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Cocaine, Nicotine and Ancient Egypt October 24, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback


As regular readers of this column will attest Beachcombing is your typical small-minded historian. He doesn’t much like novelty and if there is a controversy he will float effortlessly into the orthodox camp. But with the argument over cocaine use in the ancient world he risks, however briefly, going the other way: if only to annoy archaeologists.

For those who have never come across it here is ‘the story so far’.

In 1992 a respected German scientific periodical, Naturwissenschaften, published a note by a series of accredited academics claiming that they had discovered traces of cocaine and tobacco in hair samples from ancient Egyptian mummies.

Drug use among the ancients, as among the moderns, is no cause for surprise. The Neolithic Revolution, the single most important human event, the event, indeed, that begins our millennial-long escape from the seasons, was arguably buoyed along by the need to create intoxicants.

Hashish and opium have been found in antique tombs.

There were certainly drugs around then ‘back in the day’. But the worrying thing about this particular discovery was that tobacco and cocaine are made from New World plants and yet here they allegedly were in Ancient Egyptian bodies a little short of three thousand years before Columbus!

If you are going to introduce a piece of evidence that breaks a historic orthodoxy like the early modern discovery of the Americas then there are three ways you can do this.

First, you can play at Darwin and become a pioneer: you can wade in with a long five hundred page book, backing up your assertion with years of research and oodles of footnotes. Let’s hope that you have a Huxley or two in the wings.

Second, the coward’s way out, you can publish your findings, making fun of them and explaining that you are flummoxed and that you probably need to clean your lab.

Or, third, the pragmatist, you can bring them out in a low-key fashion, say in a note, then run for cover.

The scholars involved took the most sensible way forward, the pragmatic one. They ran the flag a little way up the flag mast just to see what would happen. And, of course, the first sound they heard was machine gun fire ripping their flag to shreds.

Scholars reacted with what might diplomatically be called ‘bewilderment’ and various solutions were offered as a way out of this paradigm-breaking discovery. The lab results were simply wrong; the lab results were right but the results had come about from post-mortem treatment of some kind; the lab results were right but the corpses had been ‘infected’ after discovery in the modern period; the lab results were right but the mummies were not genuine ancient mummies, rather they were early modern fakes.

If Beachcombing had been at the receiving end of this he would have already been beating a hasty retreat. But to her credit the toxicologist whose name was at the top of the 1992 paper, Svetlana Balabanova did no such thing, though she reports receiving insulting letters.

Like several scientists sucked into this dispute she had been surprised by the results and had  exhaustively repeated her tests before going public. Her attitude seemed to be: I’m no historian, it is not down to me to sort this out, but I stand by the quality of my lab work.

Historians and archaeologists, once the initial hubbub was over, just shook their heads and moved on. Few were going to risk professional ridicule by even interacting with this material.

In fact, it fell to a documentary maker to put together The Curse of the Cocaine Mummies setting out the implications of the discovery. The programme was actually far better than the title suggests and transcripts are to be found online. In short, diffusionists, Egyptologists and archaeologists were all brought together for a happy old mish mash.

Not the least interesting part of the show was a respected Egyptologist Dr Rosalie David, at Manchester University, going back over some of the material from the original tests. RD, a sceptic, was not given access to the mummies from Germany used by Balabanova – though she decided, after several hours in the archives, that most of these were genuine ancient mummies as opposed to modern fakes. However, she ran too a series of tests on three ancient bodies from a museum in Manchester and to her shock these had nicotine in their hair and tissue samples.

In subsequent years other testers found similar results. The greatest interest admittedly came from Svetlana Balabanova’s lab: SB by now seemed to be suffering from an understandable obsession over the matter.

[SB] tested tissue from 134 naturally preserved bodies from an excavated cemetery in Sudan, once part of the Egyptian empire. Although from a later period, the bodies were still many centuries before Columbus discovered the Americas. About a third of them tested positive for nicotine and cocaine. Balabanova was mystified by the presence of cocaine in Africa but thought she have a way of explaining the nicotine. As well as Egypt and Sudan, she tested bodies from China, Germany and Austria, spanning a period from 3700BC to 1100AD. A percentage of bodies from the other regions also contained nicotine. Egypt 89%, Sudan 90%, China 62.5%, Germany 34%, Austria 100%. [documentary]

Beachcombing recently wrote of the pain of accepting new knowledge in any discipline. There is always a conflict: the need to be open to new ideas, and yet, at the same time, the need to have filters.

The case of suspected Egyptian cocaine use is the finest example he knows from history/archaeology of professionals getting this balance wrong. After all the people involved here were not fringe crackpots, but experts who were staking their reputation on the accuracy of results that had, at first, surprised them.

Personally, Beach would bet, if not his house, then a significant part of his mortgage that cocaine and tobacco did not make its way across either the Pacific or the Atlantic in prehistory. But the initial contempt – remember the letters? – and more strikingly the deadening silence that followed on from these finds – with plenty of guffawing into sleeves – was hardly, shall we say, ‘polite’.

Surely any self-confident discipline should be able to accept anomalous material on board, take it under cognizance and then have a generation either to research it out of existence or to integrate it into ‘core knowledge’?

When archaeologists and historians get all hot and bothered about Erik von Daniken and his ilk, they forget that these kinds of displays invite talk of establishment cover-ups.

These kinds of displays also get in the way of sensible solutions.

A small group of scholars have had the guts to wrestle with this material directly. Larry Cartmell and Cheryl Weems, for example, in 2001 published a brief note (Chungara: Revista de Antropología Chilena)  looking at eighteen ancient individuals from the Oasis of Dakhleh in Egypt all of whom were negative in hair samples for cocaine, but fourteen of whom had positive readings for nicotine. The authors play up an idea from the margins of the cocaine/tobacco debate, in as much as a debate had taken place. Perhaps there was an African plant that could have produced these nicotine readings? They note that the low levels of nicotine present in the hair samples suggest dietary use rather than smoking.

But where, in the world, did the cocaine (if that is what it is) come from? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


24 Oct 2011: Open Sesame writes: ‘Just one initial reaction. I personally am ready to believe just about anything if the evidence takes me there. But where I start to have problems is with the quantity of tobacco and cocaine that would be needed to create these readings across Euro-Asia-Africa. It is the equivalent of every burial in antique Europe having strips of silk from China. Items from far away were extremely rare and valuable. We would expect occasional readings not the kind of numbers you’ve offered here. Perhaps we really are looking for a local source of nicotine and ‘cocaine’ then.’ SY also writes in ‘I quote the abstract of the following piece by Balabanova from 2001 that suggests that she is rapidly going in the ‘native crop solution’: at least for nicotine.Nicotine use in early Mediaeval Kirchheim/Teck, Germany’, Journal of Comparative Human Biology 52 (2001) 72-76, Human bone samples of 123 Alemans of the 5th to 7th c AD were investigated for nicotine. In 23 individuals nicotine was found at levels between 31 and 150 ng/g, and in 49 others nicotine was found in traces. The results indicate that in Germany plants of the genus Nicotiana should have been present, known and used, well before Columbus. The purposes behind this use might have been domestic/medical or ritual, or possibly even as a luxury as occurs today.’ Thanks OS and SY!

8 Nov 2011: David Counsell writes in with what looks like a vital corrective. ‘I am a medical doctor who has worked with the Manchester Mummy Project since the Mid 1990s. I looked at this as part of my PhD on Intoxicant use in Ancient Egypt and my results have been published in 2 sources in addition to my thesis - check out Chapter 13 in Egyptiam Mummies and Modern Science,  Editor Rosalie David; which gives a full explanation. In a nutshell the amount of these drugs found in the mummies was overestimated as rather than being presented in the common unit, nanogrames per mg of sample material (ng/mg) they were presented as nanogrames per gram of sample (ng/g) giving a figure 1000 fold exaggerated. When you adjust the unit you find that the level of nicotine found is not as high as in smokers and is consistent with a dietary source of nicotine eg Celery which was known to the Ancient Egyptians. Similarly the cocaine level once corrected is so low as to be considered negative by most labs in the mid 1990s and is most likely a trace contaminant form the lab where the work was done. Overall the explanation is quite dull which perhaps explains why it hasn’t had the same publicity as the original ‘discovery’.’ Thanks David!

4 Nov 2012:  KR writes ‘Betel juice! Contains nicotinic acidand is available from India, not so very far from Egypt. Also has “stimulant effects” and can be hallucinogenic when combined with certain nuts. It does not mention cocaine, but I wonder if a breakdown of the betel-and-nut combo would be a similar stimulant compound to cocaine? It should be mentioned that nicotinic acid was originally synthesized from nicotine in tobacco. Schafer (1993) states that determining whether the drugs are contaminants or actually in hair samples is not so easy. Also he says use of insecticidal nicotine sprays might have been absorbed by tissues. Another site mentions that by the 1920′s cocaine and heroin had become so readily and easily available in Egypt that laws had to be made against their use. So were the diggers and mummy bearer/assistants spilling their cocaine on mummies at digs during the 1910′s to 1920′s?’ Thanks KR!