Disclaimer: This is a re-write from a previous article. I’ve expanded and revised a section where I was wrong–specifically with regard to the presence of the tropane alkaloid, cocaine in an African species of Erythroxylum. I’ve also updated the original article, removing that claim.
Many pseudoarchaeological claims center around so-called “out of place artifacts” (ooparts) that are often used as evidence for pre-Colombian contact with the Americas by just about any culture that didn’t come across the Bearing Sea land bridge. Among these claims is one that makes the rounds on the internet a few times a year, often in Facebook memes, which is that ancient Egyptians had trade routes with the Americas as early as the 21st Dynasty (~1000 BCE).
How the Claim Began
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, and 2 mummies: 1 complete and 1 incomplete. They were all adults (3 female,6 male) and 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 wasn’t enough to explain why the bones contained signatures of 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 their signatures were found in highest concentrations in the liver and intestines.
Balabanova then 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) dating to between 600 to 1100 CE. Still well before the Columbus voyage to the Americas. They again found cocaine (in 79% of the individuals). 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 they found 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 would be anything short of 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:
- The Egyptians had sea-worthy boats
- They didn’t find the journey significant enough to write about
- There were no sources of THC, nicotine, or cocaine available from Africa, the Near East, or Asia, each of which is known to be traded with by Egypt.
There are certainly some other assumptions that could be included in this list, 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, and they were probably the first civilization to make effective use of sails perhaps by around 3500 BCE. It was also the Egyptians that were probably the first to use wood planks for the hulls of boats. Murals depicting journeys to Punt and elsewhere show up in several ancient Egyptian sites along with the archaeological remains of boats. For 2000 years, Egypt was the world’s major naval power. But riverine navigation or even marine navigation within the Mediterranean and Red Seas is vastly different from intercontinental navigation on the open ocean. 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. These boats were lashed together with rope and, in later sea-going vessels, more firmly constructed with wooden pegs. Along with sails, they also often had a complement of rowers.
And yet, these small ships were not ready for the open ocean. They struggled in Mediterranean where they hugged the coastline currents as they went east for timber and other goods, then found the winds of the open sea for the return voyage. A return that was slower, due in part to the added weight of the cargo, and far more perilous due to the uncertainty of weather. They almost certainly timed their trade expeditions to coincide with seasons that were relatively calm. These, quite simply, were not ships built for long-term expeditions that would last months at sea (Faulkner 1942; Fagan 2013).
If, however, we assume that the ancient Egyptians did have sea-worthy ships—ships that have yet to be discovered in the archaeological record—then we’re left with this 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. They sufficiently documented trade voyages to places now known as Cyprus and Lebanon for timber and other goods. The Egyptians detailed a great many journeys and expeditions over land as well. They wrote down details of technological advancements so that future generations might continue their work. If the ancient Egyptians navigated to South America and back, they kept it secret. And not just the journeys, but the methods they used to navigate, how they built ships that could make months long ocean crossings, and what other trade goods were involved. If they made trans-Atlantic journeys, they were uncharacteristically bashful of the accomplishment.
But these first two assumptions pale in comparison to the last, which is to accept that the ancient Egyptians didn’t already have THC, nicotine, and cocaine available to them from other sources. There was definitely THC available to the Egyptians. Cannabis sativa found it’s way to the Middle East at least as early as 2000 BCE and might even have been traded along the silk road before this. The Egyptians were renowned for their desire to obtain the spices and herbs of far away lands, so it isn’t even a minor stretch of the imagination to believe that cannabis (and the THC within) was obtained for use by Egyptians at around the periods these mummies were living and breathing.
That believer in the fringes of archaeology, however, never fails 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 the nicotine. N. rustica contains up to 18% nicotine and N. tobacum has between 0.5% and 9% nicotine (Froberg, Ibrahim, and Furbee 2007). Both of these plants are from the Solanaceae family, which includes belladona, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. Each of which has small amounts of nicotine. In fact, eggplant contains about 0.1 micrograms of nicotine per gram. A single cigarette contains about 2 milligrams of nicotine. You would have to consume a full kilogram of eggplant in order to ingest enough nicotine to compare with a single cigarette. And, if you wanted to get your nicotine from potatoes, you’d need to eat 14 kilograms (Domino 1993; Domino, Hornbach, and Demana 1993). That’s over 30 pounds!
Even though 1 kg of eggplant (about 2 lbs) isn’t terribly difficult to imagine, and it may actually have been available along the trade routes used by Egypt, it still isn’t likely that the people that would eventually wind up as mummies for these studies were consuming large quantities of it. 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 africana, a plant native to the African continent (Merxmüller and Buttler 1975) and concentrations can reach up to 2%. Today, this plant is found in the mountains of northern Namibia. In his 2017 book, Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas, Stephen Jett suggests that N. africana “contains almost no nicotine” and is too far away. But recent research by Marlin et al (2014) shows that the African variety of tobacco has varied levels of nicotine within the plant itself. Most notably, within the leaves. They found that while nornicotine and anabasine were the primary alkaloids in the leaves of N. africana (83% and 15% respectively), nicotine was present at 2%.
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). Given that Balabanova and others found evidence of ingestion, this probably isn’t a likely source unless there is some mechanism that cotinine can metabolize from the nicotine in insecticide applications or second-hand smoke. I’m not aware of any such mechanism and found none in my readings on the topic. So that really just leaves consumption of plant-based nicotine.
Personally, I think N. africana is the likely explanation. The levels of nicotine aren’t extremely high, but it only takes a concentration of about 2% in a gram of leaf. This, by itself, is probably enough to metabolize in the human body and be detectable in the small amounts Balabanova et al have discovered.
Today, cocaine—a tropane alkaloid—is produced from from either Erythroxylum coca or Erythroxylum novogranatense, both native to South America.
At least 10 known species of Erythroxylum exist throughout the African continent, plus 9 on Madagascar (in the Indian Ocean but considered an African nation), and several species on the island nation of Mauritius, just east of Madagascar (Görlitz 2016; Bieri et al 2006; Evans 1981). To date, and of the species that were tested, none have yielded signals of cocaine content through chemical analyses, but other tropane alkaloids were found in most.
The general hypothesis is that Erythroxylum originated from either Africa or Madagascar (Islam 2011; Oltman 1968) and Melissa Islam suggests (2011) that the cocaine producing species E. coca and E. novogranatense were artificially selected for from an earlier species. Humans have done much the same with plants that provide food and it could be argued that the cultural significance of coca in South America might be sufficient enough to influence its cultivation.
Dominique Görlitz (2016) argued that the “morphological and physiological differences of Erythroxylum species” is enough to conclude that the cocaine-producing varietals are exclusive to the Americas. During historic times, the clearing of land for crops, timber, or grazing is a serious threat to “endemic and indigenous species” of plants, including those used both historically and prehistorically for medicinal purposes (Suroowan 2019). The number of unknown flowering plant species in the world was estimated to be 10-20 percent higher than those already known (Joppa, Roberts, & Pimm 2010), with many of these living in threatened and fragile habitats.
Given the facts, it’s difficult to imagine under what circumstances Görlitz is able to understand the “morphological and physiological differences” within the Erythroxylum genus well enough to conclude that only the species in the Americas are capable of producing the tropane alkaloid of cocaine. Or that a species, recently extinct, could not have.
Conclusions and Something Cool
The nicotine level of Nicotiana africana is on par with N. tobacum, so the tobacco question is easily answered. Not as easy to understand is the cocaine present in the organs of these mummies, but since the genus Erythroxylum is common to, and probably originated in, Africa, there are plenty of places to look within easy reach of the Egyptian Empire. In spite of Görlitz’s conclusion, there’s no good reason to think one of the many tropane alkaloids present in these species couldn’t have been cocaine either in the past or in an as yet undiscovered species.
Even if we didn’t know about other nicotine and possibly cocaine producing plants readily available on the African continent, the first assumption should still be that there must have once been, or is now, 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: not only did they show us a way the Egyptians made medicinal use of plant resources, probably in attempt to heal or offset pain, but they point us toward the probability that at least one of these may now be extinct or at least so rare it’s no longer known.
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 demonstrates a trade link between the South American and African continents around the periods these mummies were living, breathing individuals. This kind of evidence could be in the form of indisputable pottery, hieroglyphs detailing the expedition, or maybe even some remnant of N. tobaccum or E. novogranatense that is recognizable in form, through phytolith, by seed, or perhaps even DNA.
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