Did the ancient Egyptians regularly ingest cannabis, coca and tobacco? New studies and cautious re-evaluation of older findings provide some hard evidence to support this shocking claim.
When the mummified remains of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses the Great (reign 1213 BC) was brought to Paris in 1976, a team of Euro-scholars flocked to the Museum of Mankind to study the celebrity corpse. Ramses ruled Egypt for over 60 years at the height of empirical splendor. During his reign Egypt saw the construction of megamonuments, warfare and trade with Asia, and luxury and tranquility on a scale humans have yet to surpass.
Each accredited scholar received a sample to investigate, and Dr Michele Lescott from the Museum of Natural History in Paris was granted a few pieces from the Royal burial wrapping (linen) to study. She discovered what looked like specks of tobacco clinging to the fibres, and duly reported her findings. Lescott was advised by senior colleagues that she had observed "contamination from modern sources", perhaps some old time archaeologist puffing away on his pipe or a workman sneezing into the Godking's face. Tobacco, it was said, would not even arrive in Egypt for another 2700 years. Nice try, she was told, but that was sloppy work.
Enter Dr Svelta Balabanova, forensic toxologist at the institute of forensic medicine at ULM, who followed up Dr Lescott's report that tobacco and other drugs were found in context with a 3000 year old body. Dr Balabanova obtained samples of Ramses the Great, not mere skin and cloth, but intestinal tissue from deep inside the body. Any traces of drugs found in these samples would eliminate the possibility of contemporary contamination.
Dr Balabanova is a professional, and has received full police training for her work in forensic analysis. She is, ironically, the pioneer procedural test pilot who developed many of the ultrasensitive drug tests that are today's standards in establishing the premise of drug ingestion in professional sports and industry. Her yes or no is eagerly awaited to qualify a photo finish or a loyalty pledge, and she is very experienced in detecting such vulgar molecules that are characteristic of cannabis, coca and tobacco.
In 1982 she re-tested Ramses tissue, and declared that she had discovered the presence of cannabis, coca and tobacco, laid down in the body cells like rings on a tree. Still, her colleagues were hesitant to believe the test results, even from such a credible researcher.
48 Centuries of Nicotine
A decade later in Munich, 1992, euroresearchers undertook a project to study ancient human remains and establish a network of specialists who could each impart their special insight and knowledge to the rest of the team, in the hope of obtaining a better overview of the life and death of the subjects. The sensational discovery of the Bronze Age "Alpine Ice Man" a few years before had attracted wide attention to archeocadavers, and the team hoped to be ready in case some other ancient human body turned up.
To prepare, the team arranged to have seven ancient Egyptian mummies flown from the Cairo Museum to Munich, where these "warm up specimens" would be minutely studied and samples sent to a list of qualified investigators.
Samples of the seven mummies were dispatched to Dr Balabanova, who conducted a series of gas chromatography tests that revealed the presence of nicotine and cocaine in all seven mummies. Other Egyptologists in the UK heard of this, and travelled to Germany to inspect the mummies to make certain they were indeed ancient people, and not dried up old junkies pawned off on a bunch of know-it-all white bureaucrats. The mummies were deemed authentic, and the test results were entirely credible.
Rosalie David, curator of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum, examined the mummies and Dr Balabanova's analysis. David explained "the ancient Egyptians certainly used drugs. As well as lotus, they had mandrake, and cannabis… there is a strong suggestion that they also used opium…" Initially, David had great doubts about Balabanova's report, but became convinced after personally looking into these shocking claims of analysis.
As the controversy rages in the halls of science, Dr Balabanova continues her work analyzing tissue from ancient humans from around the world. She examined hundreds of subjects, prepared over 3000 samples for drug analysis, and found evidence of "divine plants" residuals in a vast majority of the bodies.
Compiling her evidence with other ancient autopsies from China, Germany and Austria, she had a human inventory, dated from 3700 BC to 1100 AD, a span of 48 centuries. Some bodies from every region and time zone were found to contain nicotine, and at a concentration that suggests a lifelong pattern of regular ingestion.
Magic Plant Intercontinental
If indeed the beef-jerky body of Ramses the Great is laced with the residues of "New World magic plants" such as tobacco and coca, as well as "far Eastern Asian cannabis" (none of which is native to Egypt, or believed to have been cultivated there in ancient times), then we may be inclined to renovate our perception of ancient history with this forensic evidence at hand. Science will have to disprove this drug report, and failing that, they will have to accommodate these hard earned, well documented new facts concerning the production and world trade of magic plants during the remote part of human history.
First, admit that classic "magic plants" have been an aspect of human existence for a very, very long time. Their primary role in consciousness enhancement will doubtless carry on in some dimension for many centuries to come.
Second, these magic plants were not native to Egypt, yet must have been featured in commerce for them to have been ingested. It may be therefore implied that Egypt obtained these plants in trade with far flung urbanity from all over the ancient world. Prepare to warm up to the plausible notion of intercontinental cultural contact that was either sustained, or else in play to some extent during every phase of human history.
It is one thing to suggest mystic overtures when there is a drought of evidence, and another thing altogether to transpose very human motivations upon our ancient kin. The hustle to bring high-end goodies to Main Street, whenever and wherever the current hot address may be, continues to be a factor of historical continuity. Fun and function are eternal trade strategies that work as well now as they did then.
Ramses the Great Trader
Ramses the Great was a Godking, he won no election to gain control over Egypt. He fathered 100 children over a 67 year reign of pomp and PR that has not since been duplicated, not even in California. He built a full-sized "off limits" royal city for his enormous family and court, and had beautiful pleasure gardens and orchards planted within. He divided his private city into four quarters, with a presiding deity over each quarter. The Eastern Sector was dedicated to the Syrian Goddess Astarte, installed at the last minute to satisfy a vogue for Asian deities – and their zonky sensual personalities. Note that the worship of Astarte was often associated with the ritual use of cannabis in the Ancient world.
The stability that Ramses projected inspired Egyptians to re-assert their aims of world trade, and several voyages of discovery followed. It is very likely that the Godking established trade and contact with other centers of civilization and swapped toys with other Godkings who could boast shimmering cities, sleek trade fleets and a degree of ritualized social code.
From Mexico, the Aztek/Toltek Godkings would have sacred tobacco to share. From South America, the divine coca leaf, and from South East Asia, the dreamy cannabis resin. All of these drugs were regarded as the special reserve for the divine rulers in the realms where these plants originated.
Tobacco and coca contain potent alkaloids that can be preserved almost indefinitely. Cannabis, which does not develop psychoactive alkaloids, instead produces a euphoric resin that can be stored without losing potency for a very long time (Hashish from an ancient shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea was found to be potent when tested, more than 2000 years later!)
Professor Martin Bernal, historian at Cornell University, is one of the new breed of scientists who are willing to consider magic plants and ancient trade links. "We're getting more and more evidence of world trade at an earlier stage." He points out the discovery of a single strand of Chinese silk mingled in the hair of an Egyptian mummy, 12,000 years old. Silk was very rare in China at that point of history – only the Emperors wore it. How did silk get to Egypt? How did drugs get to Egypt? How do drugs get anywhere that people live?
This story is not yet finished, and the outcome may well overturn some of the narrower visions of how humans go about a human experience on this world.
© Dr Alexander Sumach 1994
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