Ancient smoke signals

February 1, 2012

The Column

The Column, The Column-02-01-2012, Volume 8, Issue 2
Page Number: 10

A team of researchers has proved that the Ancient Mayans used tobacco. The discovery was prompted by the examination of several ancient Mayan containers from the Kislak Collection of the US Library of Congress for the presence of alkaloids.

A team of researchers has proved that the Ancient Mayans used tobacco. The discovery was prompted by the examination of several ancient Mayan containers from the Kislak Collection of the US Library of Congress for the presence of alkaloids.1

One of the flasks had text upon it that read yo-‘OTOT-ti ‘u-MAY; ‘the home of its/his/her tobacco’. Samples were extracted from the flask and analysed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. Nicotine was discovered to be the major component of the extracts. They also found three oxidation products of nicotine. High-resolution high mass accuracy tandem mass spectrometry spectra of protonated nicotine and nicotine mono-oxides were measured to verify previous product ion assignments. These analyses identified the flask as a likely holder of tobacco leaves.

In addition, the tobacco contained in the flask was so strong that it may have been hallucinogenic.

Ultimately, the research concluded that this is the first physical evidence of tobacco from a Mayan container, and only the second instance where the vessel content demonstrated in a Mayan hieroglyphic text has been confirmed directly by chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis.

1 Dmitri Zagorevski et al., Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, DOI: 10.1002/rcm.5339 (2012).

This story originally appeared in The Column. Click here to view that issue.

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