Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cocaine and Egyptian mummies

I'm sure that there will be some people reading this who will be able to answer the following question, brought to mind by something I saw in another journal. What's the current scholarly consensus (if any) on the presence of cocaine and nicotine in Egyptian mummies? I'm no expert on this, but I remember from Channel 4's programme Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies (transcript here) that some of the evidence isn't as easily dismissed as most crackpot theories. Which would seem to suggest that there must have been some form of trans-Pacific trade, as these products are only available in the Americas. However, I don't think, as most people who accept this evidence seem to, that this necessarily means Egyptians went to South America, or South Americans went to Egypt, or that either were aware of the other. Surely it needs no more than for there to be interlocking trade connections across the Pacific. I certainly don't see any difficulty in assuming that there was trade from Egypt down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. The problem is the eastern end, but Thor Heyerdal's work with Kon-Tiki would seem to suggest that it's not technologically impossible. So the material could potentially have crossed the Pacific, but by the time it reached Egypt, it would have become unprovenanced. Anyone know any better?

I'd have a look at Wikipedia, but it seems very ill today.


Tony Keen said...

From various things said on another journal, it would seem that the evidence for cocaine in Egyptian mummies is rather slimmer than the original C4 programme implied. Nevertheless, I wouldn't rule out altogether the notion of some form of trans-Pacific trading network. By the Roman period there's definitely trade out of the Read Sea into India, and overland into China. It's not hard to imagine that there were traders working their way around the Bay of Bengal and into Indonesia. We know that the Polynesians expanded from New Guinea out as far as Easter Island, and the distance between Easter Island and the South American coast is about half as far as Kon-Tiki voyaged (and there are another two islands on the way). Now, not for a moment do I subscribe to notions of serious cross-cultural influence between, say, the pyramid-builders of South America and those of Egypt. But I would not want to rule out the possibility that artefacts and material, though probably not people, could pass across the Pacific, through many different hands. And I do recall that when I was a child, the idea that the Vikings might have got to North America was highly controversial. Yet nowadays no-one would question it.

Alun said...

Straight Dope has a fairly good state of play for the cocaine mummies.

Basically there's no response to criticisms by the German team which investigated the mummies. I think they're off display at Munich right now. It'll be the basis of my alternative archaeology book when I write it: "Secrets of the Stoned Age".

Trans-Pacific trade is contentious. There's been a big argument over whether places like Easter Island were settled from the east or west. The Polynesians are the more likely traders as they known to have the navigational skills. There are possibly problems with the presence of some food stuffs in Polynesia but I could easily make a fool of myself with this. Some people argue that some South American species floated across the pacific without human agency. The lack of material in pre-Columbian America suggests if there ever was a connection it was transient and of little consequence.

If there was trans-pacific trading with Egypt you'd expect to find larger quanitities of coca in territories between Egypt and the Pacific and that simply isn't there.

Tony Keen said...

I'd certainly agree that any trade must have been 'transient and of little consequence' - not for a moment do I want to argue great trade routes across the Pacific with commodity after commodity in motion. But, whilst I accept that there's no evidence, I have a feeling that this is one of those 'absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence' cases, and if someone came up with evidence, I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand.

Brett said...

Do you discount the possibility of trans-Atlantic trade? After all, Heyerdahl showed that was technologically feasible, too (Ra II), and it's surely less distance to travel than across the vast Pacific. I can see difficulties: eg, the trade would have to go some distance overland (Andes -> Atlantic coast) which was much more difficult than trade by sea, and maybe Polynesians are a more plausible candidate for trans-oceanic traders than any group in South America or Africa. On the other hand, the really deep voyages of the Polynesians were relatively recent - Easter Island, 300 AD at the earliest, according to Wikipedia. But that transcript talks about Ramses II, 1213 BC; by then (very roughly) the Polynesians had "only" gotten as far east as Samoa.

Carla said...

I was wondering if trans-Atlantic trade was possible too. Could some of the overland travel in the Americas have been done by river transport?

Tony Keen said...

Transatlantic trade is not impossible (in as much as there's any likelihood at all of this being the case), and the dates for the Polynesians getting to certain islands is something I'd overlooked. I just have a feeling, which may be entirely false, that Egypt's principal trade routes will tend to look south and east, down the Red sea and then into the Indian Ocean, rather than west along the north African coast, so the possibility of unprovenanced materials seems more likely coming from something that connects into those routes.

But I'm becoming more and more persuaded that there's very little in this.

Jenny said...

I definitly believe inter-continental travel was a fact of life pre-Columbus. There is evidence of the Egytians having been in Austrailia and some would say in The Grand Canyon. In India as the programe mentioned there is a statue of an ancient Goddess holding ears of corn and we have ancient peanuts from China.

We have both Viking and Roman remains in the United States. Remember neither of these two things were thought possible 60 yeras ago.

piper98118 said...

You know, Columbus didn't discover the way to America, what was important was that he discovered the way BACK from America.

There's a lot of evidence of people arriving on America's shores and leaving their culture there.

What there isn't any evidence of is a back-and-forth, until Leif Erikson went to Vinland.

I suspect the whole thing is a fake for the purposes of making good television and publicity.

Think about it: You're in a boat, moving maybe 5 or at most 10 knots over thousands of miles of ocean, and the boat is full of cocaine.

Aren't you going to taste some of it? And then what? Won't you get addicted? Doesn't that mean you arrive in Egypt with an empty boat?

I'm troubled by the items tested. Cocaine and nicotine are hot-button items in the present time, but they haven't always been.

And just why was a supposedly Egyptian mummy tested for cocaine and nicotine in the first place?

I'm sure the scientists who are refusing to comment on this are wanting to test the researchers for these products.

The name of the researcher is troubling, as Balabanov doesn't sound like a real name. A Balaban is a type of Iranian clarinet that sounds like Balagan, which is a huge confusion, and implies a house of ill-repute in the middle of a police raid, or a fraternity party.

So I googled it in Russian. Alexei Balabanov is a Ukranian seance leader, and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts there's a connection to this claim of cocaine and nicotine in Egyptian mummies!