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Scientists Confirm Tobacco Use by Ancient Mayans
Mass Spectrometry Detects First Physical Evidence of Nicotine in Mayan Container
Archaeologists examining late period Mayan containers have identified nicotine traces from a codex-style flask, revealing the first physical evidence of tobacco use by ancient Mayans. The study published in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry reveals the flask is marked with Mayan hieroglyphics reading, “y-otoot ’u-may,” (“the home of its/his/her tobacco,”) making it only the second case to confirm that the text on the exterior of a Mayan vessel corresponds to its ancient use.
“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.”
Many of the Mayan flask vessels from the Kislak collection of the Library of Congress examined in this study were filled with other substances, such as iron oxide used in burial rituals, making it difficult to detect the original content.
The most indisputable evidence of a container’s usage is obtained when hieroglyphic text or pictorial illustrations on the exterior of a container is consistent with the chemical analysis of interior residues. For the current investigation, researchers 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).
Nicotine—the signature alkaloid in tobacco—was identified 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.
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.”
Dmitri Zagorevski, Jennifer A. Loughmiller-Newman, “The Detection of Nicotine in a Late Mayan Period Flask by GCMS and LCMS Methods,” Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry; January 2012, DOI: 10.1002/rcm.5339
Paper URL upon publication: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/rcm.5339
Images of the flask are available on request from firstname.lastname@example.org. Images should be credited to Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman .
To arrange an interview with Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman or Dr. Dmitri Zagorevski, please contact Marylou Schiro in the Anthropology office at the University at Albany at email@example.com or Kathy Gersowitz in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary studies at firstname.lastname@example.org .
About the Journal:
Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry is a journal whose aim is the rapid publication of original research results and ideas on all aspects of mass spectrometry. One of the highest high impact journals in its field, Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry publishes original research results and ideas on all aspects of the science of gas-phase ions and all the associated scientific disciplines.
For more information, please visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)1097-0231.
Wiley-Blackwell is the international scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, with strengths in every major academic and professional field and partnerships with many of the world’s leading societies. Wiley-Blackwell publishes nearly 1,500 peer-reviewed journals and 1,500+ new books annually in print and online, as well as databases, major reference works and laboratory protocols. For more information, please visit www.wileyblackwell.com or our new online platform, Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com), one of the world’s most extensive multidisciplinary collections of online resources, covering life, health, social and physical sciences, and humanities.