It seems safe to say that as long as there have been humans on planet Earth they have been using psychoactive substances. Today most people use at least one kind of drug every day, be it medicinal, illegal, caffeine, nicotine or the all time favourite – alcohol. In fact the use of drugs by ancient populations is not particularly controversial and has been well documented. However, in 1992 a new study of nine mummies from Ancient Egypt created quite a stir when it announced the discovery of traces of nicotine and cocaine in their hair. Both of these chemicals come from plants found only in South America and this research has since been touted as evidence of pre-Columbian contact between America and Africa; something thought to be impossible based on the rest of the archaeological record. So what’s going on? Lets start by looking at the evidence.
The original study that made these findings was performed in 1992 by Svelta Balabanova and two of her colleagues at the Institut für Anthropologie und Humangenetik der Universität, in Munich, Germany. The tests were carried out on nine mummies from the Munich Museum, all dated to between 1070-395 B.C. The study focused on hair samples which are often used to assess drug concentrations in the body and have been used many times successfully in archaeological research. What they discovered was that all the mummies tested positive for cocaine and hashish (cannabis) while all but one mummy tested positive for traces of nicotine. These results caused an immediate stir because it seemed to suggest that at some point in the very distant past there was contact between Egypt and the civilisations of South America. The implication was that these peoples regularly traded with each other thus proving our understanding of ancient history totally wrong, although it should be noted that this is not stated in the original paper and has instead this theory has been constructed by later commentators. The first thing to say is that archaeologists are not just being stubborn about this; there are many reasons not to think that these traces of drugs in nine mummies means that there was healthy Atlantic trade going on three thousand years ago. For one thing why is it that despite this contact Egypt declined to share their own food crops, not to mention cattle, with South America? Also why did only tobacco and cocaine make the transition from New World to Old, why didn’t maize or potatoes, which both became extremely important crops plants once they were ‘officially’ introduced many, many centuries later. This doesn’t mean it was impossible but it shows why many historians are reluctant to embrace the idea. That said even if we don’t automatically assume that everything we thought we knew about Ancient Egypt is wrong we are still left with a puzzle; how did these South American drugs end up in mummies on the other side of the world?
Of these findings the hashish is the easiest to explain because cannabis is indigenous to the Middle East and it is thought that the Ancient Egyptians often used other, local, mind-altering drugs such as poppy extracts. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest they also imported cannabis-derivatives given their known trade routes. However nicotine and cocaine are a different issue entirely. Both come from South American plants not thought to have existed in Africa or Europe until recent times, but over the years other researchers have come up with some very good explanations for where these traces might have come from.
Today the nicotine that is consumed by millions of smokers worldwide generally comes from one of two species, Nicotiana tabacum or Nicotiana rustica, but there are many different species spread throughout South America and some from Australia. It is generally assumed that throughout Europe and Africa there was no cultivation of these species because they didn’t exist until they were imported sometime after 1493, however this might not quite be true. Certainly evidence for tobacco in the Old World prior to Columbus’ voyage is thin on the ground but there probably are some indigenous species of Nicotiana. For example there is one species, rather tellingly called Nicotiana africana which is currently found only in the mountains of northern Namibia. Its thought to be a relative of certain Australian species but it is native to Africa. There are also several other Old World plants that produce nicotine in very small amounts, such as belladonna. However, there is no evidence of the wide-spread use of tobacco either for smoking or chewing outside of America until well after Columbus. Still this shows nicotine was available, if not necessarily popular, and it would be inaccurate to say that the only way that nicotine could be found in Ancient Egypt was through some previously unsuspected cross-continental exchange.
There is another argument explaining how tobacco might have gotten into these mummies though and it was argued in a 2001 paper in the journal Antiquity. All of the mummies tested were excavated in the nineteenth century and were hardly kept in what we would consider sterile conditions. Nicotine is found in cigarette smoke as well as many common pesticides from the period. In fact the reason plants produce nicotine at all is to act as a natural deterrent to pests and predators. It is more then possible that the mummies were exposed to nicotine from the environment at some point prior to their testing in the early nineties. This may certainly account for some of the results, although later testing showing its presence in other body tissues might suggest ingestion, which still tallies well with the evidence of local, nicotine-producing plant life.
The cocaine that most of us think of today was actually first discovered by the early civilisations of the Andean region of South America who would chew the leaves of the coca tree (Erythroxylon coca). Today most cocaine is still the refined product of the coca tree, as are many other substances such as coca-cola. In fact cocaine was only removed from the drink in 1903. However, there are actually many different species of Erythroxylon, spread across America, Australia and parts of Asia and some of them also produce cocaine, albeit in far smaller quantities. Of particular interest is a species called Erythroxylon monogynum, commonly called red cedar. It is a native of India and most intriguingly its roots contain low levels of cocaine. Now it must be said that there is very little, direct evidence of contact between Egypt and India at this very early stage but Egypt was a large and wealthy empire which imported spices, precious stones, metals and wood from as far a field as southern Iraq (then called Sumer) and Afghanistan. It seems hard to argue that it is more likely that they obtained cocaine from America then from such potential sources in India, but were they actually taking the cocaine in the same way modern drug-users do? It has been suggested that instead the cocaine, and possibly the nicotine too, were actually being introduced to the mummies as part of the embalming process. Many different resins and spices were certainly used and to this day we aren’t entirely sure what they all were. Rare or exotic materials were almost certainly used and it is far less of a stretch to suggest this included imports from the Middle East and potentially as far a field as India.
This is just a quick overview of the evidence but on balance it seems there is still insufficient evidence to suggest that the Ancient Egyptians actively traded with their counterparts in South America. One day this might change but at the moment it seems unlikely. More testing is certainly called for but until that happens we can hold off rewriting the history books just yet.
- Balabanova, S. et al. 1992. First Identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies. Naturwissenschaften. 79(8). p.358. DOI: 10.1007/BF01140178
- Parsche, F. & Nerlich, A., 1995. Presence of drugs in different tissues of an egyptian mummy. Fresenius’ Journal of Analytical Chemistry. 352(3-4). p.380-384. DOI; 10.1007/BF00322236
- Buckland, P.C., & Panagiotakopulu, E., 2001. Rameses II and the tobacco beetle. Antiquity. 75. p.549-56.