Image: The 'house of tobacco’ vessel. (Credit: J. A. Loughmiller-Newman).
Archaeologists have found traces of nicotine in a 1,300-year-old vessel, revealing the first physical evidence of tobacco use by the Mayans.
Made around A.D. 700 in the region of the Mirador Basin, in southern Campeche state, Mexico, during the Classic Mayan period, the 2.5-inch-wide and -high clay vessel was a "house of tobacco," as indicated by hieroglyphic texts. They read: “y-otoot ’u-may,” (“the home of its/his/her tobacco,”) .
"This is only the second case in which residue analysis shows a Mayan vessel to have had the same content as indicated by hieroglyphics," Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman, from the State University of New York at Albany, told Discovery News.
The last discovery occurred more than 20 years ago and involved a vessel containing cacao.
Loughmiller-Newman and Dmitri Zagorevski from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., analyzed residues from more than 50 various Mayan vessels, mainly from the Kislak collection of the Library of Congress.
"None of them, as of now, have shown any traces of nicotine or other alkaloids," the researchers wrote in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.
Indeed, several issues, such as bacteria, contamination and the fact that the usage of containers changed over time, often limit the success of chemical analysis on ancient residues.
Nevertheless, Loughmiller-Newman and Zagorevski were able to find the chemical fingerprint of tobacco in the codex-style flask.
The identification was performed by using two analytical chemistry techniques — gas chromatography mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.
"Both methods resulted in the positive identification of nicotine," said the researchers.
In addition, three oxidation products of nicotine, indicating natural processes of bacterial degradation, were discovered.
None of the nicotine by-products associated with the smoking of tobacco was detected, likely ruling out the use of the vessel as an ashtray.
"The tobacco found in that container was probably not used for smoking. It was likely a powdered product," Loughmiller-Newman said.
According to the researcher, the tobacco known to the ancient Mayas "was far stronger than the tobacco plants commonly grown today and possibly strong enough to be hallucinogenic."
Likely mixed with lime, the powdered tobacco from the vessel would have been chewed, consumed as snuff or added to alcohol for stronger drinks.
The powder was also used as a repellent to keep serpents away (it irritates their skin) and to kill botfly larvae.
"Our study provides rare evidence of the intended use of an ancient container," Zagorevski said.
"Mass spectrometry has proven to be an invaluable method of analysis of organic residues in archaeological artifacts. This discovery is not only significant to understanding Mayan hieroglyphics, but an important archaeological application of chemical detection," he added.