Archaeologists Find Traces of Tobacco, Mexican Marigold in Ancient Maya Flasks

by johnsmith

A team of archaeologists from the United States and Mexico have detected mixtures of tobacco and a non-tobacco plant called the Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) in residues taken from a collection of 14 pre-Columbian Maya bottle-shaped containers known as flasks. The discovery paints a clearer picture of ancient Maya drug use practices and paves the way for future studies investigating other types of psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants that were smoked, chewed, or snuffed among the Maya and other pre-Colombian societies.

Ancient May paneled flask with narrow aperture (top), sculpted flask with narrow aperture (bottom left) and sculpted flask with wide aperture (bottom right). Image credit: Zimmermann et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-81158-y.

Ancient May paneled flask with narrow aperture (top), sculpted flask with narrow aperture (bottom left) and sculpted flask with wide aperture (bottom right). Image credit: Zimmermann et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-81158-y.

Tobacco (genus Nicotiana) is the most prolific producer of nicotine, but this compound has been detected in lower concentrations in other plant genera.

Nicotiana species also contain the psychoactive harmala alkaloids harman and norharman, which are known for their effects in drugs like ayahuasca.

Even though tobacco was widely documented as both a medicine and a sacred plant among Native Americans, it was merely part of a much larger complex of psychoactive products, including plants that were smoked and that single-handedly account for dozens of genera.

In the new research, Dr. Mario Zimmermann from the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University and colleagues focused on tobacco preparations as a window into the modes of drug consumption.

They extracted residues from a collection of pre-Columbian Maya flasks and analyzed them for their chemical composition.

They used a new metabolomics-based analysis method that can detect thousands of plant compounds or metabolites in residue collected from containers, pipes, bowls and other archaeological artifacts.

“While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored,” Dr. Zimmermann said.

“The new analysis methods give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before.”

Previously, the identification of ancient plant residues relied on the detection of a limited number of biomarkers, such as nicotine, anabasine, cotinine and caffeine.

“The issue with this is that while the presence of a biomarker like nicotine shows tobacco was smoked, it doesn’t tell you what else was consumed or stored in the artifact,” said Professor David Gang, a researcher in the Institute of Biological Chemistry at Washington State University.

“Our approach not only tells you, yes, you found the plant you’re interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being consumed.”

The scientists identified the presence of the Mexican marigold and two types of dried and cured tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica, in the Maya flasks.

They think the Mexican marigold was mixed with the tobacco to make smoking more enjoyable.

“We are expanding frontiers in archaeological science so that we can better investigate the deep time relationships people have had with a wide range of psychoactive plants, which were (and continue to be) consumed by humans all over the world,” said Professor Shannon Tushingham, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University.

“There are many ingenious ways in which people manage, use, manipulate and prepare native plants and plant mixtures, and archaeologists are only beginning to scratch the surface of how ancient these practices were.”

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.


M. Zimmermann et al. 2021. Metabolomics-based analysis of miniature flask contents identifies tobacco mixture use among the ancient Maya. Sci Rep 11, 1590; doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-81158-y

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