In 1997, the Discovery Channel aired a program that said that cocaine and tobacco had been found in Egyptian mummies that were at least 3,000 years old. In ancient times, coca and tobacco were known to only be grown in the Americas. The program’s theory was that coca and tobacco were brought to Egypt via a Pacific crossing and then delivered from the Silk Route.
In 1990, scientists conducted experiments to search for drugs in the existing remains of mummies. The study was inspired by the wealth of documents remaining from ancient Egypt which frequently mentioned the effects of excesses of beer and wine, but no mention of drugs.
By 1992, Egyptologists suspected the use of opium, and the group began to reinterpret the lotus motif ubiquitous in Egyptian art. Instead of purely symbolic, it may have indicated its use as an intoxicant.
The Munich Museum turned to Svetlana Balabanova, a well-respected pathologist associated with the University of Ulm, who took hair samples, bone and soft tissue from the museum’s nine mummies. None of the samples contained any traces of opium or lotus, but many of them contained low levels of nicotine and cocaine!
The discoveries of traces of cocaine and tobacco in mummies has been rather controversial. The idea of ancient egyptians having trade partners with new world countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru contradict previous beliefs, thus leading most historians to discount the findings. Some of the links are to articles about the controversy of this topic. There does appear to be evidence of use of intoxicants by ancient egyptians.
There are several theories about how the traces of nicotine and cocaine ended up in the mummies’ hair. One is that the mummies were contaminated by pipe-smoking or cocaine-using researchers in the nineteenth centuty. Another is that the traces came from eating certain plants. Tests on modern people show that even those who don’t smoke or spend time with smokers have traces of nicotine in their hair from eating foods from the nightshade family.
In her book The Mummy Congress, science writer Heather Pringle suggests another theory:
When Egyptian embalmers smoothed handfuls of spices, oils, and plant resins on the flesh of the dead, they anointed the body and its tresses with a complex chemical cocktail that mummy experts have yet to describe, much less fully understand. Conventional hair tests were never designed to deal with such concoctions, nor were they intended to deal with an an immense, almost unfathomable span of time. Over centuries and millenia of entombment, compounds in these concotions could have easily broken down, yielding substances that could readily pass for cocaine today.
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