Evidence of Opium Use By Canaanites in 14th Century BC Found
Human beings have been using hallucinogenic or psychoactive drugs to experience pleasurable sensations or induce altered states of consciousness for thousands of years. It is possible this activity dates back tens of thousands of years, although definitive proof of this fact remains elusive.
But thanks to a new study carried out by researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Tel Aviv University, we now know that human beings living in ancient Canaan were using the hallucinogenic drug opium as long ago as the 14th century BC. These Israeli scientists identified distinctive traces of opium in multiple 3,400-year-old ceramic pottery pieces that were removed from the Tel Yehud archaeological site seven miles (11 kilometers) southeast of Tel Aviv.
“This is the only psychoactive drug that has been found in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age,” study co-author and aspiring archaeologist Vanessa Linares, whose doctoral thesis provided the impetus for this new research, explained in a Tel Aviv University press release . “In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad, but this dated back to the Iron Age, hundreds of years after the opium in Tel Yehud.”
A local open bowl burial offering (1), a Cypriot Base-ring jug (2), and a Canaanite jar in which opium residues were discovered (3). ( Archaeometry)
Jugs Shaped Like Opium Poppy Flowers Provided the Clue
During a 2012 excavation at Tel Yehud, an IAA archaeological team under the supervision of Eriola Jakoel (a co-author of the new study) unearthed a multitude of graves that dated to the second millennium BC. The occupants of the burials were people who lived in the ancient land of Canaan, a territory that included the lands of modern-day Israel and Palestine. Inside the graves were different types of ceramic vessels, provided as burial goods that the deceased could carry with them into the afterlife.
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Among the ceramic vessels discovered were a significant number of small containers known as Base-Ring juglets . These vessels were made in Cyprus, and they had a shape that looked similar to that of a poppy flower when it is closed and turned upside down. Based on this intriguing and provocative design choice, it has long been speculated that Base-Ring juglets may have been used to store and/or ship opium.
While the Tel Yehud ceramic vessels were analyzed at the time they were found, it wasn’t until much more recently that organic residue tests were actually performed. These specialized tests revealed the presence of opioid alkaloids and their decomposition products, which offers conclusive proof that the pottery jars once held opium, just as had long been supposed.
“This research revitalizes a decades-old discussion on the presence and function of the opium trade across a cultural region of utmost significance in the Ancient Near East and the use and role of Base-Ring juglets during the Late Bronze Age IIA (14th century BC),” the archaeologists involved in the study wrote, in a paper just published in the journal Archaeometry.
The study authors noted that traces of opium were not only found in the smaller pottery pieces identified as Base-Ring juglets but were also detected in many larger ceramic storage jars. The latter fact suggests the opium trade was occurring on a relatively significant scale at this point in time.
One of the 14th century BC pottery vessels found at Tel Yehud, Israel which tested positive for opium residues. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Glimpses of a Lost Hallucinogenic Burial Culture
It is clear from the discoveries at Tel Yehud that an active and sophisticated burial culture existed in Canaan in the second millennium BC.
“Hundreds of Canaanite graves from the 18th to the 13th centuries BC have been unearthed,” study co-author and IAA archaeologist Dr. Ron Be’eri said. “Most of the bodies buried were those of adults, of both sexes. The pottery vessels placed within the graves were used for ceremonial meals, rites, and rituals performed by the living for their deceased family members. The dead were honored with foods and drinks that were either placed in the vessels, or consumed during a feast that took place over the grave, at which the deceased was considered a participant.”
Dr. Be’eri speculates that opium may have played a special role in these elaborate ritual observances.
“It may be that during these ceremonies, conducted by family members or by a priest on their behalf, participants attempted to raise the spirits of their dead relatives in order to express a request, and would enter an ecstatic state by using opium,” he suggested. “Alternatively, it is possible that the opium, which was placed next to the body, was intended to help the person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life.”
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Researchers are left with no choice but to speculate about such matters, since no written records exist that would clarify what people were using opium for more than 3,000 years in the past.
“Because the opium was found at a burial site, it offers us a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the ancient world,” Vanessa Linares said, before acknowledging that ”we do not know what the opium’s role was in the ceremony—whether the Canaanites in Yehud believed that the dead would need opium in the afterlife, or whether it was the priests who consumed the drug for the purposes of the ceremony.”
One thing the researchers can say for certain, however, is that this discovery reveals new and valuable information about the opium trade in general in the Late Bronze Age.
“One must remember that opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor—that is, the territory of current-day Turkey—whereas the pottery in which we identified the opium were made in Cyprus,” Linares said. “In other words, the opium was brought to Yehud from Turkey, through Cyprus; this of course indicates the importance that was attributed to the drug.”
If the drug trade was this well-established and extensive in the greater Mediterranean region in the 14th century BC, it could very well have been in operation much earlier. But just how far back the drug trade in the region goes cannot be determined at this time.
Top image: One of the 14th-century-BC Canaanite burials at Tel Yehud associated with vessels containing traces of opium. Source: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde