Mass Spectrometry Mass Spectrometry Reveals Ancient Use of Tobacco

Editor: Dominik Stephan

By using modern mass spectrometric methods, archaeologist were able to reveal the consumption of tobacco by ancient Meso–American cultures. Nicotine traces, found in Mayan vessels, could thereby be unambiguously identified.

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The usage of tobacco as a drug for human consumption dates back to the times of the ancient Maya kingdoms. For the first time ever, scientist where able to identify nicotine traces from a codex-style flask found in Southern Mexico by means of mass spectrometry. The flask, marked with Mayan hieroglyphics reading, “y-otoot ’u-may,” (“the home of its/his/her tobacco,” is only the second case to confirm that the text on the exterior of a Mayan vessel corresponds to its ancient use, archaeologist say.

“Investigation of food items consumed by ancient people offers insight into the traditions and customs of a particular civilization,” explains Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman from the University at Albany in New York. “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.”

Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry Identifies Nicotine Traces

Since many Mayan flask vessels were filled with other substances, such as iron oxide used in burial rituals, detecting the original content can be quite difficult. Therefore, scientist used analyzed samples extracted from the Late Classic Maya period (600 to 900 AD) using gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS). They were able to identify Nicotine—the signature alkaloid in tobacco— as the major component of the extracts from one of the 150 vessels in the collection. The flask was determined to be made in southern Campeche, Mexico and dates to around 700 AD.

Mass Spectrometry Becomes An Invaluable Method

But not only tobacco, also cacao was favoured by the ancient Meso–Americans: Prior to the current discovery, the only existing evidence showing a Mayan vessel to have the same content as indicated by hieroglyphic text was the identification of theobromine, an alkaloid found in cacao, more than 20 years ago.

“Our study provides rare evidence of the intended use of an ancient container,” concludes Dr. Dmitri Zagorevski from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “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.”

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