The Stoned Age?

Did the discovery, in Egyptian mummies, of the chemicals found in cocaine and tobacco prove an ancient contact with the Americas?

A look at the Evidence for Cocaine in Mummies

A Brief History of Drug Use

The use of plants to alleviate pain and elicit a psychoactive high is as old as human culture itself. [1] In fact one in four medicines currently available from the local pharmacy originated from a plant and many of our modern drugs were first used in traditional cures by indigenous peoples. Whilst the observation that certain plants could be used to alleviate pain or counteract the effects of disease is understandable the reasons why plants were first consumed for their psychotropic activities are less obvious. The conventional view is that plants containing such drugs were chosen by humans because they fool the brain into thinking it is getting a reward. However, it has also recently been suggested that consumption of alkaloids such as nicotine and cocaine could have been necessary for our human ancestors to endure harsher environments. [2] For example Australian aborigines consume the plant Pituri, which is rich in nicotine, to stave off hunger whilst enduring treks across the desert and native Andeans still chew coca leaves to endure hard work at high altitude.

Many hunter-gatherer tribes maintain ancient traditional rites, which utilise certain plants for their psychoactive properties. Ancient hunter-gatherers certainly behaved similarly in using the hallucinogenic properties of the local flora to further their understanding of the spiritual world. The western custom of using flowers at funerals is in a way comparable to the use of plants by indigenous peoples to symbolise the link between this world and the next. [1] It is therefore important to respect that indigenous cultures attached a strong spiritual significance to the drugs they used and that they were often considered as gifts from the gods and as a means of contacting the spiritual world.

Young Girls Preparing Kava. Outside of the Hut Whose Posts Are Decorated with Flowers (John La Farge c. 1891])

In the South Pacific the Polynesian islanders prepare a beverage called Kava from the rhizomes of Piper methysticum. [1] The active component of Kava, kavain, has effects similar to those produced by cocaine and may be used as a local anaesthetic or to give comfort to the sick. Its principal use however is to build friendship and to alleviate conflict within the tribe or village and the highest honour that may be afforded to a visitor is to be served Kava. Polynesian legend states that at the first Kava ceremony Tagaloalagi, the creator of the world, served Kava to the first man, Pava. In the ceremony the two participants face one another and it is forbidden to enter the alofi (the space that separates them). During the ceremony Pava’s son ran across the alofi and for breaking this code he was ripped limb from limb by Tagaloalagi. Pava wept at the death of his son, which was his only chance to populate the world. Tagaloalagi then said to Pava:

Your son violated the alofi and so had to die. But through transgression came death through kava comes life.

Following this Tagaloalagi poured a few drops of kava on Pava’s son’s dismembered body and he was resurrected. This story illustrates the high regard that indigenous cultures have for the drugs they use and also indicates that the use of drugs is likely to be recorded in their legends and texts.

The preparation of some plants to release their psychoactive components in a form that will have an effect may require multiple steps involving heating, grinding or even combinations of different plants. The Waiká shaman prepares ebena snuff by using fresh material from three different plants, each one containing compounds which enhance the effects of the others. [1] The inner bark of the Virola tree is heated to release a red sap, which is then mixed with dried, ground leaves of Justicia pectoralis and ash from Elizabetha princeps. This is kneaded into a putty-like consistency, heated and then ground into a powder. The powder can then be placed into a 1m long reed-like tube and is then propelled into the nostril by a quick puff from a colleague. Within 60 seconds the alkaloids enter the circulatory system and the shamans spirit leaves his body and enters the other world. The snuff must be prepared carefully as any mistakes may render it toxic or less effective. It is unlikely that such an elaborate process would have been developed if the effects of the drug were not prized. However significant effects may be obtained merely by smoking or chewing the leaves or sap of the most familiar plant-derived drugs (opium, cannabis, cocaine and tobacco).


(Photograph: Gabriela Fink,

Opium is derived from the poppy, Papaver somniferum, which was cultivated for the use of its seeds and leaves for oil and as food and its dried sap to produce opium. [1] Opium contains more than 30 alkaloids the most abundant of which is morphine (4 – 21%). Morphine can be used to chemically synthesise heroin by acetylation of its hydroxyl side groups. Heroin was initially developed to treat opium addiction, however, despite having fewer side effects (eg nausea and constipation) it proved to be even more addictive.

Opium is prepared by harvesting the capsule once the petals have fallen. Horizontal cuts are made and the whitish sap released is collected and dried to a brown/black resin, which can then be smoked. It is thought that the Greeks and the Ancient Egyptians used opium poppies. A terracotta statue discovered in Knossos, Crete depicts a smiling female figure with closed eyes wearing a crown containing three poppies. It is suspected that this was a representation of a goddess in an opium-induced trance. The Ebers papyrus, written ca 1500BC, also mentions the use of poppy seeds to treat head pains and also its use as a sedative.


(Image: 7raysmarketing,

Cannabis sativa may be grown for its strong fibres (for use as linen, canvas or as rope), birdseed, its oil as well as for its use as a drug. Cannabinoids including delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are responsible for the potent effects produced by smoking or eating cannabis. The word hashish is derived from the cult of hashishin, a troop of bandits who robbed caravans travelling to Baghdad, and whose name was taken from their leader Al-Hasan ibn al-Sabbah. [1] At one time the cult numbered as many as 12,000, who were trained in the art of robbery and assassination. The young men who joined this cult lived in an earthly paradise in which they were served with a drink derived from Cannabis.

The use of Cannabis as a medicine was first recorded in China in texts from the time of the emperor, Shen Nung. These texts allegedly date from 2737BC and they document the use of cannabis to treat beri-beri, malaria and amnesia. However Shen Nung was a mythical figure and the texts were actually compiled much later than the alleged date. [3] Cannabis was described in these texts as a plant that “if taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.” However it was also later described as a “liberator of sin”. Cannabis is also mentioned in the Atharva Veda, which may date back as early as 2000BC and also in Assyrian cuneiform tablets which date from about 650BC. [3]

Cannabis has been discovered in the abdominal cavity of the skeleton from a young girl aged about fourteen who died during childbirth in the fourth century BC in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. [4] It is believed the girl died because her pelvis was too small to permit a normal delivery. This find has led to suggestions that the plant was used to alleviate pain and increase the force of uterine contractions.

Archaeologists have also discovered various objects in the Scythian Mountains that were used for rituals associated with cannabis use. Pots and charcoal containing the remains of cannabis leaves and fruits have been dated to 500 – 300BC and Herodotus also recorded the use of cannabis by the Scythians and the inhabitants of islands in the Araxes river. [5]


Nicotiana tabacum

A Huron Indian myth states that; “when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she travelled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco….” [6]

The word nicotine is derived from the surname of Jean Nicot de Villemain, who introduced Nicotiana rustica to France in 1560. Tobacco was first mentioned (in the form tabaco) by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478 – 1557) who used the word as a term for the act of smoking and later on in his writing for the leaves of the plant itself.

The tobacco plant, as we know it today, was domesticated in the Americas ca 1BC. [6] The first artistic evidence of tobacco smoking comes from a pottery vessel found in Guatemala dating from before the eleventh century AD. The vessel depicts a Mayan man smoking a roll of tobacco leaves tied with a string. American tobacco became much more widely used following the voyages of Columbus. Although it is less well known that tobacco was used independently by aboriginal Australians as attested by records made during Captain Cook’s expeditions in 1770. [7]

Tobacco may have been used by American Indians for its hallucinogenic properties. Tobacco contains the alkaloids; harman and norharman, and the closely related harmine and harmaline are known hallucinogens. It should be noted that the indigenous strains of tobacco smoked by American Indians were far more potent than those used currently for commercial purposes. Additionally the amounts smoked by shamans would far surpass the limits of the most hardened western chain smoker. Observers have witnessed Shamans along the Orinoco River smoking five or six three-foot cigars in a single sitting. However the toxic effects of tobacco should not be underestimated. Shamans subject their apprentices to extraordinary levels of nicotine over long periods of time, sometimes almost to the point of death, to acquaint them with the amounts that they use in their rituals.


Coca leaves in a Peruvian market

Prior to the nineteenth century most currently illegal drugs were freely available and there were few restrictions enforced on trade. Once advances were made in organic chemistry during the 1800s the active components of many plant pharmaceuticals could be extracted and purified. These advances led to the development of pure drugs, which could be administered in accurate doses by the medical profession. However once purified and concentrated it became easier to use these drugs in excess and therefore much easier to develop an addiction to them. Drug abuse is a modern day phenomenon. This is best illustrated by the use of cocaine and a distinction should be made between the use of the coca leaf and pure cocaine.

The coca bush, native to South America, is the source of cocaine and its leaves have been used for centuries to alleviate hunger and exhaustion, as a medicine and for its nutritional content. The word “coca” comes from the Aymara word q’oka, which means “food for travellers and workers”. Cocaine acts by inhibiting the uptake of dopamine into the synapses of the brain. [5] This results in a prolonged activation of dopamine receptors and because these receptors are involved in the control of pleasure responses cocaine stimulates the pleasure centres. When ingested orally cocaine primarily interferes with the re-uptake of noradrenaline and serotonin rather than dopamine. To enhance the absorption of the alkaloids in the coca leaf by the mouth American Indians chew their coca leaves with mineral lime (obtained from burnt seashells or limestone) or a “yucta” (which consists of burnt plant ashes). In the accompanying photograph four different kinds of yucta are displayed by a coca leaf trader at a market in Puno. The practice of coca chewing been preserved on ceramic vessels dated from 4 – 600AD, which show figures with a single bulging cheek. Ceramic containers for lime have been found in a coastal site in Ecuador and these indicate that the plant has been in use there for at least 5,000 years. [1]

Timothy Plowman discovered that all cultivated coca originates from four varieties of the coca bush; Erythroxylum coca var. coca (Bolivian coca), E. coca var. ipadu (Amazonian coca), E. novogranatense var. novogranatense (Colombian coca) and E. novogranatense var. truxillense (Trujillo coca). [8] Plowman claims that E. coca var. coca was first cultivated 7,000 years ago in the eastern Andes and that coca was domesticated in the Amazon basin much more recently. It is still a common practice in the Andes to chew coca leaves with lime and visitors who have not been acclimatised to high altitudes may drink a cup of hot coca tea to relieve their altitude sickness and tiredness. The coca leaf also contains nutrients and vitamins, which enhance the generally poor quality of the local diet.

Mariani Tonic Wine –
lithography by Jules Cheret, 1894,

Coca leaf extracts have also been used in several beverages. In Paris Angelo Mariani produced Vin Mariani, a red wine mixed with coca leaf extract which was sold between 1844 and 1913. [11 & 5] Vin Mariani received letters of appreciation from Jules Verne, Auguste Rodin, the US president William McKinley and Pope Leo XIII. More famously John Pemberton used coca leaf extract in 1886 with African cola nuts in his recipe for Coca-Cola. However, in 1904 federal law prohibited the use of cocaine although coca leaf extract continues to be used in the product. In the 1980s between 56 – 588 metric tons of coca leaf were imported annually for use in Coca-Cola, from which the cocaine is removed and sold to the pharmaceutical industry.

Cocaine was first isolated in the 1860s from the coca leaf and in its pure form it may be used as an anaesthetic and it is also used to alleviate the pain of terminal cancer patients. Purified cocaine may be snorted, smoked or injected, however it is also highly addictive. It is estimated that as many as 35 million US citizens have taken cocaine and approximately 15 million South American Indians still chew coca leaves. During the twentieth century cocaine use became more widespread and it was documented in the experiences of Aldous Huxley.

Due to the addictive effects of such drugs governments have attempted to exercise control over their production, export and import. Illegal drug production is however a difficult market to control as the more successful customs officials are in breaking down trafficking routes the greater the market price of the restricted drug becomes. The greater the profit that can be made the more adventurous drug smugglers will become regardless of the risks involved. A hundred kilogram bag of coca leaves may be bought in a market in Peru for as little as $66 and this can be used to manufacture 1.5 kilograms of pure cocaine. [1] In Peru a kilogram of pure cocaine would have a market value of $1,500 – $2,500 but this would increase to over $100,000 if sold in small packets in New York City.

LSD, speed and ecstasy are synthetic drugs and were first synthesised in recent times (speed in 1887, ecstasy in 1912 and LSD in 1938). As these drugs are chemically synthesised they can be made anywhere in the world and they are therefore relatively cheap. Opium and cocaine, however, are produced by plants in specific regions (cocaine in South America and opium in Asia from Turkey to Thailand) so they require long distance shipping routes to supply the demand for them in the USA and Europe. Consequently heroin and cocaine are much more expensive and therefore far more profitable. The heroin boom in the 1980s followed the control of production, processing and export of the drug by powerful drug barons in Burma and Afghanistan. The increased availability of cocaine in the USA during the same period is considered by some to be associated with the intervention of the CIA in the civil war in Nicaragua where the trade in drugs was used to buy guns for the anti-communist “Contra” rebels. [9]

Drugs are like any other commodity. Where there is a demand traders will attempt to satisfy it by developing trade routes as long as it remains profitable for them to do so. In their way stand governments intent on limiting the supply of restricted drugs and armed with numerous strategies to fight the war on drugs. The war on drugs has led to the development of tests to identify illegal substances in the human body. Advances in forensic chemistry have empowered forensic scientists so that they can test blood, urine and hair for the presence of illicit drugs. Tests such as these are sufficiently reliable and precise to be used as evidence in a law court.

The history of drug use interests many anthropologists but due to the paucity of evidence very little is known about which plants were used for medicinal or spiritual purposes by particular cultures and when they first began using them. In the late 1980s the German anthropologist, Dr Franz Parsche became interested in determining whether mummified remains could be forensically tested for the presence of drugs. If modern analytical techniques could be employed on ancient samples then we could determine which particular drugs were used by specific cultures and also get an idea of when they were first used. Dr Parsche collaborated with Dr Wolfgang Pirsig and Prof. Svetlana Balabanova, both at the University of Ulm, to obtain and analyse ancient mummies from Egypt, South America, the German “Bell” culture and Sudan for traces of drugs. Their controversial data showed that mummies from both Egypt and Peru contained cocaine, nicotine and the active component of hashish – tetrahydrocannabinal (THC). These results also confirmed a discovery made in 1976 when the mummified remains of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II were found to contain traces of tobacco leaves. [10]

Before the voyages of Christopher Columbus cocaine was not known in the Old World and hashish was not known in the Americas. The identification of cocaine in Egyptian mummies has therefore been interpreted by some as proof that there was pre-Columbian contact between Egypt and South America.

The Evidence

The German research group published their initial findings in 1992. [11] Balabanova, an experienced forensic chemist, used radioimmunoassay and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to identify and confirm the presence of cocaine, nicotine and hashish in Egyptian mummies. The remains used in this study included 7 mummified heads (all adults, 2 females, 5 males), 1 single complete adult female and 1 incomplete adult male. All the mummies tested were from the Egyptian Museum, Munich and they had been dated to a period spanning 1070BC – 395AD. Cocaine and hashish were also found in all 9 samples and nicotine was present in all but one of the samples tested.

In February 1993 the group published a second, more comprehensive, paper on their findings in The Lancet [12]. This included their analysis of 72 Peruvian (200 – 1500AD) and 11 Egyptian (1070BC – 395AD) mummies and also skeletal tissue from the Sudan (2 individuals, 5000 – 4000BC and 400 – 1400AD) and South Germany (10 individuals, 2500BC).

Their data (Table 1) showed that cocaine, nicotine and hashish could be identified in samples obtained from some, but not all, of the Peruvian and Egyptian mummies that were tested. They also identified nicotine in the bones of both individuals from the Sudan and in 8 out of 10 of the individuals from the German “Bell” culture. The levels of cocaine discovered in the hair of Peruvian mummies were found to be similar to the levels found in modern day German drug addicts and this would indicate that the degradation of the drug does not occur significantly over time. The Egyptian mummies were found to have approximately 75 times less cocaine than the maximal amounts identified in modern day German drug addicts.

Table 1. Concentrations (ng/g) of alkaloids and metabolites (Number of samples in parentheses)
Taken from Parsche et al (1993) with permission. [12]




Peru (natural mummies)


220-13,900 (12)

28-1,400 (12)

50-1,700 (17)

Soft tissue

43-1,371 (10)

57-1,997 (6)

49-2,795 (8)


42-185 (4)

84-587 (3)

15-138 (4)


10-113 (5)

17-104 (7)

15-39 (4)


26-326 (16)

39-577 (26)

14-276 (20)

Egypt (artificial mummies)


24-200 (4)

140-900 (4)

800-4,100 (4)

Soft tissue

70-442 (8)

125-1045 (10)

59-2875 (10)


25-110 (6)

45-1050 (11)

36-2,800 (10)

Bell culture


0 (10)

56-142 (8)

0 (10)



0 (2)

87-93 (2)

0 (2)

Modern German drug addicts


3-15,000 (130)

3-20,000 (190)

2-1,000 (70)

The results were published without any interpretation of the data indicating how these drugs came to be present in locations so distant to their natural source. The drug tests had proven positive and so it was up to the wider academic community to make sense of them. Comments and criticisms concerning the data were quickly published in the letters pages of the respective journals. [13 & 14] Understandably the comments focused on the possible interpretations of the evidence and doubts were raised concerning the methods used, the authenticity of the mummies and the possibility of later contamination.


The controversy surrounding the evidence for cocaine in Egyptian mummies led to a Channel 4 (UK) “Equinox” television programme [10] and it has also prompted several speculative articles in magazines and on the internet [15 – 21], most of which have used the evidence for cocaine in Egyptian mummies as the proverbial “smoking gun” that there were ancient trade routes between the Americas and Egypt. After all there are pyramids and hieroglyphs on either side of the Atlantic so it is difficult to comprehend why the experts are so reluctant to accept that trade links were established between these cultures and then lost at a later point in history.

Thor Heyerdahl established that transatlantic journeys could be made using reed boats similar to those made by the ancient Egyptians. However, it should be noted that he had the benefit of a support crew and also the advantage of knowing in which direction he would eventually find land. The ancient Egyptians were an insular society and they tended to rely on other cultures such as the Phoenicians and Minoans to ship goods to them. When they did make long distance trading excursions, such as the voyage to Punt (thought to be located in modern day Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen) organised by Queen Hatshepsut ca 1470BC, the occasion was commemorated with reliefs at her temple at Deir el Bahari in Western Thebes. [22] If the Ancient Egyptians were engaged in transatlantic trade with the Americas it is therefore likely they would have proudly proclaimed this fact somewhere.

Reliefs from Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el Bahari.
Photographs provided by Jon Bodsworth of GizaView

Historians remain entirely unconvinced of ancient trade links between the old and new worlds because none of the principal domestic species (other than the dog) are found in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Native Americans had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys or camels whilst new world domesticates such as the llama, guinea pigs, maize, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, squash (incl. pumpkin), pineapples, papaya and avocados were absent from the old world. [23] In addition iron, steel, glass and silk were not used in the Americas prior to 1492. If trade had existed between Egypt and the Americas it would be incredibly unlikely that it would be restricted to plants that produced drugs and not essential food crops and farm animals. Furthermore, the differences between Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs and the vast differences in the designs, building materials and purpose of pyramids between Egypt and the Americas indicates that there was not a shared legacy between these cultures.

Academic historians may accept the possibility that a single Roman ship may have become lost in storms and drifted across the Atlantic. [24] However the contention that there were established links between the old and new worlds prior to Columbus is understandably considered absurd.

Even so there must be adequate explanations that can account for the presence of hashish, nicotine and cocaine in the mummies analysed by Dr Svetlana Balabanova that do not depend on the conviction that the ancient Egyptians and Americans traded drugs across the Atlantic. To evaluate this evidence further I contacted Prof. Wolfgang Pirsig and Prof Svetlana Balabanova, Dr Franz Parsche sadly died in an accident in 1995.

What assurances can you give that all the mummies tested for the presence of these drugs were genuine (not fakes)?

Prof. Wolfgang Pirsig: In 1989 I asked Dr. Balabanova whether she could investigate drugs in Egyptian mummies (total cadavers, heads and skulls) of the Mook collection in the Staatssammlung of the University of Munich. The Mook collection was brought to Munich in the late nineteenth century and included remains from Thebes and Abydos. The way of mummification (especially the way of brain removal) showed me that the mummies were genuine. In the Staatssammlung there are around 120 heads and skulls from pre-Colombian Peruvian mummies which were brought to Munich after excavations from 4 cemeteries in the 1930s by members of the Munich University, so that there is no doubt about their genuineness, too. I had studied this material with different questions, one is the deformation of the skull by bandaging in infancy, which was present in about 95% of the skulls, a good evidence for genuineness. Dr. Balabanova had investigated mummies from other areas of the world but I cannot tell you anything about the genuineness of this material.

Dr. Svetlana Balabanova: The source of the artificially mummified bodies from Egypt was the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The remains of the naturally mummified bodies from Egyptian Nubia were made available to us by Prof. Strouhal, Historical Museum Vienna. Dr Rosalie David has confirmed the authenticity of the mummies.

Is it possible that the presence of these drugs could be explained as intermediary compounds or breakdown products of other common, known biochemicals?

WP: According to my knowledge cocaine, THC and nicotine and their metabolites have their origin only in plants, and there is no way how they can result from other natural processes.

SB: It is not known that cocaine or nicotine can be intermediary compounds or breakdown products.

Is it known whether cocaine, THC and nicotine are stable enough compounds to withstand biochemical or microbial degradation over long periods of time (up to 3,000 years)?

WP: Cocaine has been cultivated in Peru since over 3,000 years. I don’t know how old the oldest known coca-leaves in other museums are. In the Munich collection there is one complete mummy head with a coca-leaves ball in the mouth, from which Dr. Parsche had found cocaine. Quick dehydration of the deceased by whatever method seems to be the best way to enable survival over thousands of years of these drugs which were incorporated in living tissues.

SB: It is not ascertainable if the cocaine and nicotine amounts measured in body tissues and hair represent the original values immediately after death or if the amounts reduced during the centuries. It is also not known if cocaine or nicotine are products of microbial degradation over long periods of time (up to 3,000 years). However, it is known that burning of incense through reactions of olivetol and verbenol arise THC (D. Martinez et al. “Weihrauch and Myrrhe”. WVG, Stuttgart, 1988).

Do the analytical techniques employed preclude the possibility of misidentification?

SB: The amount of drugs determined by radioimmunoassay is the sum of the drug and its metabolites. However, the proof of a metabolite indicates also the use of the drug. The results of my studies were verified by GC/MS. This method is absolutely specific and precludes misidentification.

How sure can we be that the techniques employed in the identification of these drugs (radioimmunoassay and GC/MS) are reliable and consistent?

WP: The analytic methods of Dr. Balabanova were trained over many years in hair, sweat and dresses of living drug addicts before I brought her the first hairs of Egyptian mummies. Therefore, misinterpretation of her analytical results would appear extremely improbable.

SB: The samples were stored since their excavation under homogenous conditions. The conditions in the laboratory were again homogenous and the samples were simultaneously investigated. Before the investigations, all samples were carefully washed with distilled water and alcohol. The washing water was tested and was cocaine negative. Also all chemicals were cocaine negative. The sample extracts were applied to the GC/MS after it was carefully rinsed with chloroform, until no traces of cocaine or its metabolites were detected any more. If the amount measured were results of contamination, all samples should have been positive. However, only parts were positive.

Is this scientific evidence so watertight that it could withstand legal testimony?

WP: Dr. Balabanovas expertise in analysing drugs in the hair of drug addicts was performed in context with forensic investigations ordered by Justice and the German State without any profit background. Insofar I would term her evidence a legal one.

Can we be certain that these drugs were present at the time of death or is it possible they were introduced into the mummified body either during the embalming process or by later modern contamination?

WP: Some drugs were incorporated during the lifetime, otherwise they cannot be present in the depth of teeth or bones. Some drugs may have contacted the cadaver during the application of some drug containing oil or ointment, which invaded for instance the skin or mucosa. Some drugs in the form of plant leaves or flowers have been added during or after the mummification process (as in the mummy of Ramses II in Paris). Of course, in our time, the excavator can add nicotine by smoking during his excavating work and scattering the ashes of the cigarette over the mummy (which is very unusual!), but this nicotine is washed away during the analytic procedures from the hair or bone.

SB: The influence of environmental factors on the substances deposed in the different body tissues post-mortem has not yet been clarified. Ambient moisture, decomposition processes and embalming practice may play a role. We have demonstrated that in artificially mummified bodies from ancient Egypt the nicotine concentrations were significantly higher than those found in the naturally mummified bodies. This indicates that the alkaloid was, possibly, used post-mortem at the embalming procedure. In addition, in the artificially mummified bodies the levels of cotinine, the first nicotine metabolite, were also lower than those measured in naturally mummified bodies. This indicated that nicotine was used ante-mortem and metabolised to cotinine.

Does the analysis of the hair shafts indicate that cocaine, THC and nicotine were consumed over a period of time of the life of particular mummies?

WP: If a drug is inside the hair it has come into the hair during the lifetime. In recent people Dr. Balabanova found a type of timetable according to the intake of the drugs. If the drug addict is clean for a time and then starts again, one can show the interruption in long enough hairs. Due to the small specimens of mummy hair such a timetable could not be shown in the ancient hair.

SB: The presence of drugs in hair demonstrates its use ante-mortem. The drugs are transferred in the hair shafts approximately one month after use. The investigated artificially mummified Egyptians were unfortunately without hair.

The cocaine concentrations found in artificially mummified bodies from Egypt, dated from 1070BC to 395AD, ranged from 24ng/g to 441ng/g. [12] Cocaine was found too in skeletal samples from 71 individuals without traces of artificially embalming procedure, from Egyptian Nubia, dated 600AD to 1100AD. The alkaloid was found in 56 individuals ranged from 0 to 59 years, the highest cocaine values were detected in the group of 1 to 6 year-old children (82ng/g). Up to the age of 22 years the concentrations decreased to 52ng/g. Then after a new increase up to 67ng/g, at the age of 39 years the cocaine amounts decreased steadily. The highest levels found in the children aged 1 to 6 years suggested that the alkaloid was used as a tranquilliser or may be of maternal origin, too. It is possible, that it was used by the mothers as reinforcer and transferred across the placenta or through the mother’s milk to the infants. To the end of the breast-feed the cocaine amounts decreased. The following increase may be related to the cocaine use as reinforced at the beginning of the working process.

Do these results indicate that these mummies were drug users or that they were an after effect of the embalming process?

WP: The people used drugs by inhaling or chewing before they were mummified, but I cannot exclude the additional invasion of some drugs into the skin of the deceased during the mummification process via some drug containing oil or ointment. We only have sparse information on the mummification process. Herodotus (450BC) only mentioned some details of the mummification techniques, which were poor in Herodotus’ time compared to the techniques and quality of mummification performed thousands of years earlier.

SB: The results indicated that the drugs were used ante, or possibly, post-mortem, in religious rituals, as medication or at the embalming procedure and not as cocaine users.

Have these results been verified by an independent laboratory?

SB: The samples were investigated in my laboratory, by my doctoral candidates and with my apparatus. The GC/MS measurements were performed in the laboratory of the Federal Armed Forces, Munich, Analytical-biochemical laboratory Prof. Adlkofer, Munich, the State criminal office, Stuttgart and by the Children’s Hospital, Ulm.

Are there any plant sources known to have been available to the Ancient Egyptians between 1070BC – 395AD containing nicotine, cocaine, or THC?

WP: For nicotine the two articles of Balabanova contain references of plants containing nicotine in this period, but nobody has proven this exactly with a contemporary map of plants for Egypt.

SB: It is known that cocaine is the principal alkaloid of the leaves of Erythroxylum coca. Cocaine is present also in other Erythroxylum species native to South Africa, Madagascar and Mauritius in amounts less than those found in Erythroxylum coca. However, it is possible that in antiquity a way to concentrate cocaine was known. Professor Michael Montagne reported that South American shamans concentrated nicotine routinely into a thick black syrup. Moreover, it is also possible, that in ancient Egypt, plants containing cocaine were present. Furthermore, it cannot be ruled out that the coca plant was possibly imported to Africa before Columbus. Although trade relations between the New World and Africa are not known, the existence of links between the continents cannot be rejected. The Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic in an Egyptian reed boat. Possibly ancient people navigated South American rivers to the Atlantic, crossed the ocean and reached the African continent. Recently a pre-Colombian, earthen Roman head was found in Central America. Recent investigations of a mummy found in Florida, aged 7,000 years, demonstrated identical genotype with those of Asiatic race, but not with those of native Americans (S. Pääbo “Ancient DNA” Scientific American, November 1993: 64). These facts are possibly also evidence for trans-Atlantic relations.

Is it possible that Ancient Egyptian traders could have obtained any such plants from elsewhere in Africa, the Mediterranean or the Middle East?

WP: Yes, possible, but not proven. Some plants could be imported from Asia.

Is it possible that plants yielding the required amounts of these drugs may have been present in the past and have become extinct?

WP: Yes, the destruction of nature today is the best evidence, and nature had been destroyed also in ancient times.

SB: It is possible that plants containing the alkaloids were present and used in Ancient Egypt.

Are there any plant sources of THC known to have been available in Peru between 200 and 1500AD?

WP: We have not investigated this question.

Do these results support an established trans-Atlantic trading route between Egypt and South America that predates Columbus (1492AD)?

WP: No, this conclusion cannot be made from the Ulm findings.

Could they indicate the possibility of a distant trading route across the Pacific between South America, Asia and Africa?

WP: No, this conclusion cannot be made from the Ulm findings.

Do you favour any particular interpretation of your results?

WP: As the Ulm findings are gained from a few specimens of a few sites in the huge world without other contemporary background information I don’t dare to interpret them in any particular cultural context.

Sources of Cannabis

The discovery of THC in Egyptian mummies is not surprising considering that cannabis is indigenous to the Middle East. There is general consensus that the Ancient Egyptian word “shemshemet” means cannabis. There is also cited evidence of cannabis use in the pyramid texts and cannabis is thought to have been used as a drug since pharaonic times. [25] Hemp has been found in the tomb of Amenophis III (1382 – 1344BC) and cannabis pollen has also been identified on the mummy of Ramses II (1279 – 1213BC). [13 & 25]

Sources of Nicotine

Whilst nicotine is an abundant alkaloid in tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum) it is also present in relatively small amounts in some Old World plants including Belladonna (Atropa bella-donna), Celery (Apium graveolens) and Jimsonweed (Datum stramonium). [26] Nicotine and its metabolites have also been identified in human remains and in pipes from the Near East and Africa. However the only direct evidence of habitual tobacco use in the Ancient world has been found in the Americas. [6]

Balabanova has reviewed early evidence for the origins of tobacco in Europe and Asia prior to Columbus’ voyages to the Americas. [27] Pre-Christian pipes made from clay, wood, bronze and iron have been found in Switzerland, France and Germany. “Bauerntabak”, literally farmers tobacco, was described in several European herbals written in the sixteenth century and was classified, along with Nicotiana tabacum as either a type of “bilsenkraut” or as a kind of Hyoscyamus. From the seventeenth century farmers tobacco became known as Nicotiana rustica and was erroneously accepted as being of American origin when wild and domesticated varieties were already known in Europe prior to Columbus. Farmers tobacco may have had Asiatic origins, Conrad Gesner considered in 1561 that it had been imported from Syria and it has also been maintained that the Persians were also aware of this type of tobacco. Nicotiana fruticosa is also known to grow in regions of China, where it was domesticated and was known by its Chinese names “cay-thüóc-än” and “yen-yé”.

Nicotiana africana (Image: Annette Meyer, Pixabay)

Additionally a species of tobacco, Nicotiana africana, has recently been identified as indigenous to Namibia in South West Africa. It is therefore not unreasonable to suspect that other species of tobacco may have grown in Egypt, or in the surrounding regions, and that this could account for the high amounts of nicotine identified in these Egyptian mummies.

Another possibility is that the presence of nicotine and the traces of tobacco leaves found in Ramses II mummy may have resulted from the use of tobacco sprays as an insecticide to conserve the mummies whilst they were stored in museums in the nineteenth century. [28] Mummies are prone to insect infestation following entombment or exhumation and museums continue to wage war against insect pests. In recent investigations at least three different species of beetle including Thylodrias contractus Mots, Tyrophagus sp. and Lassioderma serricorne (F.) have been identified from the mummy of Ramses II. Most speculation has centred on L. serricorne due to its common name, the tobacco beetle. This species was first recorded in the U.S.A. in 1886 but has several similar forms in the Old World and it is also often found as a pest in museum collections.

Tobacco has been used as an insecticide in Europe since 1763 and so it would not have been unusual for it to have been applied to the mummy of Ramses II for conservation. The mummy of Ramses II was subjected to a mercury bath to de-louse it whilst it was kept in the Cairo museum. [28] The preparation of the mummy began by “washing with a decoction of tobacco-leaves in a strong lye”. Mummies are also often moved around between museums and other storage locations where contamination may occur. So even though the post excavation history of a mummy may appear well documented this has not always been the case.

Although there is good evidence to indicate that nicotine may have been identified in mummies following its application as an insecticide there is an alternative explanation which Balabanova favours. This is that the origin of the nicotine is the result of a post mortem application to the mummy, which may have occurred during the process of embalming. [29] In this study Balabanova compared the amounts of nicotine identified in artificially and naturally mummified bodies from ancient Egypt with the amounts found in modern-day humans. The highest nicotine concentrations were found in artificially mummified Egyptians (mean value = 1330ng/g) compared with 47ng/g in natural mummies, 77ng/g in European bronze age remains and 38ng/g in modern day accident victims. However the ratio of nicotine to its metabolised component cotinine indicates that the high concentrations of nicotine in artificial mummies is due to the embalming process. Artificially mummified bodies contain on average 3.4% cotinine compared to 40.3% in natural mummified bodies, 34.3% in European bronze age remains and 596% in modern day accident victims. This is indicative that the nicotine in the artificial mummies was not through its consumption whilst they were alive but through its post mortem application.

Nicotine has a half-life in the human body of 1 – 3 hours, its co-metabolite, cotinine, has a half-life of 8 – 10 hours. [30] Cotinine is produced in vivo and is indicative of the presence of nicotine in living tissue. Of 144 individuals tested by radioimmunoassay 140 (97%) were positive for cotinine. However, due to the presence of nicotine in many common plants and vegetables their dietary contribution must be taken into account. A cut off value of 0.4ng/mg cotinine is commonly used to distinguish between modern day smokers and non-smokers. As the nicotine level of native tobacco is up to 4 times higher than modern commercial brands Cartmell et al [30] chose to use a higher cut off value of 2ng/mg cotinine, this indicated that 67 samples (47%) were due to tobacco use.

Sources of Cocaine

The first ever identification of cocaine in mummified remains came in 1991 and was made by Dr Larry Cartmell. [31] From the 8 mummies tested (all from South America), 4 samples from the Chinchorro culture, a coastal people unlikely to have had access to coca leaf, and 2 samples from sub adult mummies from the Azapa valley near Arica were negative for the presence of cocaine. The 2 samples that tested positive for cocaine were from the Camarones Valley in Northern Chile. One sample was from a 25 year-old woman and the other a 3 year-old boy. It is supposed that the boy acquired the cocaine from his mother’s milk or as a medicine.

The use of coca leaf was restricted during the reign of Inca Roca ca. 1230AD although the farming of coca did not come under state control for another two hundred years. [32] By this time the plant had acquired a revered status and was utilised in religious ceremonies. The use of coca was spread from royalty to the nobility and lower classes up until the Spanish conquest when coca was used by all but the lowest class in Inca culture. Following the conquest of the Inca Empire coca-leaf chewing became further widespread to alleviate the fatigue and hunger felt by the common people and these remain the main reasons for the continued popularity of the habit. The history of coca use prior to the time of the Inca is not so well understood but it can be studied by analysing mummies and artefacts obtained from archaeological sites.

In modern times typically 20 – 60g coca leaf may be consumed per day equating to 200 – 300mg cocaine. These amounts approach the lower levels of cocaine found in cocaine addicts. Cocaine typically has a half-life in the human body measurable in minutes. However benzoylecgonine (BZE), a metabolite of cocaine, can be detected in hair shafts using the techniques of radioimmunoassay and GC/MS. Using these methods Cartmell investigated 163 mummies from 7 different cultures from Chile which spanned a period of 4,000 years. [32] A conservative value of 5ng/mg was employed to differentiate between positive and negative cocaine results as this value is used in clinical studies.

Of the 23 individuals from the Chinchorro culture (samples dated from 3000 – 2000BC) and 3 individuals from Quiani culture (1500 – 1250BC) none were positive for BZE. However Cartmell identified one individual from the Alto Ramirez (350 – 250BC), 10 from Cabuza (400 – 1000AD), 54 from Maitas Chiribaya (1100 – 1250AD), 2 from San Miguel (1200 – 1350AD) and 9 from “Inca” (1400 – 1500AD) cultures.

The earliest archaeological evidence indicates that coca use started with the Valdivia culture in Ecuador ca 2100BC from where its use spread southwards. The BZE tests indicate that the Chinchorro culture did not consume coca leaf. Coca was grown in northern Peru ca 2100BC but there is little reason to suppose that the Chinchorro traded with their Peruvian neighbours. However the results indicated that some coca use was practised 2,000 years ago.

The methods by which drugs enter the hair shaft are still not fully understood. It is possible that drugs may be transferred to the hair via the follicle, in sweat, from the sebaceous glands or across the skin. Drugs may enter the hair shaft after passing from arterial capillaries to the matrix cells in the base of the hair follicle. As these cells move along the shaft they die and become incorporated in the keratin. [33] Cocaine and its metabolites; ecgonine and BZE have been identified in sweat up to 48 hours after ingestion. It is therefore possible that cocaine excreted in sweat could be transferred to the hair. Cocaine has also been detected in drug free hair that was held tightly in the palm of a hand of a cocaine-dosed individual for 30 minutes thus indicating that the drug can enter the hair shaft without it having been consumed by the bearer of the hair.

One problem with using hair tests to confirm the presence of drugs is that of external contamination. [33] Smoke has been known to contaminate hair with both cocaine and nicotine giving false positive results. Ante mortem contamination may result from smoke or an external application (for example medicinal or ceremonial). Post mortem contamination could result during the funeral process, through the use of embalming fluids, via contamination during the period of burial, due to leaching from grave goods, during post excavation and curation processes, as a result of tobacco use by staff or during post excavation storage. External contamination can however be checked by testing the rinse washes of hair material for the presence of drugs.

Cartmell et al have tested 18 mummies excavated from the Egyptian oasis of Dakhleh in the western Sahara for the presence of cocaine and nicotine. [34] All samples were negative for cocaine, whilst 14 individuals tested positive for nicotine. The positive nicotine values ranged from 0.7 – 2.2ng/mg of hair and were therefore considered to be consistent with dietary sources of nicotine, for which a cut off value of 2ng/mg is commonly used.

Cartmell has approached Balabanova in an attempt to replicate her results in his own laboratory but according to Balabanova this request did not reach her. [34] It is important at this point to note that Balabanova’s data is recorded in ng/g (nanograms per gram) whereas Cartmell records his data in ng/mg (nanograms per milligram) ie a difference of 1,000-fold. Balabanova’s cocaine data from Egyptian mummies equates to maximal levels of less than 0.5ng/mg and the maximal amounts of nicotine are less than 1.05ng/mg. Both values would therefore prove negative using modern thresholds for drug testing. In addition it is apparent that the values for nicotine determined by Balabanova would also fall within the dietary limits (< 2ng/mg) imposed by Cartmell.

Cocaine is produced in quantity exclusively by Erythroxylum species native to South America [8 & 35 – 37]. However the genus Erythroxylon contains over 200 species distributed throughout the tropics including the Americas, Asia, South Africa, Madagascar and Australia. Some of these species produce cocaine although in much smaller amounts than in the South American species. [38 – 42] E. brownianum for instance is a species native to Africa (see here for the range) which produces 400ppm (parts per million – equivalent to 0.4mg/g) cocaine in its leaves. [40] E. monogynum, red cedar, is native to India and contains up to 400ppm cocaine in its roots. [40] The shoots and leaves from this plant are also edible. It is possible that the Ancient Egyptians could have had access to these species of plant or even that there were related species present in Egypt that produced cocaine in sufficient quantity to account for the amounts identified.

The constituents of the embalming oils used by the Ancient Egyptian embalmers have not been recorded in their texts. However, Herodotus (writing in the fifth century BC) recorded the materials and various treatments used during that time. Embalmers had learned through experience that the human body could be preserved by removing the internal organs (intestines, liver, lungs and stomach) and by applying salts, resins, cedar oil, palm wine, myrrh, cassia, gum, honey and bitumen. [43]

Buckley and Evershed [44] have investigated the constituents of balms used on Egyptian mummies (1900BC – 395AD) using GC/MS. The main constituents of which were acyl lipids, which are most likely from plant oils as their constituent fatty acid composition indicates (there is a greater prevalence of palmitate as opposed to stearate). The use of unsaturated oils enabled the embalmers to dry or rather spontaneously polymerise their remains, this property was also utilised by European oil painters. This helped to protect the wrappings against microbial invasion. Coniferous resins were identified by the presence of diterpenoid components and although used as early as 2200BC their use became more common during the Roman period. Beeswax has been identified by the presence of alkanes (C25 – C33), wax esters (C40 – C50) and hydroxy wax esters (C42 – C54) and was used in increasing amounts from ca. 1000BC until the Roman era. Beeswax was presumably chosen for its sealant and anti-microbial properties as well as its symbolic significance. It is also worth noting that the Coptic word for wax is ‘mum’. In addition balsmic resin, bitumen, pistacia/triterpenoid resin and plant oils were also identified as constituent components in the mummies examined. It is apparent that we still do not know all there is to know about Egyptian mummification and caution should be exercised before making assumptions as to the art of the embalmers.

Herodotus recorded the earliest circumnavigation of Africa, which was achieved by Phoenician sailors. [45] They had been commissioned by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II (ca 615 – 595BC) to sail from the Red Sea down the eastern coast of Africa and to determine whether Africa was surrounded by sea. They achieved their task in three years returning via the Pillars of Hercules. However Herodotus refused to believe their claims as they had stated that the sun was on their right hand side as they sailed round the southern coast. This statement made by the Phoenicians is now considered to be proof of the veracity of their voyage.

Lapis lazuli, which comes from the mountains of Badakshan in Afganistan was found by Flinders Petrie in some early Naqada II tombs (ca 3500BC). Imports of lapis lazuli indicate that Ancient Egyptian trading extended at least as far as Afghanistan and that trade routes crossed land and ocean via the Persian Gulf to Sumer. [46]

Evidence of direct trade between India and Egypt prior to the Roman era is mostly speculative. However the Romans developed important trade relations with India following the incorporation of Egypt in their Empire. This enabled them to use Egypt as an important intermediary to facilitate trade across the Indian Ocean. [47 & 48] Berenike, 500 miles south of Suez, became established as an important harbour for Roman trade with India and archaeological evidence indicates that the site was used between the third century BC and sixth century AD. [49] Prior to the establishment of this port and the utilisation by the Romans of a sea route to India their trade had passed overland through modern day Syria and Turkey.

There is sufficient evidence therefore to indicate that the ancient Egyptians could have obtained plants, spices or timber from locations as far afield as India, Afghanistan and the coasts of Africa.


To summarise there are a number of explanations which may account for the identification of cocaine, THC and nicotine in Egyptian mummies. The identification of THC is not considered unusual due to the local prevalence of C. sativa in the Middle East. In addition we know that the Egyptians utilised hemp to make ropes and THC can also be produced by reactions that occur when burning incense.

The presence of nicotine can be accounted for, as nicotine is present in small amounts in many plants commonly used as food. It is therefore fairly common for human remains to contain residual amounts of nicotine. The use of tobacco based insecticide sprays during the nineteenth century may account for the discovery of tobacco leaves in the mummy of Ramses II as well as for the identification of higher levels of nicotine in mummies that have been kept in museums over long periods of time. Amongst the resins and plant oils used by Ancient Egyptian embalmers there may have been plants, which contained significant amounts of nicotine. This contention is supported by Balabanova’s discovery that the proportion of cotinine to nicotine in artificially mummified Egyptian remains is significantly less (3.4% vs 40.3%) than in naturally mummified remains. [29]

The discovery of cocaine in Egyptian mummies is however not so easy to account for as no direct evidence unequivocally supports any particular contention. Although it is possible that experimental error or modern fake mummies could account for these results both of these explanations are highly unlikely. The authenticity of the mummies has been confirmed by independent experts, the methods employed by Balabanova are reliable and are also used by forensic departments around the world. In addition Balabanova’s results were confirmed by GC/MS at four different laboratories.

However, there is no reason to suppose that the cocaine identified by Balabanova in Egyptian mummies originated in South America because there are cocaine producing Erythroxylum species, which are indigenous to regions of Africa, India and Asia. The hypothesis that trade routes existed between Egypt and South America simply cannot be substantiated with any corroborative evidence and it would be incredibly unlikely that if links had existed that trade would have been restricted to plants that could be used as drugs. Furthermore, the use of such drugs by indigenous cultures is often associated with their religious beliefs and drugs are often revered as gifts from the gods. It would therefore be unusual for a culture to use particular drugs and to not make reference to their effects in their texts and legends.

Although Thor Heyerdahl established it is theoretically possible that Egyptian reed boats could survive a single trans-Atlantic journey, it beggars belief that such an exhaustive journey would be repeated over thousands of years without mention in any surviving Egyptian texts. Additionally, Mesoamerican scholars have thoroughly refuted pre-Columbian African “influences” on New World cultures. [50]

It is certainly feasible that plants containing cocaine were present in Ancient Egypt as there are examples of flora known to have grown there which subsequently became extinct, although some have been reintroduced. These include: both the blue and white water lilies, the “Ished” Tree (modern persea); a sacred tree on whose leaves the name of Pharaoh was inscribed to guarantee him a long life, the carob (Ceratonia siliqua), the Christ’s Thorn (Ziziphus spina) and the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea). If the heraldic flower of the South was a real plant (and some believe that it was invented), the most likely candidate is the so-called Madonna lily (Lilium candidum).

Cocaine containing plants, such as E. monogynum, which is present in India, could have been acquired by the ancient Egyptians or in neighbouring areas which the Egyptians traded with.

A hypothesis can be proposed whereby cocaine containing plants could have been utilised by the ancient Egyptians when preparing their embalming oils, constituents from these oils could have permeated muscle tissue and hair over long periods of time and thus account for their detection by highly sensitive modern techniques. This hypothesis could be examined by applying plant oils and resins, containing cocaine and nicotine, to drug free hair and then subjecting the hair samples to drug tests. The isotopic signatures of the drugs may be used to determine their geographical origin. [51] However, it would require permission from the Munich museum to obtain additional samples from their mummies for analysis and there would surely be complications arising from testing and comparing the small amounts that could be derived from human remains with relatively pure modern plant samples.

Most importantly it’s been noted that the identification of cocaine in Egyptian mummies needs to be verified by researchers from an independent laboratory. [52] The only Egyptian mummies to have tested positive for cocaine originate from the Munich museum and these samples all passed through Balabanova’s laboratory. Whilst it is unlikely, the possibility exists that some of these samples were incorrectly labelled. Unlikely as this may be, such a mislabelling occurred in the UK with samples of cows and sheep brains becoming mixed up resulting in dire consequences for BSE research. It is therefore important that for the identification of cocaine in Egyptian mummies to become accepted that fresh samples from the Munich museum be acquired and tested by an independent laboratory. Until this occurs the possibility of contamination, mislabelling or misidentification of cocaine from these samples remains.


This article could not have been completed without the assistance and advice of Svetlana Balabanova, Larry Cartmell, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Clair Ossian, Wolfgang Pirsig and Doug Weller.

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