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Mesoamericans Drank Tobacco During Healing Rituals, New Study Claims

Mesoamericans Used to Drink Tobacco In Ritual Vessels
Chemical analysis of ritual vessels reveals that Mesoamericans used to drink tobacco. Credit: Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos / Antiquity / CC BY 4.0

A recent study published in the journal Antiquity shows that archaeologists found old pottery in Guatemala that had traces of nicotine on it.

The pottery was found in Cotzumalhuapa, which was a large city during the Late Classic Period in Mesoamerica.

Although people knew that tobacco was used in Mesoamerica from old stories and studies, there wasn’t much actual proof until this discovery.

Tobacco was especially important for all kinds of ceremonies and healing rituals in old Central America as well as other places in the Americas, explained Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, a professor at Yale University.

However, finding proof from archaeology is tough because tobacco doesn’t stick around well after so many years, said Chinchilla Mazariegos.

Chemical analysis of vases from the acropolis of El Baúl

In the study, researchers looked at vases found close to the El Baúl area in Cotzumalhuapa. These vases were discovered in 2006 and 2007. They took little bits from the insides of seven vases and analyzed them chemically. Three of them showed signs of tobacco.

This surprised the researchers because the vases were tall and skinny. Such vases were usually used for holding liquids. Accordingly, this suggests that people at that time might have drunk tobacco rather than smoking or snorting it like powder, as stated in the study.

Researchers also believe it is possible people of this ancient culture might have sipped the tobacco drink while also smoking or snorting it.

Drinking tobacco for healing and cleansing rituals

Having too much nicotine can be quite dangerous and even deadly. Hence, the idea of mixing it into a drink suggests the community likely used it for special rituals, to induce sleep and visions, or to go into deep trances, as the researchers mentioned.

There is evidence that the Aztecs and certain Indigenous groups in the Caribbean also practiced similar rituals utilizing nicotine.

Chinchilla Mazariegos said they had hoped that by studying the residue within the old pots, they would learn more about how plants were used in ceremonies.

The pots were discovered close to the spots where sweat baths used to be located in Cotzumalhuapa. This suggests the tobacco drinks might have been used in cleansing rituals, the authors pointed out.

The finding shows that people in the Americas used tobacco much earlier than we thought. However, it’s not the oldest proof of tobacco use.

A study from 2021 found charred tobacco seeds in the Utah desert, suggesting people were smoking tobacco around twelve thousand years ago, as reported by Live Science.

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