Mesoamericans May Have Drunk Tobacco During Rituals 1,000 Years Ago

New research reveals evidence of nicotine residue on vases unearthed in Guatemala

Seven Vessels
Researchers tested samples from seven ceramic vessels found on the ancient site of Cotzumalhuapa, and they found nicotine residue in three of them. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos

Researchers in Guatemala have discovered traces of nicotine on 1,000-year-old ceramic vases. Their findings, published this month in the journal Antiquity, mark the earliest physical evidence of ritual practices involving tobacco in Mesoamerica.

The vessels were unearthed nearly two decades ago during excavations at Cotzumalhuapa, one of the largest southern Mesoamerican cities during the Late Classic Period (around 650 to 950 C.E.). However, their contents remained untested until recently, when researchers conducted a chemical analysis of samples taken from inside the artifacts.

“It was a surprise when three of the seven vessels that we tested yielded positive results for nicotine, indicative of tobacco,” co-author Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, an anthropologist at Yale, tells McClatchy’s Moira Ritter. “This was unexpected because the shape of the vessels suggested that they were used to contain and consume liquids.”

In Situ
The vessels were found during excavations at Cotzumalhuapa in 2006 and 2007. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos

In fact, both may be true: The researchers write that the vases may have held tobacco in a liquid form, or “tobacco-infused offerings.”

Ritualistic and therapeutic uses of tobacco—along with cacao, flowers and other substances—were widely documented in early colonial accounts and continue to the present day, per the study. Often, such items were buried as gifts to the earth or specific deities.

But archaeological evidence is rare, as “the remains of tobacco rarely preserve well,” says Mazariegos in a statement from Antiquity posted to social media. The new study provides documentation of tobacco use that’s hundreds of years older than colonial records.

“The results suggest that tobacco infusions were employed in ritual activities at Cotzumalhuapa,” Mazariegos tells McClatchy. “We do not know whether they actually drank such infusions or how often. We do not claim that they had a habit of consuming tobacco in this form.”

A stone portrait found at Cotzumalhuapa depicts a headdress featuring "ovate leaves whose shape, size and venation are suggestive of tobacco," according to the study. Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos

Consuming tobacco in a liquid form is “not the most common method of use throughout the Americas,” though some examples have been documented, according to the study. Nicotine—the addictive chemical contained in tobacco—is toxic, and even lethal, when orally ingested in high quantities. As such, this form of tobacco may have been used during rituals as a narcotic to “induce deep sleep, visions and divinatory trances.”

Throughout its long history in Mesoamerica, tobacco has most commonly been consumed via smoking. By the 1500s, it had been “integrated into social life as part of meetings and ceremonies, used as a digestive aid after meals and considered as the proper conclusion to feasts,” per the study.

As the researchers write, their findings raise questions about exactly how and why tobacco was consumed in Cotzumalhuapa—a place whose ritualistic history has long evaded archaeologists.

“Despite its importance, the Pacific coast of Guatemala is severely neglected in archaeological research,” says Mazariegos in the statement. “We hope that these exciting results will stimulate further research and analysis of archaeological samples recovered.”

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