JAN 16, 2021 9:14 PM PST

Scientists Discover Contents of an Ancient Mayan Drug Containers

WRITTEN BY: Nouran Amin

Washington State University researchers found a non-tobacco plant in containers of an ancient Maya drug.

"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," says anthropology postdoc Mario Zimmermann. "The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before."

The vessels of the drug were derived from a Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida), believed to be buried more than 1,000 years ago and contains two types of tobacco Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica. It is believed that the tobacco made the material more enjoyable and provided insight on Mayan drug practices.

"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 David Gang, a professor in WSU's Institute of Biological Chemistry and a co-author of the study. "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."

"When you find something really interesting like an intact container it gives you a sense of joy," Zimmermann said. "Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead. There are literally tons of pottery sherds but complete vessels are scarce and offer a lot of interesting research potential."

Learn more about drug practices in ancient civilizations:

"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 Shannon Tushingham, a professor of Anthropology at WSU and a co-author of the study. "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."

Source: Science Daily

About the Author
  • Nouran is a scientist, educator, and life-long learner with a passion for making science more communicable. When not busy in the lab isolating blood macrophages, she enjoys writing on various STEM topics.
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