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Jan G. R.

Elferink Ethnobotany of the Incas

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Ethnobotany of the Incas


The conquest of America resulted in a considerable enrichment of the number of plants that could be used by Europeans in medicine and nutrition. Important examples are the potato, maize, beans, cacao, chili pepper, quinine, and so on. All these plants were widely used by the preColumbian peoples, among which were the Incas. The Incas were only one of the many highly developed civilizations that developed in the Andes and the Peruvian shore of the Pacific Ocean. Like the Aztecs in Mexico, the Incas were a young culture, starting their development in the thirteenth century. When the Spanish conqueror Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1531, the empire of the Incas was enormous, stretching from what is now Colombia in the North, to the middle of Chile in the South. Information about the use of plants in all aspects of daily life by the Incas (i.e., Inca ethnobotany) comes mainly from the Spanish chroniclers who accompanied or followed the Spanish conquerors. Unfortunately their information is far more limited than of the chroniclers of the Aztec region. As a consequence we know less about Inca ethnobotany than about Aztec ethnobotany. The chronicler Cobo gave the most extensive description of Inca plants. Some indigenous chroniclers, such as Poma de Ayala, gave some original applications of plants by the Incas. A very late work by Losa contains material that was mostly derived from ancient sources (including Cobo), and thus provides information about the use of plants that is probably of preColumbian origin. Besides the information written down by the chroniclers, an increasing quantity of information comes from archeological findings. Although the amount of information about the use of plants by the Incas is limited, the amount is far too large to cover in a short paper. Therefore only a restricted number of items of Inca ethnobotany will be dealt with. These items come from the use of plants in medicine, and in connection with their role in magic and religion. There is excellent additional information about Inca ethnobotany. These include the works of Yacovleff and Herrera, Towles, Alarco de Zadra, Bastien, Brack Egg, Valdizan, and Maldonado. Unfortunately some of these works are not easily accessible. A very good website about the potential economic applications of Inca food plants is http://www.nap.edu/books/030904264X/html/.

Medicinal Plants
The Inca HerbalistPhysician: Hampicamayok
In his description of the Inca physician, Cobo (1964: 256) underlines the importance of the knowledge of medicinal plants for this profession. Their physicians were in general old people and highly experienced They had little knowledge about the nature of the diseases and about their specific names [They knew] many herbs to cure them. They had more knowledge about wounds and sores and the particular herbs to cure them. They never used complex drugs, they cured with simple herbs, and between them there were many great herbalists from whom we learned the virtues of many plants which we now use in our cures. With these simple drugs they also used to make fomentations and perfumes, which they applied in fever and other ailments Other chroniclers such as Garcilaso confirm the importance of knowing plants among the Inca physicians. Though Garcilaso is sometimes contradictory in his descriptions of the medical abilities of the Incas he praises the herbalists. There were "great herbalists who were very famous in the days of the Incas. These herbalists learned the virtues of many herbs and taught them by tradition to their sons; they were regarded as physicians" (Garcilaso 1966: 121). The most common name for this type of physician was the hampicamayoc, literally "official in charge of medicines" (Poma de Ayala 1980; Gonalez Holguin 1952; Morua 1946: 113). Calancha states that the (h)anpicamayos, who were called oquetlupuc in some coastal regions, were physicians with good reputations (Calancha 1974: 1248). Besides Cobo some other chroniclers made statements which give an idea of the knowledge about medicines of the indigenous herbalists. Without referring directly to the herbalist, Blas Valera stresses the large number of medicinal plants of the Incas. He says that if they were all known there would be no need to bring herbs from Spain or elsewhere, but that the Spanish doctors set so little store by them that even those which were known to be used by the Indians have in the

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main been forgotten (Valera 1992: 132). It is not quite clear if the Kallawayas, the traveling herbalists of the Andean regions in Bolivia and Peru, knew the hampicamayok. About these Kallawayas (or Callawayas or Callahuayas) a large amount of information is available concerning their role in folk medicine of the last few centuries (Bastien 1987).

Plants Used in Medicine


In contemporary Peruvian folk medicine a very large number of medicinal plants are used, but the chroniclers described only a relatively small number of them, only a few hundred. That does not mean that the Incas did not use them. It is more an indication that the chroniclers for the Inca region were far less competent than those of the Aztecs. Cobo has especially described many Inca plants. Among these were a few that were more important in Inca medicine than others. Maize or sara (Zea mais) was not only an important diet staple but was also an important medicine, as was the slightly alcoholic beverage called chicha that was prepared from maize (Fig. 1). According to several chroniclers the consumption of maize and chicha was the reason that they saw very few kidney and bladder complaints among the Incas (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 Maize or sara was an important food plant. According to the chroniclers, the consumption of maize products was the reason for a low incidence of gout among the Incas. This and the other botanical pictures are from Khlers MedizinalPflanzen.

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Fig. 2 Ploughing by special implements as preparation for sowing maize was ceremonially initiated by the Inca ruler and his family, recognizable by the large earrings.

In the work of most chroniclers only a few plants are mentioned. It seems likely that those few plants mentioned repeatedly by different authors were of special importance and widely used. If this reasoning is correct then molle ( Schinus molle) was one of the most used medicinal plants (http://www.herreros.com.ar/melanco/elferink.htm). Contreras y Valverde (Contreras y Valverde 1965: 11, 12) states that the Indians considered the molle as a universal medicine against all their ailments. The differential use of molle is a good example to show that Inca physicians were quite aware that the eventual medicinal effect was dependent on preparation and means of application. The tree exudates a resin that was taken as a purgative and against melancholy; the resin in wine was against dropsy (Lizarraga 1968: 81; Relaciones Geogrficas 1965: I349; Vazquez de Espinosa 1969: 432). To cure leishmaniasis the resin and the bark of the tree were boiled in water until the water remained colored, and from this fluid the Indians took a portion on an empty stomach, and a second portion in the afternoon (Cobo 1964: 6LXXVIII). The dried and pulverized resin was applied against ulcers. Lizarraga describes the resin as an excellent remedy for diseases of the respiratory system; he had tried the resin on himself (Lizarraga 1968: 81). The leaves, cooked and applied in a bath, were used for gout, and the crushed leaves were applied on wounds (Cobo 1964: 6LXXVIII). The liquid made by boiling the leaves in water was a good remedy for eczema (Garcilaso 1966: 504). From the leaves a kind of oil was prepared that was useful for pain in the joints and for ailments of the stomach (Relaciones Geogrficas 1965: I349). A decoction of the leaves was applied as a bath for the treatment of the swollen legs of dropsy patients, and for gout. A plaster of the fruits was supposed to be effective for stomach complaints (Cobo 1964: 6LXXVIII). The fruits of the molle were crushed and the juice gave a beverage that was taken for kidney and bladder complaints (Garcilaso 1966: 504). The fruit was also used to prepare a kind of chicha, which was more intoxicating than the chicha made from maize, and which was highly esteemed by the Indians (Cobo 1964: 6LXXVIII). Besides medicinal properties the molle possessed some other qualities. Its wood was preferred as the basis for charcoal. This was the reason that it lost its importance in colonial times. Before the conquest the tree was very common, but a few years after the conquest it had decreased dramatically (Garcilaso 1966: 504) because of the need of charcoal for brasiers. Another plant with widespread application was the quinua (Chenopodium quinoa). The plant was an important foodplant;

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it was especially attractive because it grew at high altitude. It was also used in medicine for a number of ailments such as stomach complaints, inflammations, spasms, swellings, fever, liver complaints and so on (Losa 1983: 71, 72; Calancha 1974: 138; Garcilaso 1966: 500). Another attractive feature was the possibility of preparing a good quality of inebriating chicha. The chamico (Datura stramonium) was a strongly hallucinogenic plant (Fig. 3). In low doses the plant was used against fever, insomnia, inflammations, and to abate pain. According to Cobo the chamico was taken to get inebriated. Higher doses were used in criminal practices, a custom that has persisted till modern times. According to Cobo the chamico was secretly administered to victims who became intoxicated, and thus could be robbed easily. The chroniclers do not report about the use of chamico in religion, in contrast with other psychoactive plants.

Fig. 3 Datura stramonium or chamico was used in medicine and in malevolent practices.

Some plants, such as coca, sayri (tobacco) and potatoes were especially important in social life as food plants or in religion as offerings (http://wwwpersonal.umich.edu/jlvoris/thesis.html). However, all of them were also used as medicine. Chewing of coca leaves was practiced to ease hunger, thirst and tiredness, and this habit became especially important after the conquest (Fig. 4). Coca leaves were applied externally to strengthen broken bones and to cure wounds and ulcers. The decoction was taken against diarrhea and to combat stomach complaints. The dried pulverized leaves were used for asthma. Coca was added to tobacco and chewed maize in an ointment to treat the bites of poisonous animals (Lope de Atienza 1931: 75). Two types of tobacco were distinguished: a cultivated and a wild form. It seems likely that these two forms correspond with Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica, respectively (Wilbert 1987; http://www.hoboes.com/html/Politics/Prohibition/Notes/Shamanism.html). Both were used in medicine, but mostly it is not indicated which form was used. The root of the wild form was called coro, and was especially suited for a number of diseases, including syphilis. Tobacco was usually smoked, but the Indians used the tobacco also as snuff (Cobo 1964: 4-LVI). Tobacco was used to treat headache and migraine, and to improve sight. Poma de Ayala states that tobacco, in the form of snuff, was used against fever and cold (Poma de Ayala 1980: 769). One of the main applications of tobacco was to treat bites of poisonous animals (Apuntes 1987: 14; Maroni 1988: 157). The medical applications of potatoes were limited. Cooked potatoes were applied against gout. Potatoes were freezedried for conservation, and the resulting product was called chuu. The chuu was considered an excellent remedy against ulcers, spasms, pain of syphilis, and verruga (Cobo 1964: 4XIII). The Incas knew many tubers that were very important as food plants. All these plants,

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among which are potato, oca (Oxalis tuberosum), maca (Lepidium meyenii), ulluco (Ullucus tuberosum) and au ( Tropeaolum tuberosum), were also applied in medicine. About the economic aspects of these plants an excellent internet source is available (http://www.nap.edu/books/030904264X/html/).

Fig. 4 The coca plant played a role in Inca religion and medicine. Its use in preHispanic times, however, was strongly regulated by the Inca ruler.

Procreation and Plants


A number of plants were used to modulate fertility, or to induce sterility. The use of plants was mostly combined with magic. Among the plants that were applied to induce fertility were the cabega, the vilca (Anadenanthera colubrina), the espinco (Medicago hispida), and the mocomoco. Murua (1987: 435) states in a general way that the Indians used many plants and potions, not only to procure fertility, but also to induce sterility. In a society where having children was important, the administration of sterilityinducing plants was a severe crime that was punishable by death (Casas 1939: 147; Elferink 1999). Because those who induced sterility saw few reasons to be communicative, the chroniclers write in general terms about it and give no concrete names of plants. A colonial source reports that the Peruvian Indians considered the consumption of an infusion of the leaves of the sogue (Salix humboldtiana) a means to cause sterility in women (Losa 1983: 110). It is noteworthy that the Incas used the plant for several medicinal purposes, but that for these applications the infusion of the leaves was not taken orally. Both plants and magic were applied to increase or to decrease libido (Elferink 2000). Acosta warned that the excessive consumption of uchu or aj (chili pepper, Capsicum annuum) by youngsters was undesirable, because of the aphrodisiac action of the plant (Fig. 5). This pepper was applied frequently to spice meals. Its use was so common that abstaining from consuming aj was considered fasting. Other plants described as an aphrodisiac were the cuchuchu, the siaya, the tocoracas and the itapallo. The au, presently better known as mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), has been described as an anaphrodisiac (Cobo 1964: 171; Garcilaso 1966: 501). The Inca ruler gave the roots of the plant (it is an important food plant) to their soldiers as food, so that they forgot their wives. A later source describes the plant as an aphrodisiac (Losa 1983: 133). From the plant called penccuc (Mimosa sp.) a male and a female form existed. Cobo describes the aphrodisiac properties of this plant, and he states that only the roots of the male form of the plants were stimulating; the roots of the female form had the opposite effect. A comparable peculiar difference between the male and female form of a plant has been ascribed to the chutarpo (or huanarpo). The male form, huanarpo macho (Jatropha macrantha), was known to act as an aphrodisiac. The female form, huanarpo hembra (Cnidoscolus peruvianus), acted in the reverse way,

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and could be used as an anaphrodisiac to annul the effect of the former (Santa Cruz Pachacuti 1992). Although the effects of these plants have not been investigated, the description suggests that the plants possessed a magic action rather than a real one. However, in contemporary folk medicine the huanarpo macho is still used as an aphrodisiac for men, while the huanarpu hembra is considered an aphrodisiac for women and a desaphrodisiac for men (Brack Egg 1999 : 145). The maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a plant that has gained a lot of interest in recent times because of its supposed aphrodisiac and other properties. Because it can stand low temperatures, it was a favorite food plant of high altitudes. Descriptions about its use as an aphrodisiac in ancient Peru are scarce. Cobo ( 1964: 4XVI) suspects that the relative increase of the population in the province of Chinchacocha was due to the "hot" properties of this plant.

Fig. 5 Capsicum annuum or chili pepper was an important food plant. It was considered a medicine and also an aphrodisiac.

Magic Plants
Plants-Religion-Magic
A few plants played roles in Inca religion because they were used as offerings. Coca and tobacco were most frequently used (Fig. 6). Much information is available about coca and the Incas. The plant was important, but mainly for the upper social classes, because common men were not permitted to chew coca except with the ruler's permission. In some regions the espingo was frequently used as an offering (Arriaga 1968: 211). In many burial mounds of the Chimus (the Chimu kingdom was conquered by the Incas) strings of espingo seeds have been found. Priests used espingo in chicha to get very drunk, suggesting that the plant had psychoactive properties. The identification of the plant is not certain. In an indirect sense maize was the most important plant in religion, because chicha prepared from maize was used by all important and notimportant ceremonies as an offering. Furthermore, maize was the basis of sanco, a kind of dough or bread that was used in religious ceremonies as a kind of communion.

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Fig. 6 Tobacco was considered a medicine rather than a recreational drug. Two types of tobacco were used. The wild tobacco was probably identical with Nicotiana rustica.

Maize, coca and potatoes were so important that figures were made from them. These were called saramama, cocamama, papamama (or axomama), respectively, and were venerated as objects with supernatural powers. The veneration had a practical background: it was meant to have a good crop of the product from which the figure was made (Arriaga 1968: 200, 204, 205, 273; Albornoz 1988: 165). The religious importance of these plants is probably connected with the appreciation that the Incas had for these plants: coca as a psychoactive plant, and maize and potato as important food plants. In addition, all three plants were used in medicine.

Divination
Some plants played a decisive role in Inca divination. To obtain an idea about the importance of divination in Inca society we only have to look at the different types of diviners described by the chroniclers: more than 50 Quechua names are reported. The absolute number of diviners was also very large, as indicated by Acosta ( 1954: 172) and others (Morua 1946: 72; Relacin de los Agustinos 1992: 8) who simply state that there were innumerable diviners. Cobo confirms that there were many diviners of several types (Cobo 1990: 160-163). In every town there were many of them, a statement that earlier was also made by Cieza de Leon (1962: LV). Citing another source, Cobo gives the figure of 475 people in Cuzco who had no other occupation than just divining. Intuitive divination was among the principal types of divination, and was often mediated by oracles in the form of huacas. A number of (mostly psychoactive) plants were applied to facilitate contact with the supernatural. Diviners called yacarcaes, who recruited spirits from fire, took coca leaves. They pronounced spells with which they summoned the spirit of the person from whom they wanted information. After a few other rituals the "devil" (as the chroniclers describe it) came and without being seen spoke to the attendants. He told them that he was the spirit of the person to whom they wanted to speak (Cobo 1990: 169). The procedure was followed in divinations where potential dangers for the Inca ruler or the empire were determined. That could be threat of rebellion or a plot against the Incas. The procedure resembles the one that was used by Inca sorcerers in love affairs. Here tobacco in combination with coca was applied. The person who wanted the love of another went to these sorcerers with a piece of clothing of that person. The sorcerers used coca and tobacco to get into a trance and raise the spirits of persons who had to become the beloved one. Vilca (Anadenanthera colubrina) was very popular among diviners, who consumed the drug in the alcoholic beverage

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chicha (Cobo 1990: 169), to get intoxicated and attain the right psychic condition to make divinations (Fig. 7). According to Acosta (1954: 172) vilca, alone or in combination with chicha, was applied for all types of divinations. Among the questions which had to be answered, were predicting future events such as the outcome of certain enterprises, whether one would stay healthy or become ill and die. Another purpose was to find stolen or lost goods. For the same purposes the achuma, now better known as San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi), was used. Murua has described the divination ceremony. To perform these superstitions and divinations they locked themselves in a house that was closed from within. There they started to drink and to get intoxicated until they lost their senses, and after a day they gave answers to the questions. To reach this effect they smeared their body with certain ointments. The sorcerers first talked with the devil in an obscure place in a way that the people heard a voice, but did not see who talked. They performed many ceremonies and offerings, and answered the questions with yes or no, as they liked it. For this purpose they used vilca or achuma. (Murua 1987: 432-434).

Fig. 7 A number of psychoactive plants were used in divination practices. Among these was the vilca or Anadenanthera colubrina. Vilca was also the name of certain idols. Here the Inca ruler talks with the vilcas and huacas.

Currently some other psychoactive plants such as ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) are used in divination, in addition to those mentioned before. It is not sure however, if ayahuasca was used in Inca times.

References
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