complex chemical means.

Dr. Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University, who, along with colleagues, discovered the chewed leaves and calcium-rich rocks, argues the plant is steeped in indigenous culture. “Some have argued that (coca chewing) is a fairly recent historical tradition—meaning the last several centuries or a thousand years—but it’s a deeply-rooted economic, social and even religious tradition in the Andes,” Dillehay told BBC.

Peruvian Congresswoman Maria Sumire defended indigenous rights to the plant. “The United Nations lacks respect for the indigenous people... who have used the coca leaf since forever… For indigenous people, coca is a sacred leaf that is part of their cultural identity,” reported

While the U.N. conflates “the coca leaf with produced drugs like cocaine and opium,” the Quechua people continue to proclaim, “The coca leaf is not a drug,” reported