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Traces of Nicotine, Cannabis and Coca Plant found in Egyptian Mummies

Sep 20, 2016

How did tobacco leaves and tobacco beetles, both New World species, end up in the body cavity of the mummy of Ramses II, a man that lived in Egypt and died in the year 1213 B.C.?

Many of you will remember Dominique Gorlitz’s 2007 Abora III expedition, in which he attempted to sail a prehistoric-style reed vessel across the Atlantic from New York to Spain.  Aqua Survey enjoyed the opportunity of supporting the expedition as its sailors trained here in New Jersey prior to their departure.

Back to the New World species: It’s a question that’s been vexing scientists for years.  Tobacco is not the only surprising substance the ancient Egyptians may have used.  Besides testing positive for nicotine, mummies dating from 1070 B.C. to 395 A.D. have shown traces of cannabis and cocaine in their systems.  While they may have had Old World sources for cannabis, the tobacco and coca plants are distinctly New World species.

Due to the degree to which this challenges the conventional wisdom of when peoples of the New and Old World made contact, many have posited alternative theories as to how these substances ended up in the mummies.  From forgeries (Europeans at one time believed that Egyptian mummies not only possessed special healing qualities, but found that the bodies could be ground into an excellent paint pigment), to the possibility of now extinct analogue plant species having once existed in Africa, a variety explanations have been discussed.

Experimental archeologist Dominque Gorlitz has a different theory.  He believes ancient peoples sailed the open ocean and participated in transcontinental trade long before Columbus or the Vikings and has set out to prove it by traversing the open ocean with prehistoric sailing technology.  After spending 57 days at sea and nearly reaching the Azores, the journey ended early with the vessel having to be abandoned due to damage sustained during several storms.

Undaunted, Gorlitz continues his research preparing for the Abora IV expedition.  Just this week, we received word that he was headed to the Baltic Sea with a smaller prehistoric raft, the Dilmun S, to test a new variation of his sail and leeboard system.  From there his plan is to then test the vessel in the Mediterranean by October and then head to the open ocean.

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