New World Drugs in Old World Mummies?

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.

Feagans drawing of PC103
Drawing of Amarna Period bas-relief, PC 103, with recreation of the loose-footed sail. Drawing by Carl Feagans.

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!”

Nicotine

3D Nicotine Model

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.

Cocaine

3D Cocaine Model

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.

References

Balabanova S., F. Parsche, W. Pirsig. 1992. First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies. Naturwissenschaften 79:358

Balabanova S., F.W. Rösing, G. Bühler, 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.

Froberg B., D. Ibrahim, R.B. Furbee. 2007. Plant poisoning. Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America 25, 375-433.

Bieri S., A. Brachet, J.L. Veuthey., P. Christen. 2006. Cocaine distribution in wild Erythroxylum species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 103: 439-447.

Buckland P.C., E. Panagiotakopulu. 2001. Rameses II and the tobacco beetle. Antiquity. 75. p.549-56.

Burkill H.M. 1994. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Families E–I. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom

Dillehay, T.D., J. Rossen, D. Ugent, A. Karathansis, V. Vasquez, P.J. Netherly. 2010. Early Holocene coca chewing in northern Peru. Antiquity 84: 939-953.

Domino E.F. 1993. Nontobacco sources of cotinine in the urine of nonsmokers. Clinical Pharmacology Therapy 57(4), 479.

Domino E.F., E. HornBach, T. Demana. 1993. The nicotine content of common vegetables. New England Journal of Medicine. 329: 437.

Fagan, B. 2013. Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, pp. 75-112.

Faulkner, R.O. 1941. Egyptian seagoing ships. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 26, pp. 3-9.

Furbee, B. 2009. Neurotoxic plants. In, Clinical Neurotoxicology, Michael R. Dobbs (Ed). Philadelphia: Saunders, pp. 523-542

Gemmill, C. 1966. Silphium. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 40(4): 295–313

Görlitz, D. 2016. The Occurrence of Cocaine in Egyptian Mummies-New researcher provides strong evidence for a trans-Atlantic dispersal by humans. Diffusion Fundamentals, 26: 1-11.

Jett, S.C. 2017. Ancient Ocean Crossings. Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Marlin D., S.W. Nicolson, A.A. Yusuf, P.C. Stevenson, H.M. Heyman, et al. 2014 The only African wild tobacco, Nicotiana africana: alkaloid content and the effect of herbivory. PLOS ONE 9(7): e102661.

Merxmüller H., K.P. Buttler. 1975. Nicotiana in der Afrikanischen Namibein pflanzengeographisches Rätsel. Mitteilhungen der Botanischen Staatsammlung München, 12: 91-103.

Nishiyama Y., M. Moriyasu, M. Ichimaru. 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 ihresystematische Bedeutung. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft 81: 505-511

Parsche F. and A. Nerlich. 1995. Presence of drugs in different tissues of an Egyptian mummy. Journal of Analytical Chemistry 352:380-384.

Suroowan, S., Pynee, K.B., & Mahomoodally, M.F. 2019. A comprehensive review of ethnopharmacologically important medicinal plant species from Mauritius. South African Journal of Botany, DOI: 10.1016/j.sajb.2019.03.024.

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

41 Comments

  1. Carl: very interesting article, and kudos to you for admitting when you make a mistake. On your three assumptions, firstly, that the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have sea worthy boats; how certain are you of that assumption and why? Your second assumption seems far fetched; that the Egyptians didn’t write about their journey to the new world. I’ll go out on a limb here, but I’d estimate that 99% of everything the Ancient Egyptians ever wrote, whether on papyrus or in stone, has been lost to history. Is that, in your view a fair statement? By way of comparison, and as I’m sure you’re aware, I do not believe there are any extant writings about building plans for the Giza Pyramid complex, who designed them, their purpose, and almost no mention of the pyramids at all in what has come down to us. And yet, there sit some of the largest, most innovative structures the world has ever seen. Surely such a feat, in all it’s splendor, would have been mentioned *somewhere*? So, I don’t think “not written down” seems very certain at all about trans-oceanic contacts. And finally, on number 3, I am ignorant, although a few of my high school buddies might know…:). Again, a good article….

  2. Carl, on your 2nd assumption, that if the Ancient Egyptians had made contact with the New World that surely they would have written something down about it; how do you know they didn’t? I’d venture a guess that 99% of the sum total of whatever the Egyptians wrote, is simply lost to history. Is that a fair estimate in your opinion? If so, it seems incredible to use that line of reasoning. Further, perhaps to the Egyptians a trans-oceanic voyage might not have seemed to them something overly fantastic, and thus not worthy of mention, especially if the contact was accidental, brief or of no great consequence. Maybe they didn’t come into contact with any natives at all, or maybe even a just a very few? Perhaps those few weren’t so impressive? By way of comparison, imagine if the US Library of Congress was the last remaining repository of US history and then burned to the ground, destroying 99% of the documents contained in it. Would not many great events be lost to history? I realize the firm evidence is still lacking about Egyptian contacts with the New World, but I think the “not written down” is an argument you should absolutely toss….

  3. Gleaner –
    2/3 of the Egyptian civilization predates the dates for these mummies, including your Great Pyramid example.
    If these mummies had dated to the Old Kingdom or Predynastic culture, then your argument might hold water.

  4. There was a guy in the 90s that crossed the Atlantic in a five foot long boat, so its possible to see that the ancient Egyptians may have made the crossing.
    Maybe as Gleaner points out, we shouldent be too hasty about sticking this in the Hancock file. Perhaps the simple fact is, that if you are not willing to accept the possibility then you are pretty unlikely to find the evidence. The Ancient Egyptions were building very good boats as far back as 3000BC and earlier, I’m sure that over the course of the next 1500 years the technology would have vastly improved, after all; look how our boats have come on in the last couple of centuries. We are told that the ancient Egyptians used boats to carry 200 ton or more Granite blocks 500 miles from Aswan to Giza, this to me sounds much more a challenge. As for the journeys being documented – I believe there are some Stele that depict what appears to be oceanic voyages around 1500BC – I’ll have to do some research here.

  5. Carl,

    Drugs? The timing is sheer coincidence of course LOL.

    My understanding is that ancient Egypt was quite inward looking and xenophobic. Unless they were trying to conquer their next door neighbors via land it doesn’t look like they had a lot of interest in what was across the sea although no doubt one could find the occasional minor exception to that rule. Various other societies were noted for sea trade, sea travel and colonization, and naval warfare that had them going all over the Med Basin and beyond. Egyptians not so much. I think that one reason why they tolerated early Greek colonies in Egypt was because the Greeks made great middlemen in the sea trade and the Egyptians could stay at home. Given what is known about ancient Egypt they would be very low on the list of societies that would be demonstrated to have been involved in long-distance sea trade for centuries. It is one thing to make a transoceanic voyage in the technology of the time to show it was possible to do it. It is another to prove that this technology served as the basis of regular transoceanic trade across centuries. A carving of an Egyptian ship puttering around within sight of land in the red sea or the Med isn’t proof that the Egyptians were regularly making voyages that were still very challenging and dangerous to people with much better naval technology 2500 years later. Cue lost ancient technology sermon….

    Also, evidence of trade is not evidence of direct contact. IF the Peruvian Marching Powder did come from Colombia or Peru then far more likely it would involve multiple middlemen. Then one would need to find actual evidence of this middle trade at various points between Egypt and South America unless they are naïve enough to think that boats were launched at the mouth of the Nile and made a straight shot to Colombia and straight back on all of those trips.

    Certainly an interesting topic that is worthy of further investigation but not really an Ah Hah moment, at least in terms of the type of mileage that some are trying to get out of the topic.

  6. The Great Pyramid was built around 2600 BCE. The cocaine mummies date to 1500 to 1900 years later. Because of the loss of written records and archaeological evidence through time it stands to reason that there would be more of a surviving record from the year 1000BCE than 2600BCE no matter the topic. It would be like saying that because there isn’t a lot of written records discussing a particular topic from Virginia in the year 1610 there should be equally scant written records about another topic from the year 1840.

    Rather curious that there would be no mention of trade for cocaine in any surviving records since the Egyptians were anal about documenting economic matters. Egypt was ruled by the Kushites for a century that corresponds with the latest cocaine mummies but there doesn’t appear to be any documentation in Kushite writings either. Rather curious that there isn’t even any second hand discussion of a topic like this in latter Persian, Greek and Roman records pertaining to Egypt.

    Absence of reference to cocaine in any surviving records is not necessarily damning. But neither is it helpful.

  7. Bubba Hotep states: “…Rather curious that there would be no mention of trade for cocaine in any surviving records since the Egyptians were anal about documenting economic matters…”.

    The Egyptians may have been “anal” about documenting economic matters, but that soesn’t mean the largest part of those records have survived into the present. Do you see the point I’m making and how you are conflating 2 ideas? For example, over the entire course of Ancient Egyptian civilization, what percentage of economic documents do we now possess? Would you say less than 1% is a good estimate? If so, you simply have no grounds to conclude that’s it’s “rather curious” there are no surviving documents that mention the cocaine trade. You simply don’t have enough surviving records to make that inference.

  8. James Ford: states: “…It is one thing to make a transoceanic voyage in the technology of the time to show it was possible to do it. It is another to prove that this technology served as the basis of regular transoceanic trade across centuries…”.

    On what basis do you make the illogical statement that the Ancient Egyptians engaged in “regular transoceanic” trade? Did the Vikings make “regular” contact with the New World, or was it limited and sporadic? If the AE had contacts with the New World it was probably very limited and most likely accidental, but I’ve heard NO ONE argue that it was “regular”. It seems as though you are creating a lot of straw here…

  9. Bubba Hotep states: “…Absence of reference to cocaine in any surviving records is not necessarily damning. But neither is it helpful…’.

    The whole point I’m making is the lack of available records. As someone once said, “…we don’t want to draw vast conclusions from half vast evidence..”. The absence of a cocaine refs in surviving documents might have to do with the very absence of the records themselves; you can’t make inferences about things in records if the records themselves simply don’t exist….

  10. Harte states: “…Gleaner – 2/3 of the Egyptian civilization predates the dates for these mummies, including your Great Pyramid example.
    If these mummies had dated to the Old Kingdom or Predynastic culture, then your argument might hold water…”

    The argument is, unless you can site a source to refute it, is that over 99% of Ancient Egyptian written records, in whatever form, and over the course of their entire existence, simply do not exist. So that 99% loss of records would apply to any era of AE. I am only stating here what I learned as a history major; one item being that historians love written documents, lots of them preferably..:)…

  11. Carl,

    Did I read your article correctly that the lab test results would suggest (to some people) that the Egyptians had access to cocaine for hundreds of years?

  12. “The argument is, unless you can site a source to refute it…”

    Who didn’t see that coming?

    “…one item being that historians love written documents, lots of them preferably…”

    Which they generally do not get when studying many societies of the past. Most would love a 1% sample of everything ever written in an ancient society over the course of about 2500 year even if it is not a random representative sample. I did a Senior thesis in History and an award winning dissertation in Historical Anthropology and doubt that I even cracked the 1% barrier, at least in terms of remaining primary documents pertaining to the areas I was writing about.

    I agree with Bubba (loved your movie)that it is silly to try to compare the shortage of written records for Egypt of circa-2600 with the extensive collections in Egyptian, Kushite, Persian, Greek, and Roman records that roughly correspond to the hundreds of years when cocaine is showing up in mummies.

  13. Did I read your article correctly that the lab test results would suggest (to some people) that the Egyptians had access to cocaine for hundreds of years?

    If the results are accurate (I have no reason to think they’re not), then at least two different research teams have discovered that cocaine was available to Egyptians over a period that was prior to European contact with the Americas in the 1500s.

    The data were collected using standard drug testing methods by at least two different research teams, at 3 or 4 different teims. That said, there is still some question about replication of results. One of the teams is partially comprised of the first and so there may be some bias that is skewing the results. But my instinct is that it’s more likely there’s an as yet undiscovered species of Erythroxylum to blame.

  14. Carl,

    So if cocaine was available over a long period wouldn’t that suggest regular trade over that period? Some people seem to have problems distinguishing between the possibility of brief contact and the type of extended contact through time that would be required for people to have used cocaine. Or am I missing something here?

    Or is it likely that an Egyptian vessel headed to Lebanon to pick up some cedar got blown off course and ended up in Colombia where the locals loaded them up with enough coca to keep things hopping back in Egypt for the next 500 years?

    Have you heard of the work at Mersa Gawasis? It was a Middle Kingdom harbor that served as a point for trade on the Red Sea. My understanding is that the researchers found evidence that it was involved in trade with Punt which they associate with the area down around Ethiopia. Interesting to note though that the Red Sea is only about 200 miles wide at its widest point and it would be easy to navigate by sight of land and make stops if necessary.

  15. So if cocaine was available over a long period wouldn’t that suggest regular trade over that period?

    Or it could suggest that cocaine was available in a species of Erythroxylum that is now either extinct or unknown. Or that it was once present in the past with a species known today but without that particular tropane alkaloid. There is some indication that Erythroxylum can be manipulated to increase the cocaine alkaloid over the course of a few generations time. Perhaps it can be manipulated to eliminate it as well through a different set of selective pressures.

  16. Carl,

    I agree that is a more realistic sounding scenario than 5 centuries of secret trade with South America. But we are stuck with much the same problem of lack of evidence. If it was grown right in Egypt then one would think that some evidence would have turned up. If it was traded from the interior via land or down the Nile or via the Red Sea one would think evidence of that would turn up.

    I’m still a little stuck on the issue of contamination even though that doesn’t seem possible. I wonder if all the mummies tested come from old collections or if there has ever been such testing of freshly excavated mummies?

  17. James Ford states: “..Which they generally do not get when studying many societies of the past. Most would love a 1% sample of everything ever written in an ancient society over the course of about 2500 year even if it is not a random representative sample. I did a Senior thesis in History and an award winning dissertation in Historical Anthropology and doubt that I even cracked the 1% barrier, at least in terms of remaining primary documents pertaining to the areas I was writing about…”.

    Who didn’t see that coming? I doubt very seriously James, that you wrote a thesis wherein 99+% of the info you needed was unavailable to you, and I say that as s History Major. Of course, historians deal with fragmentary evidence, no problems there, but to not give any serious credence to the idea that of those hundreds of thousands of Ancient Egyptian documents now lost to history forever, one *might* have contained a reference to a transoceanic contact is mind bending. I doubt you’re aware of it, but the following quote is very illuminating:

    “…Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim’s Progress)….”
    —?Michael D. Coe[3]

    A similar situation probably applies to Ancient Egypt. Oh wait, Michael Coe is a “soodo-scientist”, right?

  18. Sigh…

    The Mayans ain’t the Egyptians. If as many mayan codices and other writings survived as have in Egypt then knowledge of the Mayans would be vastly improved. Then scholars like Coe would probably gladly assert that if the Mayans had been in contact with the Middle East for at least 500 years then one might expect to find some reference to it in 500 years worth of surviving written records. Using the maya and Vikings here does not help your case.

    Since you haven’t written a senior history thesis or a dissertation in historical anthropology you are in no position to argue what is or isn’t available relevant to a particular area. Keep in mind you were the one who raised the concept of the sum total of whatever was ever written.

  19. In the last discussion the topic was Ancient North America but then certain people wanted to shift to ancient Egypt. Now the topic is ancient Egypt and certain people want to shift the discussion in the other direction. When will they start jumping from North to South?

    James Ford: One small correction to your earlier statements. Recent research suggests that the seagoing capabilities and activities of the Egyptians have traditionally been underestimated. However (at the risk of being mean), even with the updated perspective it appears that the Egyptians were never in the same ballpark with various Mediterranean seagoing societies who were all over the place in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. The previously mentioned work that was done in Mersa Gawasis suggests a rather modest amount of travel and no real effort to establish a presence abroad. Their travel appears to have been only as far as the southern portion of the Red Sea. In the same position, peoples such as the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, etc. would have likely had colonies established halfway to the Persian Gulf and Madagascar in the same amount of time that the Egyptians used the port.

    But I can claim no great knowledge of things seagoing. My closest experience to a naval perspective came from being treated by Navy Corpsmen.

  20. James Ford states: “…Sigh…The Mayans ain’t the Egyptians…”.

    They aren’t? Wow, who knew…

    James Ford states: “…If as many mayan codices and other writings survived as have in Egypt then knowledge of the Mayans would be vastly improved. Then scholars like Coe would probably gladly assert that if the Mayans had been in contact with the Middle East for at least 500 years then one might expect to find some reference to it in 500 years worth of surviving written records. Using the maya and Vikings here does not help your case…”

    What “case” is it that you think I am making? Using the Maya and the Vikings does indeed help: most of the history of the Maya and AE no longer exist, so it’s a good example that when so much is lacking, drawing vast conclusions is silly. Secondly, I doubt if there was any formal, direct, intended contact between AE and the New World; if there was contact the most likely possibility is that it was accidental or unintended.

    James Ford states: “..Since you haven’t written a senior history thesis or a dissertation in historical anthropology you are in no position to argue what is or isn’t available relevant to a particular area…”.

    Correct, and you haven’t either based on what you’re writing. Care to share what your dissertation was on so we can judge for ourselves? Oh right, can’t do it, because obviously it MUST be some area that only you have access to the relevant data.

    James Ford states: “…Keep in mind you were the one who raised the concept of the sum total of whatever was ever written…”.

    It’s not a “concept” James, it’s a fact. And your ignorance of that lets me know you’ve never set foot in a college class room. What’s the name of that imaginary school you attended?

  21. Walter states: “In the last discussion the topic was Ancient North America but then certain people wanted to shift to ancient Egypt. Now the topic is ancient Egypt and certain people want to shift the discussion in the other direction. When will they start jumping from North to South?…”

    Sometimes, Walter, these conversations are “fluid” and often rambling; nothing nefarious or unscientific about that is it?

  22. Brock and others: the point of making a comparison between the fields of electrical engineering and archaeology was to highlight the differences between a “soft science” (archaeology) and that of a “hard science” (EE). To prove this, please note the following statements, both taken from Wikipedia:

    1.) “…Known as “Clovis First”, the predominant hypothesis among archaeologists in the latter half of the 20th century had been that the people associated with the Clovis culture were the first inhabitants of the Americas…”.

    2.) “…Recently, the scientific consensus has changed to acknowledge the presence of pre-Clovis cultures in the Americas, ending the “Clovis first” consensus…”.

    Don’t these 2 examples amply prove the following point: 1.) Archaeology changes; so the Clovis First consensus has now been proven to be *bullshit*. I know, harsh, but true. So, prior to Clovis First being overturned with the accumulation of further evidence, one can safely say that someone adhering to the Clovis First idea clearly over stated their case, or simply didn’t know what they were talking about.

    On the subject of the “peopling of the Americas” or the “First Americans”, the story is still being told, and will change again.

  23. How in the world did we get from Egyptians and cocaine to Mayans and Vikings to Clovis and electricity? That Hancockesque Clovis First stuff you are spouting has been beaten to death anyway. I’m not gonna touch that “interesting” electricity analogy again with a ten foot pole.

    You got me there, Gleaner, I’ve never set foot in a college classroom. I was simply born with the understanding that it is comparing a molehill to a foothill when comparing the amount of surviving Mayan written records that Coe referenced to what is available for Egyptian writings [My copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead just by itself probably has way more text than all the surviving Mayan codices combined]. Attending grad school with someone who was working on Maya writing systems and who gave presentations on the topic in departmental seminars was really just a hallucination that I had after a bit of DMT. The part about there would need to be repeated contact of some sort over time in order for evidence of New World cocaine (if that’s what it actually was) to show up in Egyptian mummies over the course of at least FIVE HUNDRED years? Just call it something that even a grade schooler could work out rather quickly.

    I would love to post a reference to my diss. and talk about it all day long. But since you are in no position to judge it or the quantity of available primary sources it was based upon and you have a demonstrated disregard for whatever is said by actual anthropologists (unless it supports your position) why bother? Besides, given the tendency toward deflection and whataboutism here, I’m scared to death that posting reference to a 19th century North American topic here would soon have you or someone else raving ad nauseum about alleged 40,000 year old hi tech sites in Indonesia.

    Now back to the adults; Walter, I’m assuming that your question about North and South was rhetorical since we both know why these sudden shifts tend to occur when interacting with fringe proponents. Keep in mind that I did state that one could find exceptions to the rule about Egyptians’ relative lack of interest in foreign travel. You touched on this when you brought up my reference to Mersa G. Hell, in the same position of operating out of Mersa Gawasis by the Greeks there would have been Greek speakers there to greet the first 16th century European explorers to hit India and curry would have been all the rage in Europe by the time of the Roman Empire.

    At the same time that Egyptian naval capabilities were underestimated, I think that those of other Med societies have been a bit overestimated. If I recall, some folks had the Phoenicians regularly working the west African coast and the British Isles. Seems reasonable to me that they could have made it that far on occasion. But looks like all that tin that they were supposed to have been bringing back from the British Isles by ship more likely came via the English Channel and overland trade routes. I remain leery of people associating “transoceanic” with even the most technologically advanced seafaring societies of the ancient world. On the other hand, it wouldn’t astonish me if at some point a Phoenician shipwreck pops up somewhere in the western Hemisphere. Of course such a solitary finding would undoubtedly get Hancocked into something that it is not.

    At the risk of seeing the crazy train really rolling here, are you familiar with the claims of a transoceanic copper trade. I’m seeing some generic similarities here with that, although New World Marching powder in Egypt makes perfect sense compared to that sideshow.

  24. James Ford: why don’t you save your breath if there’s nothing of substance you can add to this conversation except an oddly steadily expanding list of your academic record? And, I shared that I graduated from Charleston Southern University with a degree in history, but for whatever reason, you won’t even tell us where you went to school? And, lo and behold, along with your drug “research” you attended grad school with someone conducting research on Mayan writing systems ? You are a pathological liar, and it just keeps getting better and better. Next post you will say you were at the Sphinx with Zahi Hawass…LOL…

  25. James Ford states: “…On the other hand, it wouldn’t astonish me if at some point a Phoenician shipwreck pops up somewhere in the western Hemisphere. Of course such a solitary finding would undoubtedly get Hancocked into something that it is not…”.

    More than likely you would claim it was a hoax; that in fact Hancock, Professor Schoch, and others, using the millions from their book sales to the gullible, “planted” the wreck and then mysteriously found it. Or, barring that theory, the Phoenician ship sank off the coast of Crete in 1000 BC, and then due to odd undersea currents, dragged itself along the sea floor for 3000 years and ended up in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg. And let me guess, a grad student you went to school with just so happened to a be scuba diver who wrote his dissertation on Ancient Phoenician ship wrecks….can’t wait to hear the story on that one……

  26. James Ford states: “…when comparing the amount of surviving Mayan written records that Coe referenced to what is available for Egyptian writings [My copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead just by itself probably has way more text than all the surviving Mayan codices combined]…”.

    Obviously, we have far more writings from AE than we do from the Mayans; and yet that does nothing to change the fact that 99% percent of everything the AEs ever wrote no longer exists. That’s not really a problem for me, it’s rather a problem for those who believe that somewhere the AE should have written something down about their alleged New World contacts. But, if you believe that from a 99% loss of data you can still glean anything meaningful from the remaining 1%, you quite likely might believe in anything, including maybe phony dissertations, years of drug research and all that…

  27. @gleaner
    Carefull …
    Remember that Mr Ford is the all knowing super Archeologist and Grandmaster of the Archeologists R Us Clan.
    You wont win here but you may get the “Hancock Award” for daring to challenge the dogmatic version the past they protect with their weapons of mass disingenuousity.

  28. I would ask commenters on all sides to please offer dialog that is relevant and furthers discussion. I’ve more or less been away from the Internet for the past 4-5 days, mostly just approving comments on my phone without reading them until last night and today.

  29. James,

    Some similarities. In both instances people conflate “a single ship could have made it” with “regular trade over centuries, or millenia in the case of the phantom copper trade. Quite obviously the major difference is the scientifically verified presence of a substance in egyptian human remains.

  30. Like Carl, I’ve been away – Great fun here anyway (even if we cant see eye to eye on some topics)

  31. Walter states: “..Some similarities. In both instances people conflate “a single ship could have made it” with “regular trade over centuries, or millenia in the case of the phantom copper trade…”.

    No one here, that I can see, is “conflating” anything, since there is no actual evidence to “conflate”. It seems difficult to believe that the AE purposely set off on a journey to an unknown land in a rickety boat for the purposes of trade and exploration with almost zero chance of making contact, or even if they did of ever returning. If the AE, according to the detractors here of trans-oceanic contact, the lacked the will (they were “zenophobic”), or the means (they had “rickety” boats), the best explanation seems an accidental contact, of short duration, and ultimately one of little cross-cultural exchange. Perhaps the AE brought back a few trinkets, but it seems more likely their primary goal would have been to get home (another unlikely, shot in the dark)….

  32. Walter,

    Don’t forget the copper people also play the Viking card. If they could make it the 6 or 8 hundred miles from Greenland to Newfoundland and establish a brief settlement then suddenly all sorts of transoceanic contact is fair game.

    I’m still curious if the mummies examined were all taken from old collections or if anyone ever bothered to compare more recently excavated ones with the older ones sampled. This is the type of stuff that makes for more interesting and fruitful discussion. But for some strange reason I don’t believe there is that much interest in it.

  33. After doing a fair bit of research and considering the options available, I cant see that the Cocaine that was found in the Mummies can have come from anywhere else but South America.
    Neither Tobacco or the Coca plant was available in Europe let alone Egypt in this period.
    It also seems that cocaine and tobacco only became available in the Victorian age.
    So, if we assume it came from South America and it was quite readily available, it must have been transported on purpose and in quantity somehow.
    When I say ‘readily available’ I’m considering that it probably wasn’t desperately sourced no matter the odds.
    If you consider the geographical locations of Egypt and South America it is plane to see that the Atlantic Ocean is the biggest challenge for commuting.
    OK, the Bering land bridge is the obvious answer for Archaeologists that don’t dare consider the use of boats, but this in it’s self is a nightmare of a journey, not only would it be dangerous and complicated but it would take years for a round trip, furthermore I imagine that the merchandise would possibly not return with the couriers in sufficient quantity.
    The only way to accomplish the Bering route would be a trade line which expanded over time along which the Cocaine was trafficked. This I see no evidence for and it doesn’t sound realistic.
    So if the Cocaine is from South America (which it almost certainly has to be) then the only logical way of transporting quantities of it relatively quickly would be by sea.
    Maybe not by the Egyptians but by somebody else?
    In the many research documents I have read on the subject, it is always stated that it is the Egyptians who are theorised to be the sailors here. But why should that be? It may have been the other way around and the guys over in South America took on the voyage and traded with Africa.

  34. If you consider the geographical locations of Egypt and South America it is plane to see that the Atlantic Ocean is the biggest challenge for commuting.

    Or they just picked it in Africa. Africa is the original location of Erythroxylum. There are probably more species of Erythroxylum in Africa and surrounding islands than all of S. America. None of the known species have cocaine today, but species do go extinct. Moreover, there may even be species as yet undiscovered.

    It’s almost like you didn’t even read the article at all.

  35. I Have read the article a few time actually.
    I was refering to ths bit…

    “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)”

    Also the theory of the cocaine containing species going extinct seems very convenient but highly unlikely – but I will ask a botanist for their opinion.

  36. “It’s almost like you didn’t even read the article at all.”

    I believe it is this site that ‘Pre-reviews’ 932 page books on the basis of a few paragraphs of pre-release info.

  37. I believe it is this site that ‘Pre-reviews’ 932 page books on the basis of a few paragraphs of pre-release info.

    This is true. But did I not also provide a full disclosure of that fact as well as an intent to review the full text of the book in question? Which I followed through with.

  38. the theory of the cocaine containing species going extinct seems very convenient but highly unlikely – but I will ask a botanist for their opinion.

    It’s not a theory. It’s an hypothesis. One that is a little more parsimonious than trans-Atlantic trade (for which there is no good evidence) during the periods in question. The hypothesis that a species could go extinct either naturally or by over-harvesting by humans is one for which evidence already exists.

    All this, of course, is assuming that the very, very few examples of cocaine in mummies doesn’t have some other methodological flaw. Replication is extremely limited for such a significant claim.

  39. Now all you need to do is spend an afternoon snorkeling over the Bimini road and then a leisurely afternoon strolling about Puma punku and you will be as qualified as Hancock to charge $29.95 per copy of nonsense. Just be sure to do lots of drugs while conducting your “fieldwork.”

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