Traces of cocaine and nicotine found in Egyptian mummies have created speculation about contact with the New World in ancient times.
In 1992 the German toxicologist Dr Svetlana Balabanova was testing the mummies at the Munich Museum for traces of opium in an attempt to verify it’s use in religious rites. The hair of a 21st dynasty priestess, Henut Taui, was found to contain significant amounts of cocaine and nicotine. The implications of finding evidence of possible tobacco and cocaine use in the remains of a woman who died 2,500 years before Columbus were not lost on the doctor. She performed further tests to rule out contamination and sent samples to three different forensic laboratories who confirmed her findings. She carried out further tests on mummies from a wide variety of locations and dates and found that about a third of them showed results similar to Henut Taui.
The Controversy : Egyptology vs. Toxicology
Following Doctor Balabanova’s publication of her findings the academic community either ignored the results or dismissed them as the result of flawed practices or an outright hoax. While the idea of a respected member of the Institute of Forensic Medicine committing such a public fraud can be safely dismissed there have been some very compelling arguments raised against the findings.
- The results are from contaminated samples.
- The remains are modern fakes, supplied by unscrupulous traders to meet the ever increasing demand of European museums.
- There is no reference to either cocaine or tobacco anywhere in Egyptian records, it’s use is not depicted in any of the thousands of carvings and wall paintings.
Modern Environmental Contamination
The mummy of Egypt’s greatest Pharaoh, Ramses II, was being repaired in 1976 at the Museum of Mankind in France. Tobacco fragments were found inside the wrappings. This was initially dismissed as “contamination” and following the carefully photographed removal of further fragments from the abdomen, subsequently ignored.
Dr Balabanova used a hair shaft test which is accepted in a court of law as proof that a substance was consumed while the subject was alive. The sample is washed in alcohol to remove any environmental contamination and the washing solution itself is tested to make sure it is clear. This method is considered reliable enough to fire or even imprison people based on the results.
Plants such as potatoes or tomatoes contain small amounts of nicotine and where they form a significant part of a person’s diet it is possible to build up a large enough residue in hair and tissue samples to show up in tests. Such an explanation however raises as many questions as it resolves as both plants originate in the New World.
Due to the unreliability of carbon dating, a great deal of importance is attached to the documentation of a mummy’s origin when assessing it’s legitimacy. This is known as “provenance”. A named mummy excavated in relatively modern times with full documentation is clearly more likely to be genuine than an arm or even a head purchased from a Luxor antiquities dealer with no paperwork. In the case of the Munich Museum’s collection of mummies, the provenance was investigated by Rosalie David, Keeper of Egyptology of the Manchester Museum who found that except for the Henut Taui mummy, the origins were unknown. However she concluded that because of the supporting research and accompanying artifacts, the collection was genuine.
Absence of Contemporary References
Of all the criticisms raised against Dr Balabanova’s findings, this is the most telling. There are plenty of surviving medicinal texts, none of which mention cocaine or nicotine. There is no depiction of their use on the countless wall paintings and there is nothing in the contents of intact tombs which lends support to the presence of either substance.
The counter argument is that there are many substances named in medical scrolls which remain unknown to us or that it is possible that both substances were used for solely for religious rites rather than for medical or recreational use and were kept as a secret. The Egyptians believed that they would return to their mortal remains after death in a perfect state. If cocaine and nicotine were used for medical purposes then perhaps they saw no need to include them in the funeral trappings.
If we are to accept that the findings of Svetlana Balabanova and others are valid then there are two possible explanations. The first is that the Egyptians had access to trade goods from the New World long before it’s discovery by Europeans. While the Egyptians themselves were not noteworthy sailors, preferring to navigate within sight of land, it is possible they traded cocaine and tobacco with a third party. It is known that Chinese silk was available to them. A second explanation is that there were varieties of tobacco and coca plants native to Africa which have since become extinct. Dr Balabanova considers this to be the most likely explanation.
- Esolibris. Alternative History
- American Drugs in Egyptian Mummies, S. A. Wells