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The leaves of Erythroxylum coca, the coca plant, have an overwhelming presence in the daily lives of the Runakuna. In her ethnography, Catherine Allen explores its profound significance and the vast variety of dimensions that coca plays in the Runa’s world. Its ubiquity and incomparable import render coca as a hallmark of Runa identity, and a necessary component to their traditional ways of life.
Coca chewing is symbolic of indigenous identity, defining the boundaries between Runa and Misti. The Runakuna culturally identify themselves with the Inca, believing that coca chewing is one of the traditions they have kept alive. Coca chewing signifies one’s “cultural loyalty to and identification with the traditions handed down from the Incas,” essential to their own self-understanding and concept of heritage (CA: 108). The Runakuna are the only people in this region that chew coca leaves, thus is sets them apart from Mestizos (Mistikuna), who view the habit as backwards and dirty. Yet, proper coca chewing is part of what it means, “to be a Runa, a real person” according to their culture and ways of life (CA: 7).
The widespread social function of coca chewing or hallpay is central to group cohesion and harmony in this Andean community. Coca is chewed when friends casually meet on the road, before beginning work, when discussing troubles, or after finishing meals. The ceremony of making a k’intu offering then performing ritual blowing (phukuy) expresses the values at the core of Runa culture—chiefly reciprocity. The symmetrical way in which coca is reciprocated is representative of the way Runa see the overall cosmos as a circulatory system of flow. The order in which k’intu exchanges occur reflects and enforces the social hierarchy of Sonqo, with older high-status men and guests receiving coca first. In Allen’s words, “Coca chewers share k’intus with each other in a tangible expression of their social and moral relationship, while simultaneously sharing the leaf’s sami with the Earth and the Sacred Places” (105). Coca is thus weaved into the Runa’s world in a way that interpenetrates both the sacred and mundane, bonding their society and expressing their connection with the divine.
As k’intu sharing reflects the hierarchy of the social group, phukuy likewise functions to orient one in a space inhabited by local deities that have their own hierarchical structures. Travelling in unfamiliar lands, Runa may blow their k’intus to new local sacred places as a means of introduction. In this way, coca reflects the Runa worldview in which the animated landscape is infused with power and part of a cosmic hierarchy (CA: 109). Its use it at once pragmatic and symbolic.
The practical role of coca chewing may be as essential to Runa culture as its explicitly ceremonial functions. The myth of Santisima Maria discovering coca chewing as a relief from grief after losing her child expresses how coca is viewed among the Runakuna. Allen notes that coca “helps alleviate life’s pain and draws people together in mutual support,” a crucial role in the harsh environment of high mountain tundra (CA: 7). Their myth is about the origins of coca is brought to life when coca is used as a source of comfort amidst personal grief, demonstrating the profound emotional significance of the leaf.
The ceremonial and religious functions of coca can be seen in the practice of coca qhaway, coca divination. Coca qhaway is both diagnostic and divinatory, used to determine the nature of distant events or the causes of illness. Coca leaves are thrown, and the diviner interprets their meaning by studying configurations of leaves. The shape and layout of the leaves are significant to understanding its meaning. Deities are invoked through this ritual and largely responsible for its efficacy, as they “send messages to humans via configurations of coca leaves” (CA: 110). This demonstrates how the Runa world is experienced as an animated system that can be invoked and communicated with for human goals, both practical and esoteric. Despacho offerings, as previously described, are essential to ceremonial, social, and religious balance to be maintained. Allen explains how coca k’intus constitute “the foundation of the offering”, with one offered for each member of the family as well as the deities (CA: 129). The centrality of coca in this ritual is one among many examples of how coca fits into almost every niche of Runakuna life.
The necessity of coca to the Runakuna can be seen in the modern circumstances, in which its scarcity is experienced in a devastating way. The change of traditions such as chewing coca is one aspect in the fragmenting coherence of the Runa way of life. In respect to these conditions, Don Luis said, “We were like Incas, chewing coca, drinking chicha…but no longer—now we’re Spanish Mistis, we’re altogether Misti now” (CA: 205). While this change is the product of numerous factors, the comment Don Luis made expresses that chewing coca is indeed an aspect of what it means to define oneself in terms of their indigenous cultural identity. Losing this is part of what it means to ‘forget’ how to be a Runa.
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