Ancient tonic of the Incas may be the new ginseng

IT'S small and smelly, and it looks like a radish. But many Peruvians consider it the combined answer to ginseng and Viagra.  Maca, a frost-resistant root that grows in the frigid Andean highlands, has been used in the South American country for centuries to boost stamina and sex drive.

Archaeologist have discovered traces of maca cultivation at sites dating back 2,000 years in the central Andes mountains, where the plant thrives naturally at 3,900 metres above sea level.

Spanish conquistadors are said to have accepted bushels of the protein-rich root from local communities during the 16th century as tax payments.

Chroniclers also reported that Peru's various preHispanic groups bartered with maca, used it for peace offerings, and offered it to their mountain and sun gods.

Today, Peruvians eat maca fresh, dried, boiled into porridge or ground into powder and mixed with water or milk in a drink that tastes somewhat like butterscotch with an earthy aftertaste.

Just as the Incas did centuries ago, many Peruvians swear by maca's energising and aphrodisiacal powers.

It is also touted as a tonic for a host of other healthy problems, including post-menopause syndrome and stress.

For scientists, the verdict is still out.  Nutritionists say the root packs a powerful dose of amino acids, vitamins and minerals, particularly magnesium and phosphorous.

But no major independent studies have been published about its effects.

"It's still what you call an alternative medicine," says Dr Alberto Tejada, a urologist at the Fertility Institute in Lima.

"There is still no scientific basis."  But Tejada and many Peruvian doctors recommend maca to patients anyway.

"What we do know is that it is energising, that it increases sexual stimulus, that it improves the disposition toward sexual activity and improves mood," he says.

Hersil, a Peruvian pharmaceutical company that plans to market maca-based tablets internationally, says smallscale research it financed at Peru's Cayetano Heredia University found maca increased men's sex drive and sperm counts.

Dr Fernando Cabieses, a neurologist who for two decades studied Peru's treasure trove of medicinal plants, supervised the study, which involved 60 volunteers who were divided into two groups. One group took  maca tablets for 12 weeks, the other placebos.

"It's a very interesting study, with interesting results, which need to be corroborated by other scientific groups to see if this repeats," Cabieses says.

Jose Luis Silva, Hersil's assistant general manager, sees opportunities for maca to compete for some of the US$2 billion now spent around the world each year on ginseng, a root highly prized in Asia for its energygiving and curative properties.

Overseas sales would be a boon for this impoverished nation's rural farmers, many of whom eke out livings in rugged countryside.

Maca could be just the beginning, Peruvians hope.  Dozens of native plants are used as natural medicines by indigenous communities.

Among those herbal medicines is mashua, a root that is said to inhibit sex drive.  It was reputedly given to Inca warriors to help keep them focused on battle.

Today, Peruvian women are said to slip mashua into their husbands' meals before extended business trips so their minds focus solely on business.

Maca is said to boost sex drive.