Note: There is an updated version of this article that can be found here.
A few times per year, someone brings up the fact that drugs like nicotine and cocaine were found in ancient Egyptian mummies, which they conclude must mean the ancient Egyptians traveled to the Americas well before Columbus made the journey. This article takes a look at this claim and concludes by suggesting what should be the more parsimonious explanation.
First, a little background
In 1992, Balabanova, Parsche, and Pirsig wrote a one-page paper in Naturewissenschaften called, “First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies.
What they described was the discovery of chemical signatures of THC, cocaine, and nicotine among the mummified remains of 9 individuals comprised of 7 heads severed from the bodies, 1 incomplete mummy, and 1 complete mummy. They were all adults: 3 female; 6 male. Their remains dated to about 1000 BCE. Essentially, the authors used radioimmunoassay and gas chromatogoraphy/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). Both of these are the same methods used all over the world to test for drugs in live people. If you give a urine sample for a job, it’s likely that one or both of these methods would be used.
The drugs were found in the hair, soft tissues, and bone of the specimens in ways that defy an explanation other than consumption. In other words, being shipped with cocaine or sprayed with insecticide isn’t enough to explain why the bones contained cocaine and nicotine. In fact, it wasn’t cocaine that was initially discovered, but benzoylecognine. This is the chemical left over in the body after a human metabolizes the cocaine. In all likelihood, they found the metabolite of nicotine as well, which is cotinine.
Parsche along with Nerlich then wrote a paper for the Fesenius’ Journal of Analytical Chemistry (1995) called “Presence of drugs in different tissues of an Egyptian mummy,” in which they examined a mummy dating to 950 BCE using the same techniques as Parsche did with Balabanova in 1992. In this bit of research, what Parsche and Nerlich discovered was that, while the THC was very probably inhaled, the nicotine and cocaine were ingested since they were found in highest concentrations in the liver and intestines.
Balabanova teamed up with 5 new researchers (Parsche and Parsig not among them) and ran the same tests on 71 more mummies excavated from the Christian Sayala (Egyptian Nubia) between 600 to 1100 CE. Still well before the Columbus voyage to the Americas. They again found cocaine (in 79%). They again tested bone and hair, so the concentrations in the livers and intestines would be unknown. However, there was a distinct inverse correlation between age of the individual and the concentration of cocaine. In other words, the highest concentrations were in the mummies of those that were the youngest at the time of death.
This would seem to correspond to what Parsche and Nerlich found, which is that the method of consumption was ingesting rather than smoking or inhalation. Children from 1-6 years of age are less likely to smoke or inhale a drug rater than ingest it by mouth. It’s also important to note that Parsche and Nerlich did not seem so eager to tie the nicotine and cocaine to New World origins.
Implications and Assumptions
The chief implication by the fringe crowd (and by Balabanova and others) is that the previously unthinkable must be true: ancient Egyptians traveled to the New World and brought back tobacco in the form of either Nicotiana rustica or N. tobacum and cocaine in the form of Erythroxylum coca or E. novogranatense.
This would be a wonderful and certainly newsworthy discovery if true! I know of no archaeologist that wouldn’t be ecstatic to learn that this could be supported by evidence and this is precisely what Balabanova and a few of her colleagues genuinely thought they had.
But here’s the problem: for this explanation to be true, there are some not-too-insignificant assumptions that must also be true. In order accept that ancient Egyptians between 1000 BCE and 1100 CE traveled back and forth to South America, bringing back tobacco and coca leaves we must assume:
1) The Egyptians had sea-worthy boats
2) They didn’t find the journey significant enough to write about
3) There were no sources of THC, nicotine, or cocaine available from Africa, the Near East, or Asia.
There are some other assumptions as well, but these would seem to be the most significant.
For the first assumption, we know the Egyptians knew how to sail. They did so up and down the Nile all the time. There are murals depicting their journeys to Punt and elsewhere. But riverine navigation or even marine navigation along the coast is vastly different from intercontinental navigation. Many Egyptian boats and barges have been excavated, but none worthy for more than riverine trips or short jaunts in the Mediterranean or Red Seas.
Which brings us to the second assumption. That the Egyptians were willing to trade for hundreds of years with South America and never write down the exploit! This is the culture that so proudly depicted trips to Punt, which was probably somewhere along the west coast of Africa. The Egyptians detailed a great many journeys and expeditions over land as well. They wrote down details of technology in order to teach subsequent generations. But if they navigated to South America and back, they kept it secret as to how they navigated, how they made the journey, how they built the ships, and what they traded with and for. Quite simply, if they did it, they were uncharacteristically not proud of the accomplishment.
But the first two assumptions pale in comparison to the last.
There was definitely THC available to the Egyptians. Hashish is indigenous to the Middle East. I think even the most ingrained believer in fringe material would admit that the THC was readily available to the Egyptians without visiting the Americas.
But that believer in the fringes of archaeology would certainly be quick to point out the nicotine and cocaine with a resounding, “aha!”
Today, we get our nicotine mostly from Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tobacum. Both are indigenous to the Americas and both contain a natural pesticide in their leaves, which is nicotine. N. rustica contains up to 18% nicotine and N. tobacum has between 0.5% and 9% nicotine. Both of these plants are from the Solanaceae family, which includes belladona, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. Each of which have small amounts of nicotine.
Still, it isn’t likely that these Egyptians were consuming large quantities of eggplant. So where might they find enough nicotine to metabolize and show up in Balabanova’s tests if they didn’t trade with or travel to South America?
The answer is probably Nicotiana africa, a plant native to the African continent that contains about 2% nicotine. Today, this plant is found in the mountains of northern Namibia.
Another explanation for the nicotine might be that the application of “tobacco water” as an insecticide in the 19th century. This was not an uncommon practice in early museum conservation. Curators may even have smoked heavily near the remains of these mummies from the moment they were recovered from the ground. This is a hypothesis originally put forward by Buckland and Panagiotakopulu in 2001 in the journal Antiquity (75: 553).
Personally, I think N. africa is the likely explanation given the cotinine present in the samples.
Today, we get our cocaine from either Erythroxylum coca or Erythroxylum novogranatense, both native to South America.
Okay, maybe “we” is a little too inclusive. I’ll rephrase: today, some people get their cocaine…
So how did Africans in Egypt get a hold of cocaine? They picked it.
At least 10 species of Erythroxylaceae exist throughout the African continent. Not the least of which are Erythroxylum fischeri and Erythroxylum emarginatum. At least two more species are found on the island nation of Mauritus, just east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Bieri et al (2006) were able to easily extract cocaine from 14 wild species throughout the world, including Mauritus. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to test the African species.
The reason Beiri et al weren’t able to test the various African species of Erythroxylaceae is because of the overwhelming barriers to any experimentation to these species due to the American “war on drugs.” It’s likely that there are species of Erythroxylaceae in Africa that have not even been discovered in modern times that may have been well known in antiquity. There is even speculation that Erythroxylaceae originated in Africa (Oltman 1968).
Conclusions and What’s Cool
Given that we know the nicotine level of Nicotiana africa is on par with N. tobacum and that cocaine was probably available in Erythroxylum somewhere in Africa and/or Southwest Asia; and given that we know these plants were probably ingested; and given that it’s no secret that the Egyptians regularly used plants for both medicinal and psychotropic purposes; why would we need to turn to the New World to explain the presence of nicotine and cocaine in ancient Egyptian mummies?
Even if we didn’t know about other nicotine and cocaine producing plants readily available on the African continent, the first assumption should be that there must have once been, or still is, as yet undiscovered species of plants that produce these chemicals. And this is what’s truly cool about the research that Balabanova and Pasche (along with others) did: they showed us yet another way the Egyptians made use of their local resources, probably in attempt to heal or offset pain. Remember the ages of Balabanova’s subjects? Many were very young. We probably don’t know the causes of death, but it obviously wasn’t old age. If they were afflicted with some illness or malady, they may very well have been in pain and taking medicine for it. The African cocaine plant is used even today to treat pain.
The most parsimonious explanation—the one that requires the fewest new assumptions to believe true—is that ancient Egyptians made good use of plants already within easy reach.
The notion that they had to travel to South America is a fanciful one, but only because it was a significant technological challenge for any culture 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. As a professional archaeologist, I think I’d be joined by many of my colleagues in congratulating and showing excitement for the person or persons that show solid, physical evidence that can be tested, which shows a trade link between South America and the African continents prior to the time in question. This kind of evidence could be in the form of indisputable pottery, hieroglyphs detailing the expedition, or maybe some corn cobs in a pharaoh’s tomb!
Further Reading and References
Balabanova S, Parsche F, Pirsig W (1992). First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies. Naturwissenschaften 79:358
Balabanova S., et al (1997). Nicotine and cotinine in prehistoric and recent bones from Africa and Europe and the origin of these alkaloids, Homo 48: 72-7.
Badré F (1972). Erythroxylaceae. Flore du Cameroun. Volume 14. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. pp. 51–56.
Bieri S, Brachet A, Veuthey JL, Christen P (2006). Cocaine distribution in wild Erythroxylum species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 103: 439-447.
Burkill HM (1994). The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Families E–I. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom
Domino EF, HornBach E, Demana T (1993). The nicotine content of common vegetables. New England Journal of Medicine. 329: 437.
Furbee, Brent (2009). Neurotoxic Plants. In, Clinical Neurotoxicology, Michael R. Dobbs (Ed). Saunders: Philadelphia, PA. pp. 523-542
Gemmill, C (1966). Silphium. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 40(4): 295–313
Marlin D, Nicolson SW, Yusuf AA, Stevenson PC, Heyman HM, et al. (2014) The Only African Wild Tobacco, Nicotiana africana: Alkaloid Content and the Effect of Herbivory. PLOS ONE 9(7): e102661.
Merxmüller H and Buttler KP (1975). Nicotiana in der Afrikanischen Namib – cin pflanzengeographisches Rätsel. Mitteilhungen der Botanischen Staatsammlung München, 12: 91-103.
Nishiyama Y, Moriyasu M, Ichimaru M. et al. (2007). Tropane alkaloids from Erythroxylum emarginatum. Journal of Natural Medicines 61(1): 56-58.
Oltman O (1968). Die pollen morphologie der Erythroxylaceae und ihresystematischebedeutung. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft 81: 505-511
Parsche, F. and A. Nerlich. (1995). Presence of drugs in different tissues of an Egyptian mummy. Fresenius’. Journal of Analytical Chemistry 352:380-384.