A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's up with the "cocaine mummies"?

January 26, 2001

Dear Cecil:

What's the story with the cocaine mummies? Researchers have evidently established the presence of cocaine in mummified corpses in Egypt and Sudan that date back to before Columbus landed in America. Since cocaine is only known to have been cultivated in South America at that time, some people speculate that there may have been an ancient transatlantic trade route. How about it, Cecil? Do all the archaeology textbooks in the world need to be rewritten?

Cecil replies:

You never know. Maybe the international narcotics trade goes back a lot earlier than we thought. But right now the general feeling is that it's not the ancient Egyptians who were on drugs.

The controversy began in the early 1990s, when a team of German researchers published a couple short papers claiming they'd found significant traces of cocaine, nicotine, and "hashish" in several Egyptian mummies, some of which were more than 3,000 years old. The papers offered a provocative insight into the personal habits of the idle rich in ancient times (conclusion: things haven't changed much in 3,000 years). Just one problem: in pre-Columbian times, so far as we know, tobacco and coca grew only in the Americas, and there was no trade between the Old World and New.

As one might expect, the papers were greeted with disbelief, as if they'd announced that in the days of the pharaohs the sun rose in the west but didn't acknowledge that there was anything odd about this. Although the criticisms were politely phrased, the subtext was unmistakable: Listen, you morons, if you're going to present results that fly in the face of everything we know about ancient trade, botany, etc., you're going to need more than seven paragraphs and a chart to convince us. Among the possibilities suggested: (1) The samples were contaminated. (2) The mummies were fakes. (3) The analytical techniques were faulty. (4) Related Old World alkaloids might have been misidentified.

The Germans replied: We have no explanation; further research is needed. You can almost hear the eyeballs roll.

In 1995 another much longer article appeared in a German scholarly journal. (Different set of authors, although one individual, Franz Parsche, was listed as a coauthor for all three pieces.) The article was mostly about evidence of pulmonary bleeding in a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, but briefly mentioned that an analysis had found significant traces of cocaine, nicotine, and THC. Again, no acknowledgment that there was anything out of the ordinary about this, nor was there any attempt to counter previous criticisms.

From what I can tell, this article drew little scholarly response, and you can imagine why. Other scientists by now had concluded the Germans were out to lunch.

Not so the mass media, however. A British TV studio put together a documentary on the Germans' work, focusing on one of the investigators, a forensic toxicologist named Svetla Balabanova. Balabanova told interviewers that she initially hadn't believed the results either, that she'd had them checked by other labs, and so on. The TV guys also talked to respected British Egyptologist Rosalie David, who vouched for the authenticity of the Egyptian mummies (since the owners refused to show them to her, this wasn't altogether convincing). She also tested some other Egyptian mummies and, to her surprise, found traces of nicotine.

The TV show wasn't a bad piece of work. (You can read the script at http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/misc/mummies.htm.) It gave ample airtime to the skeptics but overall left the impression that Balabanova, Parsche, et al. might be on to something, making a better case for their work than they had bothered to make themselves.

But it was just TV. It's not the kind of thing scientists normally respond to, and they haven't.

There the matter rests. According to Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, the Germans' work has been dismissed by mainstream archaeologists. No discussion of it is to be found in recent surveys of the field. Theories about transoceanic trade in ancient times are considered too outré to warrant serious consideration. To defenders of Balabanova, Parsche, and company, this suggests a pigheaded refusal to reexamine entrenched beliefs. I disagree. If the Germans aren't being taken seriously, it's largely their own fault.

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