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Nicotine buzz from 1,300 years ago

Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman via RCMS

A codex-style flask from Mexico, dated to the year 700, bears Mayan hieroglyphics reading "y-otoot 'u-may," translated as "the home of its/his/her tobacco."

Researchers have identified traces of nicotine inside a 1,300-year-old Mayan flask, confirming the vessel's ancient use and providing the earliest chemical evidence of tobacco in Maya culture.

There's been ample evidence from textual and pictorial sources that the Maya smoked tobacco. For example, at Mexico's Palenque archaeological site, one of the carved stone panels at the Temple of the Cross shows a man smoking what appears to be an ornate pipe.

Other evidence suggests that the Maya and other ancient Mesoamerican cultures smoked tobacco either in pipes or in cigar-type bundles. The sacred text of the Quiche Maya, the Popol Vuh, says the story's two heroes were once required to keep their cigars lit all night in a cave of darkness — but fooled the people of the underworld by putting fireflies on the ends of their cigars instead. Spaniards who came in contact with the Maya in the 16th century reported seeing the natives puffing on cigars.

This week's research, published in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, is the first to link tobacco's active ingredient with a vessel labeled as containing the goods, according to Dmitri Zagorevski, a biochemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman, an archaeologist at the University of Albany in New York.

Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman analyzed samples taken from a Mayan flask that was made in Mexico's southern Campeche state and became part of the Library of Congress' Kislak Collection. The flask has been dated to around the year 700, during the Late Classic Maya period (A.D. 600-900). It is marked with Mayan hieroglyphs reading "y-otoot 'u-may," which is translated as "the house of its/his/her tobacco."

The researchers detected traces of nicotine in the samples using gas-chromatography mass spectrometry and liquid-chromatography mass spectrometry. That confirmed that the flask actually housed someone's tobacco.

"Investigation of food items consumed by ancient people offers insight into the traditions and customs of a particular civilization," Loughmiller-Newman explained in a news release. "Textual evidence written on pottery is often an indicator of contents or of an intended purpose; however, actual usage of a container could be altered or falsely represented."

She and Zagorevski said chemical analysis has been used only once before to confirm the contents of a Mayan vessel labeled with hieroglyphics. That case, reported more than 20 years ago, involved the confirmation that a vessel contained cacao through the detection of caffeine and an alkaloid known as theobromine.

The researchers said recovering food residues for analysis is a "very difficult task" for several reasons, including the fact that ancient vessels may contain other substances in addition to the stuff being sought. For example, most of the Kislak Collection's flasks were filled with reddish iron oxide for burial rituals, making it harder to determine what the vessels originally held.

"Our study provides rare evidence of the intended use of an ancient container," Zagorevski said in the news release, issued today. "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." 

Extra credit: This research was originally due for public release on Thursday, but the embargo was lifted after the news release popped up on The Tree of Life blog as part of a protest by UC-Davis biologist Jonathan Eisen against "press release spam." The episode has sparked a discussion of press embargoes on Ivan Oransky's Embargo Watch. Meanwhile, Loughmiller-Newman and Zagorevski have promised to get back to me with additional comments on the research, and I'll add those comments to this posting as they come in.

Update for 8 p.m. ET: Loughmiller-Newman tells me that the tobacco in the flask might not have been used for smoking. "It's a very small container," she said. "My guess is that it would have been used for treatment of bug bites, or to ward off snakes, or perhaps as a snuff."

She explained that the Maya used tobacco in its powdered form as a snake repellent ("It 'burns' them on their body beneath their scales") and to combat botfly larvae ("One way to suffocate the larvae and keep them from growing is to put powdered tobacco on ths skin"). The powder could also be snorted like snuff, or added to alcoholic drinks for an extra kick.

"This was very strong tobacco, much stronger than it is today," she said. "Nicotiana rustica was nearly hallucinogenic."

Like, wow.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.