Today we have a good old-fashioned, classic detective story. By way of background, we know that ancient Egyptians never traveled to the Americas. We also know that tobacco was a plant definitely not found in Egypt at that time in history. Thus, common wisdom has always held that there’s no way tobacco could have been found in either the written records of ancient Egypt or in its many archaeological relics. But what if it had? What if we discovered tobacco in ancient Egypt? This is where our detective story begins. If the seemingly impossible has happened, then something is very wrong somewhere. We need to find the undiscovered explanation.
And to give a colorful taste of adventure to our story, we’ll recall Thor Heyerdahl’s 1970 voyage in the Ra II, a boat made of papyrus using only ancient Egyptian methods and materials. In it, Heyerdahl and his small crew sailed 6,000 kilometers across the deep blue Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados — theoretically proving the plausibility of direct contact between ancient Egypt and the New World. Archaeologists have never found Egyptian artifacts in the New World, and also never found Native American artifacts in Egypt, nor any other evidence of contact between the two. Typically, such evidence does exist from all ancient cultures who actually did interact, and so we’ve omitted the Egyptians as candidates for the first non-indigenous to visit the New World. As discussed in Skeptoid #387, that honor belongs to the Vikings, who established small settlements on the North American coast in about the year 1000 CE, some 500 years before Columbus.
But in 1997, the Discovery Channel aired a program called Curse of the Cocaine Mummies which sensationalized the idea that the Pharaohs were all junkies. More than anything else, this program is what inserted this largely unscientific belief into pop culture. The show told the story of Svetlana Balabanova, a German toxicologist who discovered nicotine (and also trace amounts of cocaine and hashish) in an Egyptian mummy. The TV show — in a somewhat transparent bow to sensationalism — focused largely on the cocaine to make its point that the Pharaohs went around high all day; and then went on to characterize this as proof of ancient trade between Egypt and the New World. Therefore, the history of the New World as everyone knows it is wrong. Unfortunately, such disingenuous promotion of a largely discredited fringe theory is what we’ve come to expect from the pseudoscience and pseudohistory networks on TV.
Today, if you do a Google search for the terms tobacco and mummy you will find that apparently everyone accepts, without question, that Egyptian mummies were loaded with tobacco and must have had first contact with the New World. This belief is nearly entirely absent from the academic literature, but its penetration into pop culture appears to have been successful.
Balabanova’s story was real though. She actually did do this work, five years earlier in 1992. Fourteen years before that, a brief, anonymous letter had appeared in the Anthropological Journal of Canada titled simply “Tobacco in Egypt”, which pointed out that tobacco residue was often found in Egyptian mummies, and left the reason open as something of a mystery. Later publications had found tobacco beetles — pests of the tobacco plant — inside the mummy of Rameses II. It seemed to prove beyond any doubt that the ancient Egyptians must have had tobacco.
Although Balabanova was a modern forensic toxicologist and had little experience with mummies or archaeology, she acquired permission to test the hair of Henut Taui, a priestess about whom nothing is known other than she died and was mummified around 1000 BCE. Balabanova found high levels of nicotine plus the traces of cocaine and a few other compounds in Henut Taui’s body, and with the help of a pair of academics, got a one-page article published in the German language journal Naturwissenschaften. Today, Balabanova’s article — “First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies” — remains one of the foundations of this particular alternate history community, and was the impetus for the Discovery Channel’s program.
However, the paper’s rejection by the scientific community was both immediate and nearly universal. Her paper was published in Volume 79 of Naturwissenschaften; Volume 80 included no less than five responses from various scientists, all of whom essentially savaged her work. It was unfortunate but not too surprising: she was a modern toxicologist, not an archaeologist, and with little experience relevant to ancient mummies. Yet she was aware that there is no evidence the ancient Egyptians ever smoked, so she proposed that perhaps they had burned the tobacco to fumigate insects, and thus received heavy systemic doses of nicotine throughout their body tissues. Nobody bought this suggestion; first because Pharaohs were unlikely to be personally involved in the dirtiest part of fumigation efforts so often that their corpses were more heavily laden with nicotine and its byproducts than today’s lifelong heavy smokers; second because tobacco was unknown to the Egyptians, as tobacco wasn’t even introduced to Europe until 1519 when it came back from the Caribbean colonies founded by Columbus; but third because there was a far more likely cause for tobacco to be present in the mummies.
Much has been published on the probable cause for tobacco, cocaine, and other chemicals found in mummies from times and places where those compounds were unknown, but one of the best and most widely cited was published in 2001 in the journal Antiquity. It was authored by archaeologist Paul Buckland and paleoecologist Eva Panagiotakopulu, who specialized in the use of insects in paleoenvironmental interpretation. Their paper was titled “Rameses II and the Tobacco Beetle”.
Let us note that until about 75 years ago, archaeology was done horribly. For many in the profession, archaeology was about profiteering at least as much as it was about science. Conservation of specimens was rudimentary at best. Records were often nonexistent, even in the case of prominent mummies like Rameses II. Buckland and Panagiotakopulu noted:
The case of Rameses II is particularly complex. He had a long and active reign before being mummified in 1219 BC. Since then, his biography has continued to be eventful. Moved to different tombs twice during the New Kingdom, he was exhumed in 1883 at Deir el-Bahri, moved five times, from Boulaq to the Khedive’s Palace to the Cairo Museum and [to a house behind the museum], before his trip to Paris in 1975, and finally back to the National Museum in Cairo. All provided opportunities for contamination and intervention. It is only over the past 50 years that adequate records of conservation histories have been normal, and most specimens are less well documented than Rameses.
It’s also worth noting that during all of those moves, and throughout many of the enclosing decades, many of the people who worked on Rameses II or were in his vicinity smoked like chimneys. Because of this alone, no matter what may have happened during Rameses’ lifetime or at other later periods, we absolutely expect that Balabanova’s analysis would have found nicotine. But even this fact is not considered the primary cause. Buckland and Panagiotakopulu also pointed out:
…Archaeologists have sometimes been too credulous of apparently scientific data, and have failed to appreciate the post-excavation histories of artefacts [sic], including mummies.
And what did that post-excavation history include? Mummies are often found to have insect damage, and sometimes even active infestations. A 2014 paper in the International Journal of Conservation Science said:
A wrapped mummy may have areas on the surface which appear to have been attacked by insects such as moth larvae, or there may be small distinctive holes indicating penetration to some depth below the surface. If a mummy is being unwrapped, similar holes may be found in the deeper layers of bandages. It is also possible to find the remains of insects between the many wrapping layers… Beetles may have infested bodies at the time of death, during embalming, in the tomb, during transportation, or even in the museum.
To counter this, archaeologists and museum curators would virtually always treat mummies with an insecticide, and back in the day, among the most common was powdered tobacco — applied either in solution with water, or sprinkled in dry to act as a prophylactic. Tobacco has been used in this way as an insecticide since about the year 1700. A mummy purchased in the 1820s was known to have been treated with a solution of tobacco water, and in 1995 a radioimmunoassay was performed on it to study how the nicotine was distributed in its tissues as a result of that treatment. The finding was that the nicotine had thoroughly penetrated the tissues, including the hair, giving results essentially identical to what Balabanova and others had found in the mummies they’d tested.
It’s a virtual certainty that this was done with at least most of the mummies in which Balabanova found nicotine, which was about 2/3 of those she tested; but (of course) we don’t know for sure because of the lack of records. Since the mummy she focused on in her initial paper (Henut Taui) was laden with nicotine, then we can safely conclude it had been treated in this common way. There is no need to do what so many have done, which is to insist that the only possible explanation is that ancient Egyptians had trade contact with the New World — a prospect which would be nearly impossible to shoehorn into the known and evidenced histories of so many cultures.
Mummies like Rameses II that were treated with tobacco powder are also the probable reason that tobacco beetles took up residence in them. The beetles were attracted by tobacco applied in the 19th century in Europe, not three thousand years ago in Egypt.
The tobacco insecticide doesn’t explain the cocaine and hashish traces, of course. However, it’s noteworthy that those drugs were perfectly legal and in reasonably common usage during the centuries in which Rameses II and his fellow mummies were being carted around, displayed, closely examined by countless people, and poorly stored; and there was ample opportunity for contamination. It’s important to remember that these chemicals were found in trace amounts only, nothing at all like the nicotine, and in fewer of the mummies tested.
It is a pity indeed that when a good mystery presents itself, not everyone is interested in solving it, detective style. Many pop culture sources like the Discovery Channel prefer instead to leave the mysterious finding unchallenged and unexamined; the inevitable result is that the Internet is now graffitied with false history about the Egyptians being the first non-indigenous to voyage to the New World, and perfectly smart, well-informed people are being given this misinformation with no reason to doubt it. In a nutshell, the history of New World tobacco in Old World mummies is the very heart of why skepticism and critical thinking are so important.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. “New World Tobacco in Old World Mummies.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 14 Jul 2020. Web. 14 Jul 2020. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4736>
References & Further Reading
Abdel-Maksoud, G., El-Amin, A., Afifi, F. “Insecticidal activity of Cinnamomum cassia extractions against the common Egyptian mummies’ insect pest (Dermestes maculatus).” International Journal of Conservation Science. 1 Jul. 2014, Volume 5, Issue 3: 355-368.
Balabanova, S., Parsche, F., Pirsig, W. “First Identification of Drugs in Egyptian Mummies.” Naturwissenschaften. 1 Aug. 1992, Volume 79, Number 8: 358.
Buckland, P., Panagiotakopulu, E. “Rameses II and the Tobacco Beetle.” Antiquity. 27 Apr. 2001, Issue 75: 549-556.
Editors. “Anthropological Journal of Canada.” Tobacco in Egypt. 1 Jan. 1978, Number 16: 10.
Hope, F. “Notice of several species of insects found in the heads of Egyptian mummies.” Transactions of the Entomological Society of London. 1 Jan. 1834, Number 1: 11-13.
Klocke, J. “Plant compounds as sources and models of insect-control agents.” Economic and Medicinal Plant Research. 1 Jan. 1989, 3rd Edition: 104-144.
Panagiotakopulu, E., Buckland, P., Day, P., Sarpaki, A., Doumas, C. “Natural insecticides and insect repellent in antiquity: A review of the evidence.” Journal of Archaeological Science. 1 Sep. 1995, Volume 22, Issue 5: 705-710.
Parsche, F., Nerlich, A. “Presence of drugs in different tissues of an egyptian mummy.” Fresenius’ Journal of Analytical Chemistry. 1 Jan. 1995, Number 352: 380-384.