In Chilean Desert, Mummies' Hair Reveals Their History

Nicotine use persisted much longer than thought: study

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 1, 2013 9:42 AM CDT

(Newser) – Chile's Atacama Desert is extreme: It's hot, dry, and comprised of salty soil. Those conditions may not sound favorable to you, but they were kind to 56 well-preserved mummies found there and analyzed by researchers—who have since announced an "unexpected" finding. LiveScience reports that 35 of the mummies had nicotine in their hair, and the researchers concluded people from the ancient town of San Pedro de Atacama used nicotine from at least 100 BC to AD 1450. This upends a long-running belief that the people abandoned tobacco in favor of hallucinogens centuries earlier.

Archaeologists have found that smoking pipes were replaced by snuffing powder and instruments around AD 400, and the study co-author explains that the belief was "they gradually switched to inhaling dimethyltryptamines in snuffing trays" at that time. But the hair proves otherwise. The researchers also drew conclusions about the individual mummies' social standing from the items (jewelry, weapons, etc.) they were buried with, and found that nicotine use occurred at every level of society. Nicotine traces have not been found among the snuffing items; it's unclear how tobacco was ingested after the year 400.

The Atacama desert.
The Atacama desert.   (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
The Atacama Desert.
The Atacama Desert.   (©)
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