Ancient Maya Liked Their Tobacco Mixed With Plants, New Study Says

A new analytical method identified the contents of ancient drug containers.
Derya Ozdemir

A team of scientists from the Washington State University (WSU) has found the presence of a non-tobacco plant inside ancient  Maya drug containers by deploying a novel analytical technique.

The containers were buried more than 1,000 years ago on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and contained chemical traces present in two types of dried and cured tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica, and Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida). The team thinks the latter was mixed with the tobacco to make smoking more aromatic and more enjoyable.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The first clear archeological evidence

The ancient vessels were discovered by Mario Zimmermann, an anthropology postdoc at WSU, on a Maya archeological site in 2012. Similar vessels were previously found with painted hieroglyphs on them stating they are "the home of tobacco." However, since the ones found in 2012 didn't have such markings, or they got worn down with time, what was stored in these vessels was unknown. 

A novel metabolomics-based approach that can analyze plant compounds and metabolites present on ancient ceramics was deployed in the research. Prior techniques deployed to detect ancient residues were "limited to a small array of specific biomarkers," explains David Gang, co-author of the new study. 

"The issue with this is that while the presence of a biomarker like nicotine shows tobacco was smoked, it doesn't tell you what else was consumed or stored in the artifact," he said. "Our approach not only tells you, yes, you found the plant you're interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being consumed."

This new method enabled them to show its potential and revealed the first clear archeological evidence of the ancient Maya mixed tobacco with other plant materials to provide extra aroma.

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"While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored,” says Zimmermann, the study's lead. "The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before."

The research shows how little we know about ancient psychoactive plant use. However, this new analytical method may enable archeologists to get to the bottom of these ancient practices in the future.

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