“No smoking” (Ancient Egyptian tobacco)

There is no evidence of ancient Egyptians having made it to North America, nor any evidence of tobacco in the land and time of the pharaohs. But in 1997, Discovery aired a program which featured German toxicologist Svetlana Balabanova, who had discovered nicotine in an Egyptian mummy. This was touted as proof that there had been trade between Egypt and the Americas thousands of years before historians and archeologists thought those cultures had collided.

Further, a 1978 letter in the Anthropological Journal of Canada claimed mummies sometimes contained tobacco residue and other writings told of found tobacco beetles making their way to the remains of Rameses II. All this seemed to point, rather conclusively, to the idea that Egyptians had access to tobacco.

In her research, Balabanova tested the hair of an obscure priestess named Henut Taui and discovered high nicotine levels in her body, and subsequently co-authored a brief article published in a German scientific publication.

However, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning writes, “The paper’s rejection by the scientific community was both immediate and nearly universal.” Balabanova had suggested perhaps mourners had burned tobacco to fumigate insects and the mummy had therefore received high doses of nicotine. However, Dunning notes that pharaohs would almost certainly have had no role in the dirtiest part of fumigation efforts, especially with the frequency that would be required for their corpses to be heavily laden with it. Additionally, there was better reason for tobacco’s presence, and for that we look to the work of archaeologist Paul Buckland and Eva Panagiotakopulu, an etymological expert.

Dunning noted that only well into the 20th Century did archaeology place a premium on preservation, having been more interested until that time with exploitation and financial gain. He writes, “Conservation of specimens was rudimentary at best. Records were often nonexistent, mummies and artifacts moved around, each one inviting potential contamination. During all of those moves, many of the people who worked on Rameses II or were in his vicinity smoked like chimneys.”

Moreover, mummies often suffered from insect damage or infestations, and so were often treated with insecticide in the form of powdered tobacco. Since the mummy Balabanova focused on was laden with nicotine, then we can safely conclude it had been treated in this common way. There is no need to insist that the only possible explanation is that ancient Egyptians had trade contact with the New World.

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