Traces Of Tobacco In Mayan Pottery

This 1000-year-old-plus Mayan pot has tobacco leaf residues inside. Credit: Library of Congress.

Conservation scientists went spelunking in to this Mayan pot from 700 A.D. and found traces of nicotine, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by the ancient civilization.

Staff at the Library of Congress, where the pot is housed, might have been tempted to guess that tobacco was indeed inside, since the Mayan script on the container says so.

But they were wiser than that. There have been many cases where the inscription outside a vessel does not match what’s inside-sometimes intentionally so, as is the case with certain Mayan rituals, the researchers note in their article, which will be imminently published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

In fact this is only the second case to-date (with Mayan artifacts) where the packaging information has accurately matched the goods. The other example dates back to 1989 when scientists found traces of cacao in a correctly-marked Mayan container from Guatemala.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Albany used a technique called mass spectrometry to identify the traces of nicotine at the bottom of the pot.

There's blood in the coating of this animal sculpture from the Mali Empire. Credit: C2RMF

They were lucky that the residues had not been degraded over the past thousand years and that the pot hadn’t been stuffed with iron oxide, a commonly used burial material that would have drowned out the nicotine signal.

The analytical technique they used is also helping to identify all sorts of other day-to-day products and ingredients used by ancient civilizations.

Researchers at the Louvre have used mass spectrometry to help identify pink powders in ancient Greek and Roman cosmetics, as well as blood in the coating of animal artifacts from Mali–to name only two of many examples.

Author: Sarah Everts

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2 Comments

  1. Just when you think pottery was just art, we’re now finding out that they can also hold answers to a lot of mysteries as well. Interesting the information that can be had about an entire civilization from a single piece of pottery.

  2. Now when I see pottery containers at museums, I can’t help speculating what trace treasures might be found within. It’s cool that analytical technology has advanced enough to identify these valuable leftovers!