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Left; Stele of a standing dignitary, with likely tobacco leaves his hair. Right; El Baul, acropolis site Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. under excavation 2006 Inset; 3 of the vessel tested in the study 	Source: Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos/Antiquity Publications Ltd

Proof Ancient Mesoamericans Drank Sacred Tobacco-Infused Liquids is Found

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In a new chemical analysis performed on ceramic vases recovered during excavations at the ancient metropolis of Cotzumalhuapa in southwestern Guatemala, a team of researchers from Yale University and the City University of New York found traces of organic residues that have been positively identified as tobacco. The tobacco likely would have been used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes during Mesoamerica’s Late Classic Period (650-950 AD), when the grand city was at the peak of its power and influence.

Tobacco Infusions Detected for the First Time in Mesoamerica

The vases were recovered from an urban enclave within the greater Cotzumalhuapa archaeological zone. The results of the tests on their contents were quite unexpected, given their unprecedented nature.

“Detection of nicotine in residue analysis of three cylindrical ceramic vases recovered from cache deposits near the El Baúl acropolis suggests that these vessels contained tobacco infusions or other liquid preparations,” the scientists responsible for the chemical analysis wrote in an article just published in Antiquity.

“These results suggest an ancient ritual practice involving tobacco for which there was previously no physical evidence in Mesoamerica.”

Archaeological vessels sampled for residue analysis from El Baúl, Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. (Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Archaeological vessels sampled for residue analysis from El Baúl, Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. (Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Written sources record the use of tobacco by Mesoamerican peoples during the Classic Period and before. But this kind of evidence wasn’t sufficient to positively prove that tobacco was used in any particular location 1,000 years or more in the past.

Up to now, the only thing close to physical evidence relating to ancient Mesoamerican tobacco use came in the form of statues that featured depictions of tobacco leaves, which were recovered during excavations at various archaeological sites. But the residues scraped off the insides of the ceramic pottery found at the El Baúl acropolis provides the first absolute proof of Classic Period tobacco consumption by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region.

“We knew that tobacco was a very important substance employed for a variety of ritual and therapeutic purposes in ancient Mesoamerica and across the New World,” Yale University archaeologist and study co-author Dr. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos stated in an  Antiquity press release. “However, archaeological evidence is scarce because the remains of tobacco rarely preserve well.”

Portrait of leader with three leaves in the headdress, probably representing tobacco. (Chinchilla/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Portrait of leader with three leaves in the headdress, probably representing tobacco. (Chinchilla/Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Tobacco Use in Ancient Mesoamerican is Finally Confirmed

This new study was motivated by the recovery of the ceramic vases, which appeared to have been designed to hold liquids.

“We hoped that analysis of residues inside these well-preserved vessels would reveal details about the use of plants in ritual activities,” Dr. Chinchilla Mazariegos said.

The researchers thought they might discover traces of substances like cacao, chili peppers or achiote (a condiment and food dye) inside the vessels. These hopes were disappointed, but much to their surprise three of the seven vessels tested had traces of tobacco still clinging to their interior walls.

Before this discovery, experts already knew that pre-Columbian peoples living in the great cities of Mesoamerica had smoked and sniffed tobacco, in dried leaf and powder form respectively. But now it seems tobacco was also consumed as an added ingredient to some type of liquid substance as well. And if this occurred during the Classic Period, the practice likely originated in even more ancient times.

The use of tobacco for ritual and therapeutic purposes was common among Mesoamerican people in the 16th century, when they were under the rule of Spanish colonizers. That practice continued into modern times, showing that the belief that tobacco is a sacred plant with healing capacities was deeply rooted in the region’s cultural and spiritual traditions.

Yet proof of these deep roots has always proved elusive, because of the tendency of organic substances to decay over a relatively short period of time. Finding physical evidence of ancient tobacco use was a matter of uncovering the proverbial needle in the haystack, which is exactly what happened during the ongoing excavations at Cotzumalhuapa.

Amazing Surprises Recovered from the Forgotten City of Cotzumalhuapa

The archaeological zone of Cotzumalhuapa covers an area of 3.9 square miles (10 square kilometers) and includes four distinct population centers: El Baúl, Bilbao, Golón and El Castillo, all of which were linked by proficiently engineered causeways and bridges. The zone is close to ancient Maya sites, but the people who built the city of Cotzumalhuapa belonged to an independent kingdom outside of Maya control.

While the city’s origins date back to the first century AD, it reached the height of its affluence during the Late Classic Period. Archaeologists have uncovered an impressive collection of ruins during excavations in the area, including more than 200 structures made of stone blocks and/or earthen filling, and 187 carved stone monuments that include gigantic heads, altars, stelae, and more complex scenes featuring people, animals and religious figures.

As the largest city in the Pacific coastal region of southern Guatemala, Cotzumalhuapa would have been the political center of a powerful and expansive state that controlled a large swath of territory. Their distinctive sculptural and artistic styles have been identified at sites stretching up and down the Central American coast, spanning a distance of 125 miles (200 kilometers) in southern Guatemala and extending into northern El Salvador.

Cotzumalhuapa’s influence spread into the interior highlands of the region as well, and the physical barrier these highlands represented likely protected the state from outside invasion, ensuring their culture could prosper. Unfortunately their complex hieroglyphic writing system has yet to be deciphered, so it is impossible to ascertain many details about the city’s social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual affairs.

Nevertheless, the excavations at Cotzumalhuapa have produced some truly extraordinary finds, including the ceramic jars that were once used to hold a sacred tobacco-infused liquid substance.

“Despite its importance, the Pacific coast of Guatemala is severely neglected in archaeological research,” Dr. Chinchilla Mazariegos stated. “We hope that these exciting results will stimulate further research and analysis of archaeological samples recovered at Pacific coastal sites.”

Top image: Left; Stele of a standing dignitary, with likely tobacco leaves his hair. Right; El Baul, acropolis site Cotzumalhuapa, Guatemala. under excavation 2006 Inset; 3 of the vessel tested in the study. Source: Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos/Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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