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Toke Like an Egyptian

Commentary on the Cocaine Mummies

from Fortean Times Magazine


A bright idea lead to an unprecidented experiment at the Munich Museum. It was the early 1990s. No-one had thought to test an Egyptian mummy for drugs before. No-one had thought it worth the trouble. The wealth of documents remaining from ancient Egypt frequently bring up the effects of excesses of beer and wine, but mention no other drugs.

By 1992, however, thought had begun changing. Egyptologists suspected the use of opium. And a growing minority had begun to reinterpret the lotus motif ubiquitous in Egyptian art. Instead of purely symbolic, it may have indicated its use as an intoxicant. Perhaps there would be something there to find. So the Munich Museum turned to Svetlana Balabanova, a well- respected pathologist associated with the University of Ulm. She took samples of hair, bone and soft tissue from the museum's nine mummies. She tested the samples using radioimmunoassay and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, common tests used to detect chemicals in a sample.Her results were surprising. So surprising that she sent samples to three independent labs to confirm them. There was no opium, no lotus. But many of the samples contained traces of nicotine and cocaine. The levels were low, but Balabanova believed they must have dropped over the centuries. If her interpretation was right, the levels originally equaled those in modern smokers and cocaine users. But, the only concentrated source of nicotine is tobacco, and cocaine is found only in the coca plant. Both are New World plants, and are generally considered to have been unknown elsewhere before 1492. The Munich mummies lived hundreds to thousands of years earlier. It just didn't make sense.

Balabanova was intrigued and found more mummies to test. Since 1992, she has tested hundreds of mummies from Egypt, Sudan, China and Germany ranging from 800 to 3000 years of age. Nicotine showed up everywhere in an average of a third of the mummies from each site. Her findings have appeared in ten articles in medical and archeological journals. Recently, other labs have begun testing Egyptian mummies and finding nicotine. Three samples from the Manchester Museum revealed traces of the drug1, as have fourteen samples taken directly from an archeological dig near Cairo.

One might think that such surprising findings would cause an uproar in the Egyptological community. In fact, beyond Balabanova's pathology results, there has not been one publication on the subject in the last six years. Few archeologists are even willing to discuss the issue. Of the nearly two dozen Egyptologists contacted for this article, only three agreed to talk about it-only two on the record. Those who are willing do so only to state the case against the findings.

Paul Manuelian, an Egyptologist at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, points to the contents of Egyptian tombs and the paintings on their walls. These included representations of everything the tomb's occupant would need in their next life including such luxuries as beer and opium. But not one tobacco or coca leaf has ever been found. The ancient Egyptians were not shy about their drug use. Representations of alcohol and lotus are common. But there are none of Egyptians using tobacco or coca.

This, Egyptologists say, is conclusive evidence. If not in itself, then certainly in conjunction with a rich archeological record completely devoid of traces of the drugs. The tests must be wrong. They suggest that the samples must have been contaminated with the drugs in the lab, or the mummies during excavation, or, uncharitably, the laboratory staff while performing the tests.Those tests are the same used daily in courts of law. Dozens of studies attest to their accuracy on the living and recently dead, but what about ancient mummies?

Larry Cartmell, Clinical Laboratory Director at the Valley View Hospital in Aida, Oklahoma and amateur archeologist, has been testing South American mummies for nicotine and cocaine for over a decade. "There is no way to be sure the tests are accurate," he says, "because you can't get historical evidence from the mummies." That is, you can't ask the mummy how much he smokes or if he chews coca leaves. However, his results match well with the cultural evidence. Some mummies are found buried with bags of coca leaves or with a wad of leaves still in their cheek. These mummies test positive for cocaine. Mummies from cultures in which coca isn't important usually don't. Just about everyone tests positive for nicotine. Given the importance of tobacco throughout South American this should come as no surprise.

The levels of nicotine and cocaine Cartmell has found in his South American mummies fall at the low end of what one might see in a modern smoker or cocaine user. This suggests that the drugs remain fairly stable in hair and other tissues over the centuries, decaying only very slowly.

Balabanova has tested one group of Peruvian mummies. The levels of cocaine she found in a few of them were similar to Cartmell's results.

Oddly, she found cocaine in only one other group of mummies, her very first batch from the Munich Museum. Their levels were much lower. The Munich mummies are not a homogenous group; their ages and origins vary widely. No other Old World mummies have revealed cocaine. It would be remarkable if these and only these mummies were exposed to the drug and then coincidentally gathered in Munich. A simpler explanation is that they were exposed during modern times after being brought together at the museum. Pathologists don't fully understand how drugs are absorbed into hair, and nobody has even tried to determine if ancient hair can do so. If it can, perhaps these results can best be explained by someone doing cocaine in the Munich Museum mummy room.

Balabanova's nicotine results may not be so amenable to simple explanation. The levels she has found range from nothing up to the lowest levels accepted as proof of smoking in modern hair. Most of her results are typical of environmental exposure. Many common food plants-tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines-contain low levels of nicotine. Small amounts build up in the body just through diet and are detectable using the standard tests.

The mummies with the highest levels, however, are difficult to explain environmentally. A study done by a team led by Helen Dimich-Ward in Vancouver, Canada showed comprable levels only in people who were exposed to heavy second hand smoke in their workplaces. Also, the majority of food plants containing nicotine are New World plants inaccessible to the ancient Egyptians.

Other tests Balabanova performed further complicate the picture. She tested a number of modern smokers, killed in car crashes, and compared the relative levels of nicotine in their hair and bones with the same tests done on her mummies. While the modern smokers had between 40 and 50 times as much nicotine in their hair than in their bones, her mummies' ratio averaged at only twice as much. Balabanova interprets this result as meaning the original mummy nicotine levels were much higher. While the hair allowed nicotine to decay away, the bone retained the drug far better. If this is true, then the levels she detected were originally 20 to 25 times higher, which would bring them in line with modern smokers.

There are several difficulties with this. The first has already been mentioned: the stability of nicotine found by Cartmell. The difference in the two pathologists' results can't be explained as being due to differering lab techniques. Cartmell recently found nicotine levels similar to Balabanova's results in fourteen Egyptian mummies. And Balabanova's nicotine results for Peruvian mummies she tested agree well with Cartmell's for a similar group.A second difficulty also stems from Cartmell's work. Despite several attempts to detect nicotine in mummified bone, he has yet to get a positive result. The samples he used were each taken from mummies with very high nicotine levels in their hair. While he used a different extraction technique than Balabanova, he feels that if there was nicotine there, he would have seen it. The two disparate results stand in stalemate; neither reliable without independent confirmation.

Third is the wide range of nicotine levels Balabanova has found. The highest are already at the lower limits of a modern smokers' results. If they are multiplied with the others, they become unreasonably high. Third is the wide range of nicotine levels Balabanova has found. Three of the Egyptian mummies she has tested have nicotine levels in their bones many times greater than those seen in modern smokers. The lethally high levels made her suspect that nicotine may not have been ingested. Instead, they may have been used as part of the embalming process. The idea makes some sense; nicotine in high levels has a preservative and insecticidal effect that would be useful in mummification. According to Lise Manniche in her Ancient Egyptian Herbal, compositae, a plant containing trace levels of nicotine, was used as part of the mummification of Ramses II. If even relatively low levels of nicotine were used in embalming, the multiplied results for the original levels in the hair would be wildly exagerated. In addition to those three mummies, Balabanova found several more with fairly high levels of nicotine in their hair. The highest are already at the lower limits of a modern smokers' results. If they are multiplied with the others, they become unreasonably high. Still, the lack of confirmation of Balabanova's results is not necessarily invalidation. And even if most of her results are explicable as environmental exposure, there are still those few high-nicotine mummies, including one tested at that level by Cartmell, to account for.

Perhaps, as the Egyptologists accuse, they are contaminated or fakes. Some mummies excavated in the 19th century were exposed to tobacco smoke, but most recently excavated mummies never get the chance. The common picture of an Egyptological dig includes an Egyptologist in pith helmet and khakis, pipe in hand. Today, however, every effort is made to avoid contamination of a find. The vast majority of modern museums and labs are also smoke-free zones. Importantly, both Balabanova and Cartmell have found that nicotine levels in samples that have been excavated and stored together vary widely. The differences must have originated during the mummies' lifetimes.

That does leave possibility that the mummies are fakes. This is only plausable, though, for a few. Most of the mummies were formed naturally, dried by the heat of the desert sands where they were buried-unlikely subjects for hoaxes. Of the artificial mummies, most are well documented-tracked from tomb to display case. Even for those without their papers, fraud is difficult. Ancient Egyptian embalming styles varied like any other fashion. A trained Egyptologist can examine the mummy's bandaging, ornaments and preparation and name its age and origin like a car buff picking out make and model from a look at the styling.

So if the mummies and the drugs in their bodies are real can this fit with the lack of written evidence? There does seem to be a hole or two in the archeological record where nicotine might just slip in. The lack of remains and representation in Egyptian tombs is strong evidence against nicotine's recreational use, but not medical use. The ancient Egyptians believed that their afterlife bodies would be perfect versions of the ones they had in life. Without disease or injury, the dead had no need for medicines. So they were not included in the tombs.

For the living, Emily Teeter, Associate Curator at Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum says, we have a good record of preserved medical texts and prescriptions. Many of the ingredients, however, while we know their Egyptian names, remain unidentified. Unless a bit of residue is discovered in a labeled bowl, there is no firm way to link ingredient to name. Teeter stresses that there is no reason to assume that any of the names refer to an unknown drug. But the possibility is there.

The record is far scantier for folk medicines. No culture is without them, but for the ancient Egyptians they were an oral tradition, never recorded in writing. If nicotine was used, there would be far less evidence to find. Ingredients used, though says Teeter, would probably be local and common. The small number of high-nicotine mummies and, of course, the lack of archeological evidence, seem to argue against tobacco growing wild in the streets. If nicotine was used as a medicine, how was it obtained? Three possible scenarios seem to fit the data: 1) trade with South America 2) a previously unknown Old World species of tobacco existed, but died out before modern times or 3) the nicotine came from some other plant.

Beyond the pathology results, there is little to nothing to support the idea of Egyptian trade with the New World. The Egyptians were, according to Teeter, 'famously bad sailors.' They managed to circumnavigate Africa, but only by staying within sight of the coast. They were incapable of crossing the Mediterranean, far less the Atlantic. If they used an intermediary to make the trip, one would expect far more and far more widespread evidence. Even if the Egyptians weren't interested in using cocaine and tobacco as recreational drugs, others of the trader's clients would be. Plant remains and records would trace the route the traders took. Despite diligent searches by those enamored of the idea of pre-Columbian contact, nothing of the sort has been found.


NOTES 1. In 1996, three samples from mummies in the Manchester Museum were tested for drugs as part of an Equinox documentary 'The Mystery Of The Cocaine Mummies'. The lab doing the tests was unidentified in the show, but in "Egypt Uncovered" by Vivian Davis and Renne Friedman was named as Medimass Labs. Manchester Museum declined to comment for this article. A search of the Manchester phone book revealed no lab by that name and further extensive searching turned up no more information about the company. So beyond the fact reported in the documentary that the mummies tested positive for nicotine, the precise levels remain unknown.

The full text of William Jacobs article appears in Fortean Times 117.