29. Tobacco, Coca, and Cannabis: The Mummies Speak, but the Scientists Stand Mute
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29 Tobacco, Coca, and Cannabis The Mummies Speak, but the Scientists Stand Mute O what may man within him hide . . . ! —William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, 3. 2. 271–72 In the previous two chapters, we surveyed cultivated plant species whose pre-­ Columbian presences in both hemispheres evidence transoceanic contacts. This chapter examines the particularly intriguing cases of three psychoactive drug plants. These are tobacco, coca, and cannabis.1 Nicotiana is a genus whose numerous wild species are native to the West­ ern Hemisphere (subgenera Rustica, Tabacum, and Petunioides) and to Australia , New Caledonia (presumably reflecting a pre-­ continental-­ drift unity of these land masses), Tonga, and the Marquesas Islands (subgenus Petunioides). Two domesticated species, Nicotiana rustica and N. tabacum, ultimately came into being in the Americas, and cultivated tobacco is known archaeo­ logi­ cally from North and Middle America. Cultivated and some semicultivated tobaccos have seed pods that have lost the ability to open on their own, resulting in the plant’s being dependent on people for propagation and survival,2 and, therefore, for their geographic spread. All domesticated and most wild tobaccos contain the psychotropic alkaloid nicotine. All tobacco species have generally been thought to have been confined to the West­ ern Hemisphere and to Australia and the Pacific islands until 1492 or after. However, certain species of wild Ameri­ can tobaccos are now naturalized in Taiwan, Timor, Bengal, and elsewhere, and some observers have suggested a pre-­ Columbian presence in Asia, perhaps owing to transport of tobacco ’s tiny seeds by birds. Traditions imply pre-­ Columbian chewing/medicinal use of tobacco in Java, Malaya, and Nias, and, possibly, cigar smoking in New Guinea. In addition, there are indications of pre-­ Columbian tobacco use in India, for medicinal purposes , perfume making, and smoking. The present Hindi word for tobacco, tambak(u), is also found in Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, and (with variations such as tanbak[u], tamak, and tavak) in literature at least as far back as AD 200– Tobacco, Coca, and Cannabis / 321 700.3 All this evidence is suggestive but falls well short of absolute proof, and there is no mention of the plant in known ancient Egyptian texts. As for a sec­ ond, archaeo­ logi­ cally well-­ known South Ameri­ can sacred and indulgent domesticated drug plant, coca (Erythroxylum coca and E. novogranatatense ), no one has so far proposed that it ever dispersed by natural means from its homeland on the east­ ern slope of the Andes to the Old World; it did not even diffuse beyond Honduras in tropical Middle America, either naturally or through human introduction. Presumably, its complicated cultivation and specialized environmental requirements inhibited the species’ spread. Cover-­ Up: Enwrapping a Defunct Pharaoh’s Secret The evidentiary picture regarding possible pre-­ Columbian transfer of tobacco changed dramatically beginning in 1976, when the government of Egypt asked scientists in France to study and conserve the sec­ ond-­ millennium BC mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II (“the Great”). The French team was surprised to discover that the deceased potentate’s thoracic cavity had been packed with shredded tobacco leaves, of an undetermined species, and that the mummy’s wrappings contained nicotine as well as an imago of an adult supposedly Ameri­ can dried-­tobacco-­eating cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne; see also chapter 26). In 1931 this same insect species, it turned out, had also been reported in considerable numbers from fourteenth-­ century BC Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb— the inner spaces of which had been sealed until 1922. Most of the beetle specimens were inextricably embedded in the once-­ liquid contents of alabaster jars in the anteroom and seemed clearly contemporary with the entombment. The beetle has now also been reported from the Late Bronze Age Minoan town of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thera and identified at several additional ancient Egyptian sites. These early East­ern Hemisphere archaeo­logi­cal occurrences and lack of any in America have caused some to conclude that the insect is of Old World, not Ameri­ can, origin as previously supposed, despite its closest relatives being New World species and its having evolved a unique tolerance for nicotine.4 The origi­ nal June 8, 1977, press release by Agence France-­ Presse stated unequivocally , “The ancient Egyptians had tobacco . . . [and] use[d] it to stuff mummies .” An early, semipopu­ lar report in the French magazine Archéologia by one of the researchers, Lionel Balout, cited the parasitic beetle as well as the presence of tobacco in the lowest parts of Ramses...


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