Maya Drug Secrets Revealed in Ancient Plant Residues
For the first time ever, scientists have identified a non-tobacco plant in ancient Maya drug containers. The researchers say the plant residues suggest that the Maya found a way to make tobacco smoking “more enjoyable.” This find is also shedding new light on the psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants that the ancient Maya and other pre-Columbian societies smoked, chewed, or snuffed.
The Washington State University research team, led by Mario Zimmermann, studied a collection of 14 miniature Maya ceramic vessels that are more than 1,000 years old. Some of the vessels were recently excavated and others were from museum collections, but all of them originated in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
Archaeologists excavating cist burial at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatán. (WSU) Two of the Maya drug containers analyzed in the study came from this excavation.
The study’s paper which is published in Scientific Reports explains that the researchers compared the residues they found in the Maya drug containers with fresh as well as cured samples of two different species of tobacco ( Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica) as well as “six more plants which are linked to mind-altering practices through Mesoamerican ethnohistoric or ethnographic records.”
The first example of a non-tobacco plant has been found in miniature Maya drug containers. (Zimmerman et al. 2021/Scientific Reports)
Mini Maya Drug Containers Holding a Big Surprise
“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,” Zimmermann said in a Washington State University (WSU) press release. “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.”
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The team discovered that there were Maya drug containers with the residues of Mexican marigold ( Tagetes lucida). Zimmermann and his team think the plant was mixed in to make the tobacco smoking “more enjoyable.”
Mexican marigold. (JRJfin /Adobe Stock)
The scientists note that this plant is “commonly known for its role in ceremonies for the dead, which appear to have pre-Columbian roots” in Mexico and Guatemala. However, Mexican marigold is also reportedly used in Huichol communities in western Mexico, where its dried leaves are smoked either alone or in a mixture with tobacco ( N. rustica).
New Methods for Plant Compound Detection
EurekAlert! reports that Zimmermann and his colleagues’ work used a new UPLC-MS metabolomics-based analytical technique, “which significantly expand the possible detection of chemical compounds compared to previous biomarker-focused studies.” Before now, researchers had to rely on a more limited number of biomarkers, such as nicotine, cotinine, and caffeine, in the identification of ancient plant residues.
David Gang, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and a co-author of the study, said, “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. 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.”
The new method applied in this study allowed the researchers to detect more than 9000 residual chemical features in the ancient Maya drug vessels. The university press release states that this method could also be applied to discover a wider range of plant compounds in residues on other containers, pipes, bowls, and archaeological artifacts. An identification of the compounds would help archaeologists to discover which plants were stored or consumed from the different artifacts.
Frontal and lateral view of a Muna-type (750-900 AD) paneled flask with distinctive serrated-edge decoration. (WSU)
Looking for More Secrets in Ancient Residues
Zimmermann said that he and his colleagues at WSU are currently in negotiations with several Mexican institutions to try to obtain access to more ancient Maya containers from the Yucatán region. They hope to discover the secrets hidden within the residues of those containers as well.
The WSU press release says that the researchers are also looking at applying their method to analyze the organic residues which are preserved in the dental plaque of ancient human teeth. Shannon Tushingham, a professor of Anthropology at WSU and a co-author of the study, explained:
“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. 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.”
Maya cist burial with typical ceramic offerings - Plate covering the head of the deceased individual and cup placed likely with food. (WSU) The methods used in the residue analysis in this study could be applied to other ancient artifacts and teeth as well.
The Washington State University researchers have reported their results in Scientific Reports.
Top Image: For the first time, scientists have identified a non-tobacco plant in ancient Maya drug containers. Source: argot /Adobe Stock