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Analytical Chemistry

Traces Of Tobacco In Mayan Pottery

Mass spec analysis reveals nicotine residue in 1,300-year-old pot

by Sarah Everts
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Credit: Library of Congress
Nicotine residues were found inside this 1,300-year-old Mayan pot.
Mayan pot wherein tobacco evidence was found.
Credit: Library of Congress
Nicotine residues were found inside this 1,300-year-old Mayan pot.

Researchers studying a Mayan pot from approximately A.D. 700 discovered traces of nicotine inside, the first physical evidence of possible tobacco use by the ancient civilization. Staff at the Library of Congress, where the pot is housed, might have been tempted to guess that tobacco was indeed stored in that pot, as indicated by the Mayan script on the container. But there have been many cases in which the inscription on the outside of a vessel does not match what’s inside—sometimes intentionally so, as is the case with some artifacts used in Mayan rituals. So Jennifer A. Loughmiller-Newman, an anthropologist at the State University of New York, Albany, teamed up with Dmitri V. Zagorevski, a chemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to use mass spectrometry to identify the trace contents at the base of the vessel (Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom., DOI: 10.1002/rcm.5339). They were lucky that the residues had not degraded over the past 1,300 years and that the pot hadn’t been filled with iron oxide, a common burial material that would have interfered with the nicotine signal. This is only the second case to date in which packaging information on Mayan artifacts accurately matches the contents. The first example dates back to 1989, when scientists found traces of cacao in a container from Guatemala.


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