A Bag of Coca for the Afterlife

2 minute read

On first encountering this object, its appearance is undeniably intriguing, defying categorization as either a conventional bag or a practical item. The small tube attached to it adds to its peculiar nature. Its composition is a blend of white cotton and red wool sourced from South American camelids. One side presents a stark white hue, while the other, as shown in the image below, features a striking red background adorned with eight figures in white. 

At first sight, these figures might seem uniform. Yet, on closer inspection, the upper four differ distinctly from the lower ones. These figures are zoomorphic in design, but which animal do they represent? Some scholars see frogs or toads, while others perceive them as birds viewed from above. And you, what animal do you see depicted in these designs? 

Figure 1. A red and white bag with some coca leaves inside. Peru. Late Intermediate Period. Donated by the Wellcome Museum. MAA 1951.946

This bag is interesting because it still contains some dry leaves, identified as coca (Erythroxylum coca). Domesticated in the Andes, coca was widely used in pre-Hispanic times; its importance is attested by numerous archaeological discoveries. Today coca leaves are still used extensively in the Andean region in daily life, celebrations and ceremonies. Tourists also use them to alleviate soroche or altitude sickness.  

MAA looks after a variety of objects related to coca such as bags like this red and white one as well as several ceramics representing people chewing coca. Bags like these typically contain leaves, either inside or between the layers of mummy bundles, along with offerings like food or ornaments (Slovak, 2020). Some have permanently sealed openings, rendering them unsuitable for everyday use (Young-Sánchez, 2006).  

This bag is believed to have served a funerary and symbolic purpose rather than a functional one. It is highly likely that it originates from the Ancón archaeological site on the central coast of Peru. Ancón is renowned for its necropolis, where hundreds of graves have been excavated since the late 19th century. The necropolis was inhabited from the Middle Horizon (600-1000 CE) to the Late Horizon (1450-1550 CE) (Slovak, 2020). 

Figure 2. Front view of a mummy with a false head and funerary artefacts, Ancón necropolis, Peru. Image credit: Reiss & Stübel 1880-1887, vol.1, plate 15.

Ancón’s arid and desert environment has permitted the preservation of archaeological remains, among which are textiles and human burials. The illustration above shows one such human burial: a rich mummy bundle with funerary offerings alongside. 1m in height and 0.8m large, the bundle is made of layers of textiles and cotton and leaf stuffing. Many bags, like the red and white one above, were found with mummy bundles, either hung around their necks or shoulders, or placed beside them.  

Two other textiles in the collections at MAA probably come from this same site (n°1951.949 and n°1951.949). Other than a few details, these textiles are very similar, rectangular, and sewn in a tubular form. The main part is two-coloured, beige/brown or beige/black (cotton), with red fringe or fringe remains (wool) at the extremity. Inside various square panels, the same zoomorphic figure, a four-legged being with snake-like appendages on its head, is represented. Some researchers call this creature the ‘cat monster’. 

Figures 3 and 4. Two white cotton bags. Peru. Late Intermediate Period. Donated by the Wellcome Museum. MAA 1951.948 (left) and 1951.949 (right). 

Based on the illustrations in figures two and five it is evident that scarf-like garments were wrapped around the neck or head of the mummy bundle. These scarves, like the examples at MAA typically have a white middle and are coloured at the ends, often depicting the same creature with head appendages. 

Figure 5. Headdress with parrot feathers and scarves of a mummy, Ancón Necropolis, Peru. Image credit: Reiss & Stübel 1880-1887, vol. 1, plate 21.

These various textiles appear to have solely a funerary purpose. Numerous textiles discovered at Ancón are disseminated in museums in Peru, the USA and Europe. Future research may help determine the specific graves from which these objects originated. 


Reiss, Wilhelm, & Alphons Stübel, 1880-1887, The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru: A Contribution to our Knowledge of the Culture and Industries of the Empire of the Incas. A. Asher & co., Berlin.

Slovak, Nikole, 2020, Reassembling the Mortuary Assemblage: New Investigations into the Field Museum’s Osteological and Artifact collections from Ancón, Peru. Nawpa Pacha 40(1): 81-99.

Young-Sánchez, Margaret, 2006, Four-Part Head Clothes from the Peruvian Central Coast. In Andean Textile Traditions: papers from the 2001 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum, M. Young-Sánchez & F.W. Simpson (ed.), Denver Art Museum, Denver, pp.75-98.



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