Mummies used to smoke... probably

By chillinwill · May 16, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    The analysis of drugs in hair is generally associated with contemporary forensic applications, to detect whether a suspected drug user has been taking banned substances and, if possible, to track the time course of usage by following the distribution along the hair. It has also been used to determine whether animals raised for meat have been given illegal hormone growth promoters. However, before these applications were developed, hair analysis was also used in an anthropological context.

    In the early 1990s, the hair of South American mummies dating from 1000 BC to 1500 AD was analysed by radioimmunoassay to reveal the presence of cocaine and its metabolites benzoylecgonine and ecgonine methyl ester. These findings, later corroborated by GC/MS, were taken as evidence of coca leaf chewing by the indigenous people and helped to suggest that this practice originated in the Andes.

    Another study published about the same time reported the detection of cocaine, nicotine and tetrahydrocannabinol in mummies from Egypt (1000 BC to 400 AD). This report stirred up a hornet's nest. Cocaine and nicotine are derived from South American plants and there were no known trans-oceanic voyages to Europe before Columbus sailed to the Americas. So, some commentators have criticised the work, citing the speculative nature of the requisite voyages, poor experimental techniques and external contamination.

    In Germany recently, this work was expanded. A collection of 70 human and animal mummies was assembled as part of an ongoing mummy project involving specialists from anthropology, pathology, radiology, molecular biology and toxicology. One of the many operations carried out was to gather evidence of the use of drugs and this was accomplished by analysing the hair of pre-Columbian mummies for drugs.

    Only eight of the human mummies had sufficient hair for sampling. The analyses were carried out by Frank Musshoff and Burkhard Madea from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Bonn, and Wilfried Rosendahl from the museum in question, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim. In the first instance, the samples were analysed by an established GC/MS procedure for opiates, cannabinoids, cocaine and similar substances.

    A second set of samples was washed successively with water, petroleum benzine and dichloromethane and the washes retained. The cleaned hair was cut into pieces and ultrasonically extracted with methanol. The washings and the extract were each screened by GC/MS using a mass spectrometric library. They were also subjected to targeted analysis for nicotine and its metabolite cotinine in selected ion monitoring mode, using deuterium-labelled internal standards to allow quantitation.

    The target analyses for drugs in general were all negative but three of the mummies tested positive for nicotine: an adult woman from Peru or Argentina radiocarbon dated to 1095 ± 50 AD; a child from the Peruvian Chancay culture dated to 1415 ± 16 AD; a female bony skull complete with scalp and well-preserved braided hair from Peru that had not been dated. The nicotine levels were 57.5, 14.1 and 11.4 ng/mg, respectively, but cotinine was absent in all cases. The method quantitation limits were 0.12 and 0.10 ng/mg for nicotine and cotinine, respectively.

    The nicotine concentrations are of the same order as those reported in the hair of modern-day smokers but the absence of its primary metabolite is puzzling. Given the nicotine concentrations present, the team expected to find cotinine at levels well above the quantitation limit. Although cotinine is not always detected in every active smoker, to detect none in all three mummies may be considered too coincidental.

    One explanation offered by the researchers is contamination of the mummies by smoking visitors or museum employees during their collection, storage and display. However, neither nicotine nor cotinine were detected in any of the washings, which would be expected for external contamination. It is possible that the hair had been cleaned during mummy storage but this could not be confirmed because the earlier records are incomplete.

    In addition, the team were able to exclude modern contamination as the mummies had been stored in their vitrines for 100 years before being rediscovered and examined in 2006.

    Another potential solution is the use of the tobacco plant during a sacred ritual in which the shaman would treat an ill native with tobacco smoke but this is merely speculative.

    The team concluded that the active consumption of tobacco during the lifetime of the subjects, while implicated, could not be proven. Future work will include an examination of the soft tissues of the mummies which might provide more evidence for tobacco use.

    by Steve Down
    May 15, 2009

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  1. PCG IV
    Strange that they didn't test for tryptamines, eg bufotenin, 5MeO-DMT and DMT, given the known use of plants containing these compounds, as well as mescaline and its metabolites.
  2. Rob Cypher
    Chilean Mummies Reveal Ancient Nicotine Habit

    The hair of mummies from the town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile reveals the people in the region had a nicotine habit spanning from at least 100 B.C. to A.D. 1450.

    Additionally, nicotine consumption occurred on a society-wide basis, irrespective of social status and wealth, researchers say.

    The finding refutes the popular view that the group living in this region smoked tobacco for just a short stint before moving on to snuffing hallucinogens.

    "The idea was that around A.D. 400, people in San Pedro de Atacama (SPA) smoked tobacco in pipes, and then after that time, they gradually switched to inhaling dimethyltryptamines in snuffing trays," said study co-author Hermann Niemeyer, an organic chemist at the University of Chile in Santiago. "What we show is that's not correct."

    The practice of smoking and snuffing hallucinogens was deeply rooted in the culture and thinking of many pre-Hispanic societies. In the south central Andes, two plant sources of hallucinogenic compounds exist: nicotine-containing species of Nicotiana (tobacco) and tryptamine-containing species of Anadenanthera (cebil).

    "The proposal one most often reads is that [the hallucinogens] were used mainly by shamans," Niemeyer told LiveScience. The witch doctors sometimes used the plants as psychoactive compounds to connect with the gods and spirits from beyond. At lower concentrations, the substances became the ingredients for remedies for diseases, sleep problems and other ailments.

    "The shamans were supposed to not only cure things by directly using something that attacked the illness, but also by contacting spirits through ceremonies," Niemeyer said.

    To get a better understanding of hallucinogen use in SPA throughout the ages, Niemeyer and his colleague Javier Echeverría analyzed hair samples of 56 mummies from the Late Formative to the Late Intermediate periods of SPA (100 B.C. to A.D. 1450). The mummies, Niemeyer explained, were in good condition, preserved naturally from the high temperatures, extreme dryness and high soil salinity in the Atacama Desert. Depending on the site, the mummies were either interred in the ground or entombed in "some sort of stony environment made for them."

    A range of different objects were buried along with the mummies, such as jewelry, weapons, ceramic objects, raw metals, textiles, vases and various snuffing paraphernalia, including mortars, trays and tubes. The researchers used the number and type of objects as a proxy for the mummies' social and wealth statuses.

    The team found nicotine in the hair of 35 mummies, spanning the full range of years. "The finding of nicotine was definitely unexpected," Niemeyer said. In the archaeological record of SPA, smoking pipes are gradually replaced by snuff trays after around A.D. 400 — previous studies found evidence of nicotine in smoking pipes, but not in snuffing powder or snuffing paraphernalia, which were often associated with tryptamine alkaloids.

    The team didn't find traces of tryptamine alkaloids in the hair samples, though this doesn't necessarily mean people didn't consume the cebil compounds. "When you inhale dimethyltryptamines, the body takes care of destroying it before it gets to the hair follicles," Niemeyer said.

    The traces of nicotine weren't related to the presence of snuffing paraphernalia in the tombs, suggesting shamans, who are typically associated with such objects, weren't the only ones to consume the psychoactive alkaloids. Moreover, nicotine-laced hair wasn't related to the diversity of funerary objects or the presence of valuable gemstone necklaces.

    The results, which will be detailed in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggest nicotine consumption in pre-Hispanic SPA occurred continuously for hundreds of years and was performed by people of all social and wealth statuses, Niemeyer said.

    Joseph Castro
    June 28, 2013
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