Chilean mummies reveal nicotine habit

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Scientists analysing hair samples from mummies in a Chilean town have found that for hundreds of years, people of all social classes in the region consumed nicotine.
The finding refutes the popular view that the people living in the town of San Pedro de Atacama smoked tobacco for just a short stint before moving on to snuffing hallucinogens.
The Chilean mummies studied were in good condition, preserved naturally from the high temperatures, extreme dryness and high soil salinity in the Atacama Desert. The research revealed that the people in the region had a nicotine habit spanning from at least 100 BC to AD 1450, LiveScience reported. “The idea was that around AD 400, people in San Pedro de Atacama (SPA) smoked tobacco in pipes, and then after that time, they gradually switched to inhaling dimethyltryptamines in snuffing trays,” said study co-author Hermann Niemeyer, an organic chemist at the University of Chile in Santiago.
“What we show is that’s not correct,” Niemeyer said. To get a better understanding of hallucinogen use in SPA throughout the ages, Niemeyer and his colleague Javier Echeverria analysed hair samples of 56 mummies from the Late Formative to the Late Intermediate periods of SPA (100 BC to AD 1450). Depending on the site, the mummies were either interred in the ground or entombed in “some sort of stony environment made for them.”
The team found nicotine in the hair of 35 mummies, spanning the full range of years. “The finding of nicotine was definitely unexpected,” Niemeyer said. In the archaeological record of SPA, smoking pipes are gradually replaced by snuff trays after around AD 400, previous studies found evidence of nicotine in smoking pipes, but not in snuffing powder or snuffing paraphernalia, which were often associated with tryptamine alkaloids. The team didn’t find traces of tryptamine alkaloids in the hair samples, though this doesn’t necessarily mean people didn’t consume the cebil compounds, researchers said. The study will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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