According to a study published in Scientific Reports, anthropologists and archaeologists associated with Washington State University found non-tobacco plant residue inside ancient drug containers found in the Maya region. A new analytical technique made the discovery possible, and scientists are excited about its potential to unlock secrets from the past.
Ancient Maya drug containers?
Over 1,000 years ago, someone living on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula stowed a cache of pottery. And in 2012, Mario Zimmermann, a WSU post-doctorate anthropologist, stumbled upon them during a dig. The team was able to identify the vessels’ purpose fairly easily because Zimmerman’s canisters looked identical to previously uncovered artifacts that featured painted hieroglyphics that read “the home of tobacco.”
After initial lab evaluations, researchers confirmed that the containers were, indeed, tobacco storage drums.
New technology leads to Mayas vice discovery
When lab scientists tested the containers, they found traces of Nicotiana tabacum, N. rustica, and — much to everyone’s surprise — Mexican marigold, an aromatic plant used in the ancient world for various medicinal and recreational purposes. Study facilitators found the results especially exciting because they were derived using a new metabolomics technique precise enough to detect plant metabolites on ancient ceramics.
David Gang, who co-authored the paper, explained that researchers were “limited to a small array of specific biomarkers” before scientists developed the technology. Using the new process, scientists can paint a more detailed picture of ancient peoples’ dietary and medicinal habits moving forward.
Scientists and anthropologists from Washington State University and the Institute of Biological Chemistry collaborated to develop the new method.
Why did Maya people mix tobacco with other plants?
Why did Maya peoples mix other plants with tobacco? Right now, scientists believe the Mayans preferred aromatic smoke. However, as researchers uncover new facts and findings, different reasons may present themselves.
While we’re here, can you tell me a bit more about the Maya civilization?
The Maya Civilization was an advanced Mesoamerican culture cluster that occupied modern-day southern Mexico, western Honduras and El Salvador, in addition to all of Guatemala and Belize.
A lightning-fast history of the Maya civilization
The Archaic period of the Maya Civilization popped up around 2500 BC. It consisted of early settlements that made the first agricultural advancements in the area. The Preclassic period followed and lasted between 2000 BC to 250 AD. During this time, complex societies emerged in the region, and the Maya diet was established, which included meals featuring beans, maize, squash, and chili peppers. Around 750 BC, the first Maya cities developed, and by 500 BC, the people had built monumental structures, including the region’s famous pyramid-shaped temples. The Classic period, which began around 250 AD, was marked by increased trade and the rise of city-states. Tikal and Calakmul emerged as the area’s two major urban centers — the New York and Los Angeles of ancient Maya Civilization.
Sometime in the 800s, political upheaval sparked internecine warfare. People abandoned cities in droves, and the population migrated to the northern parts of the region. By the 1600s, however, European explorers had invaded the area and brought new diseases with them. The last Maya city, Nojpetén, fell in 1697.
Most of the time, it’s Maya, not Mayan
Many folks mistakenly call Maya peoples “Mayans.” The term “Mayan” is only used to describe languages spoken by groups that occupied the Maya region. However, even the word “Maya” is a modern appellation. Communities that comprised what we now call the Maya Civilization were a patchwork of different groups and did not call themselves “Maya.”
Anthropologists worldwide are excited about the new technique because it opens up new avenues of study.