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American Drugs in Egyptian Mummies (2005) (ucr.edu)
40 points by Petiver on Apr 21, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

The article "Rameses II and the tobacco beetle" (PC Buckland, E Panagiotakopulu Antiquity, 2001) has a more probable take. In the century-plus these mummies were in museums, they were subjected to various insecticide treatments. Among these was almost surely nicotine applied as an insecticide. Cocaine may have been introduced similarly or accidentally in this timespan. 19th century and early 20th century museums did not document anything and had by modern standards extremely poor conservation approaches.

[1] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Accprding to other articles and some comments here, nictoine could only be in hair if it was ingested and cannot get there by external application, if I understand it correctly. That, plus there being 9 different mummies from different museums, at least does raise some questions about the insecticide treatment theory.

I don't know the historical context of those mummies, but if they correspond to a wide range of historical time periods, it increases the likelihood that the explanation is contamination. A wider time period would imply that the contact would have been more sustained, which makes it harder to explain why there's no other evidence of contact.

Where did mesoamerican people get the idea for pyramids?

It's possible that it is just a logical easy to build structure, but I've always wondered. There are other similarities too.

I seem to recall an attempt to cross the Atlantic with modern replicas of Egyptian style vessels but I don't recall if it was successful.

One mistake people commonly make is that they assume independent discovery is difficult. When you look at the seminal inventions of prehistory, independent rediscovery is the norm, not the exception: agriculture was developed no fewer than 9 times, writing about 3-5 times, urban civilization at least 6. Pyramidal structures themselves are evident in most ancient urban civilizations without much evidence of direct transmission to or from Egypt.

It's not sufficient to just say "this looks similar." You have to explain how the designs were transmitted, what else was or wasn't transmitted, why evidence is or isn't present in supporting records such as contemporary accounts. There is very strong presumption against pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact (based in part of our knowledge of ancient shipbuilding techniques and maritime practices), so you need a very high burden of proof here. Vikings and Polynesians are exceptions to the rule here because we know they were both able to make the journey, there's corroborating evidence that's multifaceted, there's explanations of why the contact was ultimately transient in nature, etc.

The new world "pyramids" were nothing like those of Egypt. Stepped temples is a more accurate term.

Nicotine is poisonous when ingested, so that perheaps explains why the mummies are dead.

The history seems speculative, but I'll speculate a little more anyways. Lets suppose that those mummies wheren't fake, is not probable, but lets assume that. Could we theoretically find nicotine in an old egyptian mummy?.

In theory is possible. There is one species of Nicotiana native from Africa (Nicotiana africana). The problem is that this plant is a Namibian endemism, in the other coin of Africa. For people mastering the complicated process of embalm a body, with a trading area that extends to the entire Mediterranean sea, and taking a lot of precise steps and hassles to be sucessful, a local plant able to stop insect damage would had been noticed and treasured. We can speculate that the current Namibian populations are relict populations of a much wider distribution area, and that this is another white rhino. Maybe the north populations were wiped by the old Egyptian empire?, then the flower must appear painted somewhere or some obscure text should talk about such treasure.

And in any case, there is still the Cocaine issue. There are also some members of the family Erytroxylaceae native from Africa, but If you find three of the most popular drugs when putting a sample of a mummy in a machine, you should suspect that either the mummies were fake, or where real but used later to smuggle drugs, or that the drugs were into the machine previously (the laboratory has been used before for analyze drugs).

It would seem like it would be easier to contaminate with nicotine given the old school habits of smoking everywhere the cocaine is harder to explain because it's not that easy to contaminate with it, back in the old days cocaine unsers injected it, snorting didn't become a thing until the 1970s.

However apparently the use of solvents negates any effect from atmospheric smoke so it appears to be an embalming element.

Used to smuggle drugs seems by far the most likely. Mummies would have the benefit of being ostensibly fragile, valuable, and repellent to most. That’s a trifecta drug smugglers would hope for, in terms of evading deep inspections.

The readings were however taken from the hair that was washed before testing, indicating ingestion while alive.

Contamination of the mummy itself seems unlikely, while contamination from the lab or tech seems incredibly likely.

Maybe, but unlikely; other tests were done.

> “Since the initial work of Balabanova et. al., other studies have revealed the same drugs (cocaine, nicotine, and hashish) in Egyptian mummies, confirming the original results."

Could they have gotten the plant you mention via trade?

Namibia was probably too far to have links with old Egypt. The egyptian empire documents show that they were very aware and informed about people living in the current Italy and Greece at north, Irak/Syria at east, and make war with Lybia at west and Sudan at South.

They were a bureaucratic society. To cross the central rainforest and the Kalahari desert to trade with South Africa and do not reflect it in their documents seems unlikely to me (but I'm not an expert in this field).

This said, finding a wild Nicotiana in Egypt today is a childs game. Nicotiana glauca, an escaped american species appears everywhere in all Mediterranean countries. Could easily slip into any local plant mix aiming to give some good ol' autenthicity to a modern mummy.

I would have figured that it would have been primarily independent traders that handled most long distance trade, and that this wouldn't have been a particularly high volume trade good, so there would be a good chance that the fraction of records we've recovered don't contain any mention. I have very little education in this area, though. Thanks for all the info!

The concept of independent traders and a merchant class uncontrolled by a central palace system of government really didn’t emerge until after the Late Bronze Age collapse circa 1170’s BCE. Before that, it was all about central control through the sovereigns, their (hugely extended) families, a system of “gift exchanges” that look a lot like commerce to us today, and control through priesthoods. It just wasn’t an option to get up and be a merchant on an international scale without your god-king giving you the rights at that time.

Wow, thanks! That's super interesting. I have to redo some of my mental model of the ancient world.

In theory yes of course, but there is no (other) physical evidence of possible trade between Europe/Africa and the Americas in that period. The possibility that the Phoenecians could have comes up from time to time, but their ships really weren’t well adapted to deep ocean travel.

To emphasize the point: the Atlantic Ocean is roughly 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, or merely 2000 from Ireland to Newfoundland. Crossing the Atlantic means provisioning months of food and water, and being able to tackle navigation without any visible reference points. It also means being able to design ships that can handle stormy conditions, because you're likely to hit a storm in that time.

The first ships likely capable of making a crossing are the Chinese junks, followed by Polynesian outrigger canoes. The first European ships capable of making it are probably the Viking longships, which makes pre-Viking contact difficult to conceive, much less a sustained trading pattern. Furthermore, Phoenician ships were predominantly rowed, not sailed, which makes the journey especially hard to believe.

Or, with the trade winds, about 15 days on anything that can sail/drift downwind. There were similar, well established routes ("just follow the wind") on the Indian Ocean side of Africa done with very small (2-3 people) boats.

The typical speed of Phoenician ships under favorable winds was about 4.5-6 knots, and these relied heavily on rowing. Without oars, you're looking at 3-4 knots. 4.5 knots is still about 30 days from the Canaries, and keep in mind, that's the shortest time it would have taken you to go west; the eastbound trip would have been travelling at less than a knot (fighting both current and trade winds).

I came for the crackpot theories, but instead learned something fascinating.


Weird that my first guess isn't considered, that it could be from a now extinct plant, perhaps harvested to extinction like the abortifacient plant used in ancient Rome or destroyed in after the plant drew the ire of someone powerful. Or maybe the plant is still out there.

Unlikely to be related, but possibly, Tramadol was thought to be naturally produced by a root in Cameroon but then found to be in high levels in the soil, water, and other plants because people and their animals were consuming high quantities.

Why is it so hard for some people of European descent to believe that non-European people may have crossed oceans in non-European ways, without Europeans ever hearing about it? For goodness sake, look at the pyramids. European people still aren't totally sure how those things were built. There are theories, but you don't know what's possible/impossible.

Essentially that's what's going on in this conversation.

By the way: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/02/did-chinese-civilization...

And: https://www.nature.com/news/mummy-dna-unravels-ancient-egypt...

For the record, I'm someone of various European ancestries, but I'm not hung up on some kind of European superiority complex.

"Consider the Earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history."

> Why is it so hard for some people of European descent to believe that non-European people may have crossed oceans in non-European ways, without Europeans ever hearing about it? For goodness sake, look at the pyramids. European people still aren't totally sure how those things were built. There are theories, but you don't know what's possible/impossible.

Well, saying that Norte Chico gave the Ancient Egyptians a hand with skycrane techniques is pretty impossible. There's a wide gap between "we're not sure what the answer is" and "this wild theory is equally well-supported by the evidence."

I gave some details in another comment, but the shipbuilding technology simply didn't exist before around 700 or so to cross the Atlantic Ocean--not in Europe, nor in the Americas (It did exist in Asia, but the Polynesian expansion and experience strongly limits the space for Asian trans-Pacific contact). That creates a very strong prior against pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, one that requires more persuasive evidence than "I can interpret this as a New World relic in the Old World." The only theory that comes close to meeting that standard is the Polynesian contact theory.

The reason I posted that article from foreignpolicy.com is because I wanted people to see that there are other, related theories that they may not have considered. I see that you still have not considered this one!

The space of what is possible is overwhelmingly large, it frustrates me when "rationalism" means setting up these extreme categories of possible vs impossible, sane vs "crackpot", etc.

> simply didn't exist before around 700 or so

You say that with such certainty as if you were there.

Well, there is no evidence for it aside from things like the article, which have simpler explanations. I can't be certain that the sun isn't a smiling baby when it's not being observed either

There’s a big difference between a blatantly improbable conclusion in the present vs concluding something about the entirety of the situation here before 700.

All I’m saying is that a small bit of doubt is healthy.

It's not about accepting it vs not accepting it, it's about determining what is most likely

Also it is a somewhat accepted opinion that Chinese and Polynesians may have travelled to and from the Americas, however, the evidence is inconclusive and they don't seem to have established long-term ties, so it's hard to say. Even more cultures may have discovered the Americas, such as Mali and Japan, but if they did, those expeditions were one-way

Well, if you read the foreignpolicy.com article I posted you will see a very interesting theory that throws a wrench into this whole situation:

>> In the past year, Sun, a highly decorated scientist, has ignited a passionate online debate with claims that the founders of Chinese civilization were not in any sense Chinese but actually migrants from Egypt. He conceived of this connection in the 1990s while performing radiometric dating of ancient Chinese bronzes; to his surprise, their chemical composition more closely resembled those of ancient Egyptian bronzes than native Chinese ores.

If you look at the ways these substances are transported today it seems prety obvious people would find a way shortly after first introduction. Even if death is more likely than succes people will do it. You can also spend any amount of money trying to stop the drug trade without accomplishing it.

iow the real story is probably weirder than we can imagine.

Maybe just maybe, what "Egyptologist" have been telling you all these years....has been garbage.

> For teaching purposes only, do not review, quote or abstract

see also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Columbian_trans-oceanic_co...

Most are sketchy at best, or have been proven spurious.

In a one-page article appearing in Naturwissenschaften, German scientist Svetla Balabanova (1992) and two of her colleagues reported findings of cocaine, hashish and nicotine in Egyptian mummies. The findings were immediately identified as improbable on the grounds that two of the substances were known to be derived only from American plants - cocaine from Erythroxylon coca, and nicotine from Nicotiana tabacum. The suggestion that such compounds could have found their way to Egypt before Columbus' discovery of America seemed patently impossible.

Meanwhile contamination or even a prank/hoax is quite likely. In fact if a lab tech had a big night and didn’t wash their hands properly, or one of their own hairs contaminated the sample, there you have it. Contrary to popular perception, one outlier result isn’t a breakthrough, replication is key.

> one outlier result

> Of the nine mummies evaluated, all showed signs of cocaine and hashish Tetrahydrocannabinol), whereas all but one sampled positive for nicotine.

While I'm not saying you're incorrect- contamination seems so likely that I'd start investigating if this lab put anyone in prison over these sorts of tests- the article clearly says there were nine different mummies tested.

I don’t mean one test, I mean one set of findings from the same source. Even if we’re to believe some ancient traveler made it to the Americas and back, they would have had a hell of a time finding those three things in the (likely one unplanned) trip. Besides, cocaine is the result of modern chemistry! Tripanone is the base alkaloid, from which cocaine is derived.

So not only would these people have had to identify the narcotic value of cannabis, tobacco and coca, they’d have to figure out how to press hashish, and process large amounts of coca leaves for tripanone, and then process that into cocaine base. In practice getting significant quantities of cocaine from coca without the intermediate chemistry isn’t feasible.


It's not all or nothing. These resources were most likely disparate and funneled from various sources until they reached Egypt. You think a grocery store needs to grow it's own wheat? The complexity is what you're not seeing.

Also, regarding cocaine: it cold be found in someone who's only ingested coca leaf.

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