Human hunter-gatherer groups arrived in South America many years before the adoption of agriculture. After settling in South America, “cultivation of foods such as beans and squashes was started approximately 10,000 years ago. Conversely, the cultivation of potatoes started some 8,000 years ago.”[1] Generally, there were a variety of food plants that were available at an early age of agriculture in the central Andean zone that is now known as Peru. In particular, Peru is considered to be one of the main four world nuclear centres of agricultural origins. Certainly, potato was among the most important food plants of the high Andes and was possibly the first one to be domesticated in Peru. This paper will examine the role of drugs and foods in Peru taking foods such as maize and potatoes. The drug that will be addressed will mainly be cocaine and how it was discovered in Peru. This essay argues that drugs and foods were instrumental for the survival of the Peru people.

According to researchers interested in studying about potatoes from Peru, there are plenty of potatoes that are cultivated there with most of the varieties only differing by color and shape. In Peru, potatoes were not grown on the coast because the climate there was too hot to support its cultivation. For this reason, coast residents received their potatoes from the highlands through barter trade and transhumance. Mainly, potatoes were used by Incas and other people in Peru as source of energy and nitrogen to human body. However, they played a bigger role as people used them for a long time and discovered other areas where they could be used. For instance, starch from potatoes was used for sizing and coating in paper and textile industries. Just like the Incas used to make beer from maize, they also used to make potato beer that was referred to as “chicha.”[2] This drink is still popular in Peru even today. Apart from being used as a source of food, potato was also important in Peru because it safeguarded against famine especially after other crops were destroyed by severe frost.

In Peru, potato was also associated with some religious rituals as observed in pottery where potato was depicted with a human face as a representation of the spirit of the potato plant. Some types of potatoes, such as the ones with blood-red skin color, were associated to the human flesh that is also red. In addition, some patterns on potatoes were also said to resemble human face with eyes while “other Incas also believed that some “eye” on potatoes represented a jaguar’s head.”[3]  In relation to this, Peru was also involved in the export of potatoes to various countries in the world such as Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Netherlands, and the US among others. Food shortages that were caused by wars eventually led to the practice of dehydrating potatoes to reduce their bulk and extend their storage life as they were supplied to armed forces involved in war.  As potato became more established and popular, countries such as Ireland and Germany started growing it in bulk. However, sometimes its production was effected by weather conditions that led to low or no harvest. In this regard, a potato famine was experienced in Ireland from 1845-1852 where people starved due to lack of potatoes that they were used to.[4] This was a clear indication that potatoes were greatly relied upon as a source of food. “In the US, potatoes were processed into chips and crisps and more than 50% of the potatoes consumed there by 1970 were processed.”[5] Contrary to the early times in Peru where potatoes were for subsistence use, production of potatoes in various forms such as mashed, pancakes, rissoles, and dumplings increased the market for potatoes across the world.

Other foods that were also produced in Peru include cassava, sweet potato, beans, peanut, tomato, pumpkins, squash, and pineapples. Ideally, these foods and fruits were exported to Europe. In return, Peru also received various foods and fruits from Europe that include grapes, turnip, coffee bean, bananas, pears, sugarcane, onions, wheat, rice, barley, oats, and livestock among others. This kind of exchange promoted trade between Peru and other countries.

The Inca Empire in Peru “comprised of more than 90 cultural groups that were directly associated with it.”[6] In the Inca Empire, agriculture and construction of irrigation schemes were done by the community as a whole. Those who benefited from these efforts were expected to appreciate by feeding the workers and providing them with maize beer, which was a popular drink in Peru. The Incas had imposed their own culture although they did not rule out the other traditions that existed in Peru. For instance, “the word “coca” was borrowed from the language of the Aymara tribe of Bolivia, where it was used to refer to a tree.”[7] However, coca is believed to have originated from Inca Empire. The actual story is that there was a woman who lived in Peru who was killed because of her loose life and cut into two. Some bush called Mama-coca grew from inside her body. “People began eating leaves from the bush and called it coca in memory of the woman (Mama Coca).”[8] Therefore, history has it that Mama Coca introduced cocaine to man. Primarily, the use of coca was in boosting sex performance, but it took some time for the Incas to know this. Although the initial climate did not favor support the growth of coca within the Inca Empire, the Incas discovered a more favorable climate for mass farming as the Empire expanded eastward. Regardless of the region where coca was being produced, all the coca yields had to be handed over to the coca collectors from the royal family who then gave the coca to the Emperor and his family. Thereafter, the Royal family gave out the coca leaves to the people they wanted. As a privilege, the king offered a few leaves to the prince or curaca (chief) who were close to him.

Other than for entertainment, coca was also used in religious activities by Incas where they chewed coca because it appeared like an exciting drug. In essence, “coca leaves have alkaloids that are used to manufacture cocaine that was also believed to eliminate the thoughts of hunger and thirst.”[9] Moreover, consumption of coca causes a sense of well-being and the ability of producing such feelings also induced some religious admiration. Actually, the effect of this drug is a good explanation of why coca leaves were given to the gods during rituals. Indeed, today there are still some South American Indians who make “coca offerings to the earth goddess referred to as Pachamana.”[10]

Priests in the Inca Empire were also allowed to chew some coca during religious rituals and allowed their followers to enjoy the same pleasure. It was also common for their sacrificial victims to be given coca first before they were killed using crude means. “This was also applied when offering animal sacrifices such as sheep and goats.”[11] To further explain the importance of coca in religious practices, smoke that came from coca leaves was also utilized in purifying the areas that were believed to be inhabited by evil spirits in order to force them away. Moreover, such smoke was also used to chase the spirits associated with various diseases.[12] According to Spanish historians, Incas also used coca in preserving corpses because they had realized that chewing of coca leaves resulted to their tongue insensitive. In some cases during athletic competitions athletes were given some coca to enhance their performance. Indeed, this is probably the reason why cocaine is perceived to be a performance-enhancing drug, an argument that still exists to date.

When Pizarro’s army “invaded and took control of the Incas by 1539, Spanish settlers had come to Peru before this invasion.”[13] Thereafter, huge pieces of land were issued to them and Indians to work in those lands. At the start, the Spanish settlers had little interest in coca and did not interfere with the Indian’s habit of growing and chewing it.  However, it only took a short time for the Spanish to know that coca had a good money-making value. As a result, larger pieces of land were allocated for the coca production and too much money was collected after selling cocoa in the market. Eventually, “in 1539 the Bishop of Cuzco started to tithe coca by taking a 10 percent of the entire coca sale.”[14] The taxes from the sale of coca were the main source of revenue for the Peruvian government. Many people continued dying from diseases associated with the consumption of coca but the government could not ban it due to the taxes. Eventually, “four hundred years later in 1961, Peru signed the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that required the consumption of coca by the people of Andes to be stopped by 1986.”[15] Due to the financial benefits associated with coca, countries such as the United States and Mexico became the main export market of coca from Peru where it was then manufactured into cocaine.

As the coca market expanded, it resulted to drug wars in Colombia, Mexico and the US. Many drug cartels have since emerged in Mexico where they sell their drugs to the US and other countries. These cartels are strongly opposed by the Mexican government that tries to fight them using Mexican army, Mexican police, and other security organs.[16] Likewise, the US has also been at the fore front in fighting the drug cartels that mainly concentrate in the sale of drugs such as cocaine that has become common in Mexico and Colombia.

As a result of the drug cartels, there are many drug-related deaths that are reported in Mexico. “For instance, approximately 20,000 of such deaths were reported in 2009 and 2010 with most of the victims being killed through crude means. In one incident, a Mexican drug suspect, Santiago Meza Lopez, confessed having dissolved the bodies of more than 300 rivals using corrosive chemicals in the border city of Tijuana.”[17] All the deaths associated with drug wars occur due to the huge amount of money that is involved in this lucrative business while most of the consumers, mainly in the US, continue dying because of the side effects associated with the use of drugs such as cocaine.

The coca from Peru was also used for other various purposes. To start with, the Coca Cola beverage is made from the extracts from coca plant and the famous coca nuts. When it was first discovered that coca could be used to made coca cola soda, it was also believed that this drink had the ability to relieve exhaustion from the users.[18] Sometimes, the locals in Peru used coca to kill dandruff and promote the growth of their hair. Moreover, this drug was also used for curing scald head and all types of irritation of the scalp. Agricultural tasks were distributed according to gender where teenagers looked after herds, men plowed, while women planted seeds; spun thread, and made beer. The labor in the Incas community was appropriated from the conquered communities where various demands were also forwarded. These demands had various implications to the effected people. For example, the affected community members were supposed to cultivate the fields and take care of the herds. It was also a requirement for these people to cultivate, plant, and harvest these fields before they cultivated their own lands.[19]

In reference to being the grain that civilized the new world, maize is considered to be among the earliest foods in the history of Peru. It did well because the climatic conditions in Peru were favorable for its production. Mainly, the northern highlands in Peru were known to support high production of maize and were utilized by the Incas for this purpose.[20] There were numerous varieties of maize species in Columbia, Peru, and Ecuador. In the initial days, coastal population in Peru relied more on marine foods due to the proximity to the ocean. As time progressed, people realized the importance of maize and started utilizing it as a staple food. As a result, large quantities of maize were consumed by highland residents in both the central and northern Andes. With time, maize formed the bulk of the Incas subsistence base. In addition, maize was known to be a good source of carbohydrates required for energy production in animals and humans. With this knowledge, the Incas used their maize either directly as food or converted it into flour that was used to make a variety of meals. Sometimes, maize was also used in making some form of beer that was produced after maize flour was fermented and mixed with yeast.[21] This beer was mainly consumed by women as they cultivated land or during special celebrations.

Peru had a good climate and fertile soils for agriculture. For this reason, there were various types of foods that were cultivated and used by the people from the Inca Empire. Potatoes were quite popular in Peru where they were mainly used as source of energy and as a raw material for the potato beer.  Besides, potatoes were also associated with some religious rituals because of the various shapes they came in. Likewise, maize was also another type of food that was discovered in Peru in many years ago and was used as a staple food and in making the maize beer. With time, potatoes were exported to other countries such as the United States where they were made into different forms. Coca originated from Peru and had many benefits to the users such as inducing a sense of well-being, for religious rituals, and as sex enhancer. Cocaine was manufactured from coca and exported to countries such as Mexico and the United States where drug cartels have been controlling this industry for many years. In general, foods and drugs played a significant role to the Incas who particularly liked making beers from different foods.






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Perry Linda, Sandweiss Daniel, Piperno Dolores, Rademaker Kurt, Malpass Michael, Umire         Adan & Vera             Pablo.  “Early Maize Agriculture and Interzonal Interaction in         Southern Peru.” Nature 440, no. 3 (2005): 76-79.


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[1] Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 40.

[2] Salaman, The History and Social, p. 59.

[3] Salaman, The History and Social, p. 60.

[4] “The History of Peru,” Mineralogical Record 28, no. 4 (March 1997), p. 11.

[5] Salaman, The History and Social, p. 35.

[6] Robert Tykot, Van der Merwe Nikolaas & Burger Richard, The Importance of Maize in Initial Period and Early Horizon Peru (Florida: University of Florida Press, 2006), p. 18.

[7] Steven Karch, A Brief History of Cocaine, Second Edition (New York: CRS Press, 2005), p. 47.

[8] Karch, A Brief History, p. 49.

[9] Karch, A Brief History, p. 37.

[10] Ashley Drummond, ‘Peru: Coca, Cocaine, and the International Regime against Drugs’, Law and Business Review14, no. 1 (July 2008), p. 110.

[11] Drummond, ‘Peru: Coca, Cocaine’, p. 111.

[12] Karch, A Brief History, p. 29.

[13] Karch, A Brief History, p. 31.

[14] “The History of Peru,” p. 10.

[15] Karch, A Brief History, p. 33.

[16] Evelyn Morris, ‘Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels’, Foreign Policy, suppl. Annual Special Issue 203, no. 6 (May 2013), p.  36.

[17] Robert Bonner, ‘The New Cocaine Cowboys: How to Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels’, Foreign Affairs 35, no. 3 (March 2010), p. 18.

[18] “The History of Peru,” p. 12.

[19] Thomas Patterson, ‘The Inca Empire and its Subject Peoples’, in John K. Wilmington, eds., The Indian in Latin American History, Resistance, Resilience, and Acculturation (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 2.

[20] Alexander Grobman, Races of Maize in Peru: Their origins, Evolution and Classification. (New York: National Academies, 1961), p. 15.

[21] Linda Perry, Daniel Sandweiss, Dolores Piperno, Kurt Rademaker, Michael Malpass, Adan Umire & Pablo Vera, ‘Early Maize Agriculture and Interzonal Interaction in Southern Peru,’ Nature 440, no. 3 (August 2005), p. 77.

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