Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Cocaine Mummies Revisited

This article was first published in New Dawn Magazine issue 156, May/June 2016. It was also subsequently published by Dragibus Magazine volume 4, issue 1, 2016, as The Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies. © Brett Lothian.

The Cocaine Mummies Revisited
By Brett Lothian

Deep in the mists of ancient Egypt, around three thousand years ago, a priestess of the Temple of Amun, Henut Taui - The lady of the two lands, began her epic journey in the afterlife. Whilst we cannot know what became of her spirit or Ka, her mummified body remained preserved in the ancient sands of Egypt, right up until modern times, and it told of a mystery few would believe or understand.  

Henut Taui, the lady of the two lands.
Long had it been known that the priests and priestesses of ancient Egypt used various narcotic and hallucinogenic plants in their arcane rites and medicinal pharmacopia, but to what extent had never been investigated, until 1992. What was found was to be truly paradigm shaking, a supposed impossibility, a true mystery indeed. What they found was the presence of what was believed to be only New World narcotics, in ancient Egyptian mummies.

These findings came to our attention when S Balabanova, S Parsche, W Pirsig published the scientific paper, First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies. The scientific paper showed that of the nine mummies (including Henut Taui, all dated to between 1070-395 BC) evaluated, using techniques such as the accepted hair shaft test (used in police forensics), all showed signs of cocaine, whereas all but one sample tested positive for nicotine. The concentrations of the compounds found suggested uses other than that of abuse. For example, modern drug addicts often have concentrations of cocaine and nicotine in their hair 75 and 20 times higher respectively than that found in the mummy hair samples. This would most likely suggest a medicinal or perhaps even a magical/religious use.

This was followed in January of 1995 by the scientific paper, Presence of drugs in different tissues of an Egyptian mummy by F Parsche and A Nerlich. The scientific paper showed that the biochemical findings in several internal organs from an Egyptian mummy with a Carbon 14 dating of approximately 950 BC. These analyses revealed a significant deposition of cocaine and nicotine in the tissue from the mummy. The concentration profiles additionally provide evidence for the preferential ways of consumption,  cocaine and nicotine showed their highest concentrations in the intestines and liver, so that they seem to have been consumed orally.

Unfortunately this has largely been ignored by Egyptologists and historians as patently absurd. In their minds, the ancient Egyptians simply never travelled to the Americas, so the results must be false, a result of modern contamination or the mummies themselves must be relatively modern fakes. Despite no evidence of such assertions at all and the very same hair shaft test used by S Balabanova, S Parsche, W Pirsig, being used by forensic experts as evidence in courts all around the world. As far as I’m aware, no one has been able to dispute their findings in any meaningful way, in fact they have only been corroborated.

Of course this set the alternative history scene ablaze ever since in what was seen as proof positive of ancient Egyptian contact with the Americas, as it is widely believed that cocaine and nicotine only occur in plants native to the Americas, ie the coca plant (erythroxylum coca) and tobacco plant (nicotiana tobacum). To quote Graham Hancock in his latest work Magicians of the Gods, “There is compelling evidence that long distance oceanic voyages were undertaken from Egypt during Pharonic times, for example, the presence in nine mummies of cocaine and tobacco, both indigenous American plants not previously thought to have been present in the Old World before the time of Columbus. Therefore - we must assume - the ancient Egyptians did indeed make voyages as far as the Americas”. But is this really true? Is the presence of cocaine and nicotine in ancient Egyptian mummies really proof that the ancient Egyptians travelled to the Americas?

Myself like many others were extremely excited by the news of the “cocaine mummies” and the possible implications. In my natural scepticism though, I distinctly remember asking myself at the time, if the ancient Egyptians did indeed manage to cross the Atlantic and bring back coca and tobacco plants from the New World, why are they not growing in Egypt today? Or why have we not found any plant material in archealogical excavations? The amounts of cocaine and nicotine discovered in the ancient mummies tested by S Balabanova, S Parsche, W Pirsig shows a continued use of these alkaloids over a long period of time in ancient Egyptian culture, which means a prolonged access to the plants that contain them. Also the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs were hardly bashful in proclaiming their achievements, and leaving them for posterity, usually carved in stone. So many examples of Pharonic boasting are still extant today that they are far too numerous to list here. Surely such an amazing achievement would have left some record for us to recognize today, but alas there is none. Which explains the dismissals of the Egyptologists. Another problem is, if the ancient Egyptians did indeed travel to the Americas, why just bring back coca and tobacco? Of the myriad of useful plants to be found there, surely they would bring back more than just two, like the Spanish, English and French etc did in their travels to the Americas or even found colonies as the aforementioned European nations did. Regardless of all this, there is another problem with how the ancient Egyptians managed to imbibe cocaine and nicotine over an extensive period of time, supposedly proving contact with the Americas, namely, they simply did not have to go there in the first place.

The fundemental problem with the assertion that the presence of cocaine and nicotine in ancient Egyptian mummies, proves that the ancient Egyptians travelled to the Americas, is the assumption that cocaine and nicotine containing plants only existed in the Americas at the time. This is simply not the case. Not by far. Whilst indeed cocaine containing plants such as erythroxylum coca, erythroxylum novogranatense etc and nicotine containing plants such as nicotiana tobacum, nicotiana rustica etc are native American plants, many other cocaine containing species of erythroxylum and nicotine containing species of nicotiana exist all around the world, even in Africa itself. So let’s take a look at the most likely suspects to have been utilized by the ancient Egyptians.

Erythroxylum brownianum, commonly known as the small leaf coca tree is found today in deciduous forest or scrub from Swaziland, Natal, eastern Transvaal to Mozambique in south eastern Africa. It has been and is still used today  traditionally as a medicine against cold and flu by the local inhabitants. While this plant is certainly a contender to have been utilized by the ancient Egyptians, a more likely candidate is Erythroxlym platycladum, which is found growing from northern Kenya to northern Mozambique, and also occurs in Madagascar and the Comoros islands. In fact there are literally over one hundred different types of coca plant that are native to Africa. Unfortunately no where near enough ethnobotanical study has been done on African plants and their traditional uses and the American lead “war on drugs” has made the study of coca plants worldwide almost impossible, so information about these plants is scant to say the least. But what we do know is many contain cocaine and have a tradition of medicinal use in Africa, potentially going back to Pharonic times and perhaps much, much earlier.

Erythroxylum platycladum
The only native African tobacco plant is nicotiana africana, today confined to the Brandberg, Erongo and Spitzkuppe mountains in northern Namibia. Nicotiana africana has been found to contain up to two percent nicotine, of its total alkaloid content, with nornicotine and anabasine as the primary alkaloids. While it is possible that the ancient Egyptians utilized this plant, it is impossible to prove and for the purposes of this article unnecessary. Another nicotine containing plant is known to have been utilized by the ancient Egyptians, namely acacia nilotica. In the Ebers papyrus, the oldest well preserved medical document from ancient Egyptian record, dated to approximately 1500 BC contains 110 pages on anatomy and physiology, toxicology, spells, and treatments recorded on papyrus. The papyrus also has many prescriptions showing the treatment of many disorders by animal, plant, and mineral toxins that still occur today. Acacia nilotica is recommended in the Ebers papyrus as a vermifuge (to expel intestinal worms), to ease diarrhea, internal bleeding and also to treat skin diseases. So, now we have a nicotine containing plant, known to have been utilized by the ancient Egyptians, but also known to have been taken orally as suggested by the scientific paper, Presence of drugs in different tissues of an egyptian mummy by F Parsche and A Nerlich. Also it is likely to have been used medicinally and not habitually as suggested by the scientific paper, First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies by S Balabanova, S Parsche, W Pirsig. Just as prescribed in the Ebers papyrus.

Acacia nilotica

This is merely the beginning, various nicotine containing plants from the nightshade family (to which tobacco belongs) are native to Egypt and Africa in general, such as atropa belladonna, commonly know as deadly nightshade, which just so happens to also be mentioned in the Ebers papyrus, as being useful as a pain reliever. 

The Ebers papyrus
 Trade throughout the ancient world is known to have been quite extensive. It is well attested that ancient Egypt traded with the land known in ancient times as Kush. Kush, known to the ancient Greeks as Ethiopia was an empire originally situated between Ta-Seti in Lower Kemet and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles. Centuries later, however, the name became synonymous with a much larger region that included the present-day countries of South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, Chad, etc. Well within the range of cocaine containing erythroxlum species native to Africa.

What we must also remember is that the climate of Africa has changed quite considerably since ancient Egyptian times. Becoming much hotter and dryer, particularly in the north of Africa. Human activity has also altered the landscape considerably, especially mono culture farming and cattle herding. Agriculture is without a shadow of a doubt the most enviromentally destructive endeavour we humans have ever created. It is therefore likely that the ancient ranges of African plants is vastly different to that of modern times. Potentially placing cocaine containing plants much closer to Egypt itself, and perhaps even in Egypt during ancient times.

Various types of coca plants are also found throughout Asia and in India in particular, such as erythroxylum monogynum, commonly called red cedar. It is a native of India and most intriguingly its roots contain low levels of cocaine and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to cure many diseases such as Stomachic, Dyspepsia, Fever, and Dropsy. Trade between the Indus valley civilization and Mesopotamia, which in turn traded with ancient Egypt is well attested. To list every cocaine and nicotine containing plant found throughout Africa, Asia and even just in India is beyond the scope of this article. What matters is that it is widely accepted that ancient Egypt traded either directly or indirectly with ancient cultures that could have provided cocaine and nicotine containing plants, without having to have travelled to the Americas.

Returning to the Ebers papyrus for a moment, we see that it is dated to about 1552 BC (WHI 2008), 1534 BC (Demand 2000), or 1536 (Carpenter et al. 1998), based on the passage referring to the ninth year of the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep I (Demand 2000). However, there is a portion of the papyrus, paragraph 856a, that suggests a considerably earlier origin, a reference to the Pharaoh Den, that would place the origin of the knowledge contained nearer to the First Dynasty, about 3000 BC (Demand 2000). For this reason, some believe it to be a copy of ancient books of the reputed father of medicine, alchemy, and pharmacy, Thoth. If it is indeed a copy of earlier works, which seems likely, it shows that the ancient Egyptians knew about the medicinal use of at least nicotine containing plants much earlier than the dates of the nine mummies tested by S Balabanova, S Parsche, W Pirsig. Interestingly the Ebers papyrus refers to at least 80 different plants that we have not yet identified, could one of those 80 odd plants be erythroxylum platycladum or some other native African coca plant? I think it highly likely considering the scale of the ancient Egyptian pharmacopia, medicinal knowledge and trading with cultures from the regions in which they still grow and are used to this day.

So where does this leave us? Do we hold on to the assertion that the presence of cocaine and nicotine in ancient Egyptian mummies proves contact with the Americas? Surely not in light of the evidence presented. The fact is that the ancient Egyptians simply did not have to travel outside of their own continent to gain access to cocaine and nicotine. They didn’t even have to leave their own country to utilize nicotine containing plants, and from the Ebers papyrus we know that they did. This leaves us yet still with intriguing lines of exploration, such as the 80 odd plants (certain identifications are disputed) that we still have not identified from the Ebers papyrus, the true extent of ancient Egyptian trade and the potential knowledge of the ancient African pharmacopia which has hardly been studied at all. The “cocaine mummies” whilst not proving ancient contact with the Americas, do prove that the ancient Egyptians were certainly curious, advanced and mature in their medicinal plant knowledge and application, no small feat in itself. Something we still have yet to accomplish today.

About the author: Brett Lothian is an Australian author, professional arborist, market gardener and  ethnobotanist. He is the author of the Tricho Serious Ethnobotany blog, creator of the Trichocereus Cacti Appreciation group, the Peyote Appreciation group and the Ethnobotany Appreciation Society group on facebook.


American Drugs in Egyptian Mummies - S. A. Wells

The Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies - Transcript of video

First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies - S. Balabanova, S. Parsche, W. Pirsig

Presence of drugs in different tissues of an egyptian mummy - Franz Parsche, Andreas Nerlich

Erythroxylum brownianum natural medicine facts

African Plant Database, Erythroxylum platycladum

PAPYRUS EBERS, full text

Ancient Egyptian Medicine

Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants

CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants - Umberto Quattrocchi

The Encyclopeadia of Psychoactive Plants - Christian Rätsch

1 comment:

  1. Magníficos comentarios! Sería educativo integraran estos descubrimientos a los conocimientos impartidos en las escuelas primarias de toda América y el mundo!