Ancient Guatemalans drank tobacco in rituals, study finds

A new study has revealed that ancient Guatemalans used tobacco as a liquid infusion, rather than smoking or snorting it, in their religious ceremonies. The study, published in the journal Antiquity, analyzed the residues of nicotine found in ceramic vessels from the archaeological site of Cotzumalhuapa, which was a major city in Mesoamerica between A.D. 650 and 950. The study suggests that the ancient Guatemalans drank tobacco as a way of inducing altered states of consciousness, such as deep sleep, visions, and trances.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from Yale University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. The researchers examined seven ceramic vessels that were excavated from the acropolis of El Baúl, one of the three urban centers of Cotzumalhuapa. The vessels were dated to the Late Classic Period, between A.D. 700 and 900.

The researchers used a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to detect and identify the chemical compounds present in the vessels. They found traces of nicotine, a psychoactive alkaloid that is the main component of tobacco, in three of the vessels. The nicotine concentrations ranged from 0.1 to 0.4 micrograms per gram of ceramic, which is comparable to the levels found in other archaeological contexts where tobacco was used.

The researchers also compared the shape and size of the vessels with those typically used for liquid consumption in Mesoamerica, such as cups, bowls, and jars. They found that the vessels that contained nicotine were tall and narrow, with a capacity of about 250 milliliters, which is similar to the volume of a modern coffee cup. The researchers concluded that these vessels were likely used to hold and drink liquid tobacco infusions, rather than to store or burn dried tobacco leaves.

Why the ancient Guatemalans drank tobacco

The researchers speculated that the ancient Guatemalans drank tobacco as part of their religious rituals, which involved communicating with the supernatural realm and seeking divine guidance. They argued that drinking tobacco could produce more intense and prolonged effects than smoking or snorting it, as the nicotine would be absorbed more slowly and steadily through the digestive system. Drinking tobacco could also cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which could be interpreted as signs of purification and cleansing.

The researchers also suggested that drinking tobacco could be related to the iconography and symbolism of Cotzumalhuapa, which features images of snakes, jaguars, and bats, as well as human figures with animal attributes. These images could represent the transformation of humans into animals, or the embodiment of animal spirits, which could be achieved through the consumption of psychoactive substances, such as tobacco. The researchers also noted that tobacco was associated with the underworld and the night in Mesoamerican cosmology, which could explain why the vessels were found in a dark and secluded area of the acropolis.

What the study contributes to the understanding of tobacco use in Mesoamerica

The study is the first to provide direct evidence of liquid tobacco use in Mesoamerica, which adds to the existing knowledge of the diversity and complexity of tobacco use in the region. Previous studies have documented the use of tobacco as a smoked, snorted, or chewed substance, as well as a topical or medicinal agent, in various Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya, the Aztec, and the Zapotec. The study also confirms the importance of tobacco as a sacred and ritual substance, which was used to connect with the divine and the supernatural.

The study also challenges the common assumption that tobacco was always consumed as a dried leaf or a powder, and that it was always smoked or snorted. The study shows that tobacco could also be consumed as a liquid infusion, and that it could be drunk rather than inhaled. The study also demonstrates the potential of chemical analysis to reveal the hidden practices and beliefs of ancient peoples, who left behind few written records of their history and culture.

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