Pre-Columbian Tobacco Smoking Mummies? Evidence in the Light of Most Recent Tobaccological & Anthropological Findings

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Warning: This article is republished from the original source: the Tabaccologia scientific journal, a peer-reviewed biomedical publication from Italy. The proper citation is as follows:

Kamal Chaouachi. Did pre-Columbian mummies smoke tobacco ? Evidence in the light of most recent tobaccological & anthropological findings [Una revisione critica degli elementi di prova ala luce delle conclusioni tabaccologiche e antropologiche più recenti]. Tabaccologia 2012;1-2:31-46.

Note: title and captions by Editors of the journal, not by the author. (Original proposed title: “Tobacco Smoking Mummies?”) (full related issue of the Tabaccologia journal)



-English Summary

-Résumé en français


-PART I: The Four Main Stages of Scientific Research on Pre-Columbian Mummies

  1. First Stage (Tobacco Fragments in the Mummy of Ramses II)
  2. Second Stage (Identification of Drugs and Nicotine in Egyptian Mummies)
  3. Third Stage (The Controversy and the Reviews of Scientific Evidence)
  4. Fourth and Last Stage (New Findings of Most Recent Scientific Research)

-PART II: Early Transoceanic (Africa/America) Pre-Columbian Voyages: Diffusionist vs. Isolationist (Evolutionist) Positions

  1. The Mysterious Water Pipe
  2. Ethnographic and Linguistic Investigation



English Summary: Thirty years ago, a German team of scientists let the world think over the tremendous consequences of cutting-edge research findings related to the presence of substances such as cocaine, nicotine and cannabis in Pre-Columbian mummies. The first outcome was the rebuttal of the official universal history of tobacco supposed to have begun in the Old World in the wake of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Most recent findings confirm the presence of nicotine without totally discarding the possibility of environmental tobacco contamination, not to mention, at a more or less remote date, the use of the latter as a preservation insecticide. Nevertheless and as a whole, the results reviewed in this article, further to being contextualised with anthropological discoveries related to “exotic” forms of smoking such as the mysterious hookah (narghile, shisha) and the “dissenting” though cogent views on tobacco history, elicit an unexpected turn to the debate. For instance, leaving aside the question of actual linguistic convergences between both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, a variety of forest tobacco of the Nicotiana rustica species (vs. Nicotiana tabacum, that of the New World) was widely known in Africa long before Columbus’ discovery. The mysterious origin of the water pipe (so different by its shape and smoking techniques) also represents an extra argument supporting early transoceanic (Africa/America) Pre-Columbian contacts. Anthropological research led by separate teams from the USA, South Africa, and Tunisia, unfailingly agree on this point.

Résumé en français: Il y a 30 ans, une équipe de recherche allemande eut la surprise de trouver des substances telles que la cocaïne, la nicotine et le cannabis dans des momies précolombiennes. Ces découvertes suscitèrent de nombreuses remises en question de l’histoire universelle officielle du tabac censée avoir commencé dans l’Ancien Monde après la découverte des Amériques par Christophe Colomb. Des analyses plus récentes confirment la présence de nicotine sans que soit exclue la possibilité d’une contamination environnementale par la fumée du tabac, voire de l’usage de ce dernier comme insecticide à des fins de préservation, à une date plus ou moins lointaine. Toutefois, pris dans leur ensemble, les résultats des diverses recherches passées ici en revue et une fois mises en contexte avec des découvertes anthropologiques relatives à des formes “exotiques” de tabagisme comme le mystérieux narguilé (houka, shisha/chicha), puis couplées à la prise en compte des voix de chercheurs s’opposant à l’histoire officielle du tabac, permettent d’aboutir à des conclusions iconoclastes. Par exemple, outre les convergences linguistiques de part et d’autre de l’océan atlantique, une variété de tabac forestier de l’espèce Nicotiana rustica (par opposition à Nicotiana tabacum, celle du Nouveau Monde) était largement répandue en Afrique bien avant la découverte de Colomb. L’origine mystérieuse du narguilé (si différent par sa forme et ses techniques d’usage) constitue également un argument supplémentaire en faveur de l’hypothèse, de plus en plus plausible, de voyages précolombiens transocéaniques entre l’Afrique et les Amériques. Des recherches anthropologiques menées séparément par des chercheurs aux Etats-Unis d’Amérique, en Afrique du Sud et en Tunisie, convergent inexorablement sur ce point.

“For about thirty years now, the study of African archaeological pipes has collided with problems related to the persistence of diffusionist theories on one hand and, on the other, the chronological postulate of 1600 AD, set as the beginning of their introduction into Africa. Both elements have hampered the development of a sound archaeological thought and have become stagnation, regression and inertia factors in African archaeology…”

(JP Ossah-Mvondo)


The issue of Pre-Columbian mummies is not only a complex one but it is also a taboo one because it challenges the validity of the chapter of official history related to the very origins of tobacco use. The latter substance is supposed to have been fallen upon by Christopher Columbus by the end of the 15th century and its methods of use (cigar, pipe) would have subsequently spread along the trade routes of the world over the following two decades. To put this argument in a nutshell, tobacco smoking would have remained unknown to the Ancient World until Columbus brought it back from the Americas [1]. According to the same proposition, all forms of smoking (in particular pipes) were either brought by Europeans or transmitted by the latter. This official explanation would even apply to the quite elaborated African pipes. Even the early water pipes (which later on became better known as hookah, narghile and shisha) would actually represent an “evolution” of the (“dry”) pipes brought by “Europeans” to Africa and Asia. Against this background, the issue of Pre-Columbian mummies positively tested for drugs and nicotine over the last 35 years, has triggered a new debate whose chief conclusions point to the existence of early human transoceanic (Africa/America) Pre-Columbian contacts long before the 15th century. The related findings are reviewed here in the light of unavoidable anthropological analyses and thoughts regarding material culture; for instance, the origins of the mysterious water pipe which, by its striking differences in shape and technique, represents a strong argument supporting the actuality of early transoceanic voyages.

PART 1: The Four Stages of Scientific Research on Pre-Columbian Mummies

The issue of the relation of Pre-Columbian mummies to tobacco use emerged to the light of scientific research 35 years ago and went through four main stages so far:

1. First Stage (Tobacco Fragments in the Mummy of Ramses II)

IRamsesII_Mummyn 1976, Michèle (Layer-) Lescot, a researcher at the French Museum of Natural History, who had in custody the mummy of Ramses II, the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh (ca. 1279-1213 BC), found out fragments of tobacco leaves in his remains [2-4]. For some reasons, botanists and Egyptologists either ignored the results or decided to do so. Some of them found them rather over-enthusiastic and others dismissed them. For instance, a critique emphasised the need to take into account the post-excavation histories of the studied mummies. Tobacco, it was noted, was used in antiquity for its insecticidal properties while others contend that it is “more likely to have had a recent origin during conservation”[5]. Finally, the possibility of tobacco use by the time the mummies were prepared collided with the official history of that plant supposed to be unknown in Africa and the Old Word in general before Columbus’ discovery.

2. Second Stage (Identification of Drugs and Nicotine in Egyptian Mummies)

This stage refers to the emergence of a German team led by Svetlana Balabanova. In a short communication published in 1992 and titled “First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies”, the corresponding scientists, from the University of Ulm and the Institute for Anthropology and Human Genetics in Munich, examined nine Egyptian mummies (ca. 1070 BC to AD 395), among them that of Henut Taui (Lady of the Two Lands) from the 21st Dynasty. Balabanova_SvetlaThey reported the discovery of substances such as cocaine and cannabis (whose active principle is TetraHydroCannabinol, abbr. THC) in hair, soft tissues and bones in all of them and nicotine in all but one [6]. Anthropologist John Sorenson emphasised that such traces included cotinine, “a chemical whose presence means that the tobacco had been consumed and metabolized while the deceased person was alive”[7]. Samuel Wells, another critical observer, pointed out that the levels of the detected substances did not suggest an abuse of the latter, bearing in mind that the concentration of a substance always grows through time in the body tissues [8].


Interestingly, Rosalie David, curator of the Museum of Egyptology in Manchester (UK) went to Munich where the mummies were tested although, for some reason, she was not allowed to examine them by herself. In these conditions, the possibility of faked mummies was raised but discarded by Wells who pointed out that: “the mummies were preserved with packages of their viscera inside. Some even contained images of the gods. In addition the state of mummification itself was very good.  The isolated heads may have been fakes (evidence one way or the other is lacking) but the intact bodies examined in Balabanova’s research were clearly genuine “[8]. The above curator also decided to have samples from her own mummies tested and eventually found in them tobacco traces too. Some critiques assumed that some plant materials, including tobacco, were utilized, at a more or less remote date, as insecticides in the mummification process”[5]. In further studies, Balabanova et al also found the three same substances in Peruvian mummies (200-1500 AD) [9-10]. Interestingly, the scientists compared their levels with those reported in the hair of drug users in Germany. The values were similar. Neither bone material from the South German Bell culture (also tested) nor from Sudan (id.) contained cocaine or cannabis. The team concluded that “the methods will allow reconstruction of socio-anthropological aspects of drug use (e.g., to motivate the workforce), socio-political aspects (e.g., use of drugs in selected classes, political heads, priests), and use of drugs for analgesia”[10].

Balabanova and her colleagues have comprehensively surveyed a wide range of the literature of diverse disciplines [11]. They also found significant nicotine and cotinine levels in “five of eight naturally preserved cadavers from Guangxi state in Southern China, dating some 3750 BC—thus, significantly earlier than the oldest Egyptian mummies […] The cotinine indicated ante-mortem use of the source of the alkaloid, not external contamination […] Nicotiana is known to have been used medicinally in China during the last few centuries”[12]. Then, the researchers have come up with further evidence of drugs in more mummies from Egypt [13-14].

3. Third STAGE (The Controversy and the Reviews of Scientific Evidence)

The third stage relates to the hot scientific controversy triggered by the German team’s findings. Once again, although more vehemently, rebuttals discarding the possibility of an early use of cocaine and nicotine in Egypt were published. Their main point was that the coca and tobacco plants are not African but American. Furthermore, the possibility of a Pre-Columbian transfer of these plants from one continent to the other was systematically ruled out. Yet, the researchers in Germany had adopted a fully scientific watchful approach to their revolutionary discovery. Their credentials were also strong. Dr Balabanova, for instance, has a professional background of forensic physician so that she defended her data in an extremely cautious way. Wells stresses that they have used and confirmed their findings with accepted methods [8].

Fortunately, the two “sides” of the controversy have, at almost similar dates, offered thorough recapitulations of facts and honest scientific discussions. Three main independent reviews, as far as tobacco is concerned, are of a particular interest.

Review 1Samuel Wells (from the USA) has produced an article which, although not formally published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal, has been intensively cited in the related literature [8].  It is of great value notably because it discusses the chemical aspects of the debate (particular analytical techniques) and then dares confront the German findings with those of solid anthropological research on early transoceanic voyages.

Review 2Buckland & Panagiotakopulu (B&P, from the UK) have critically reviewed the archaeological and museum research aspects of the issue. In particular, they note that many authors “have failed to appreciate the post-excavation histories of artefacts, including mummies”[5]. They discuss the presence of tobacco in the mummy of Ramses II and also, interestingly, that of a “tobacco beetle” named Lasioderma serricorne. The latter led to intense speculations because “it was assumed that the species was associated with Nicotiana tabacum, yet despite widespread earlier cultivation of tobacco, the species was first recorded in the United States in 1886, and has several congeners, largely feeding on thistles in the Old World”[5]. However, Sorenson, citing the very source for the first report in the United States, informs that “two other species of beetles that infested Egyptian mummies (Alphitobius diaperinus and Stegobium paniceum) have also been found in mummies in Peru so that “intentional voyages across an ocean were involved in these transfers”[7]. B&P cites research suggesting that “the tobacco found in the mummy of Ramses II was used in antiquity for its insecticidal properties” though they tend to think themselves that it may have a more recent origin in connection with the conservation process during the 19th century. The two scientists also doubt upon the evidence for both cannabis and cocaine in ancient Egypt [5].

Review 3John Sorenson and Carl Johannessen (S&J, from the USA) have studied in depth, building in particular upon a thorough past and regularly updated review of the world literature in several languages, the anthropological consequences of the Balabanova group’s findings [15]. Unsurprisingly, they are very critical of B&P’s review and would recommend two other ones: the first by Pollmer (in the German language) and the second by Stephen Jett assumedly summarised in their exhaustive work [16-17]. For S&J: “examination of an extensive literature has revealed conclusive evidence that nearly one hundred species of plants, a majority of them cultivars, were present in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres prior to Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. The evidence comes from archaeology, historical and linguistic sources, ancient art, and conventional botanical studies […] This distribution could not have been due merely to natural transfer mechanisms, nor can it be explained by early human migrations to the New World via the Bering Strait route […] The only plausible explanation for these findings is that a considerable number of transoceanic voyages in both directions across both major oceans were completed between the 7th millennium BC and the European age of discovery[15].

The debate in relation to the German team’s findings immediately took place in the very journal (Naturwissenshaften) in which the scientists had published their work. It took the form a series of “responses” (Letters to the Editor) subsequently published. For example, Wells discusses one authored by Schaffer who argued that “the detection of pharmacologically active substances in mummified material never proves their use prior to death”, adding that “such compounds could have been introduced as part of the mummification process”. The critic then suggests that “(especially) nicotine could have been introduced around the mummy (and subsequently absorbed into its tissue) as an insecticide (being used as a preservative) within relatively modern times [8, 18].

Then, there was also an objection that nicotine could have found its way inside the mummies as a result of what is named today “environmental tobacco smoke”, either by visitors or mummies specialists themselves [8]; what the French tobacco authority names “le tabagisme des archéologues”(“archaeologists’ smoking”)[19]. “According to Schaffer, the only way to show that the compounds were taken into the bodies while they were alive would be to find different concentrations at different distances from the scalp – a procedure not undertaken by the authors [i.e. Balabanova et al]”[18].

Wells also discusses another critique by Schaffer of “Balabanova and colleagues’ findings. The German team might have been the victim of faked mummies: “Apparently people (living in the not too far distant past) believed that mummies contained black tar called bitumen and that it could be ground up and used to cure various illnesses.  In fact the very word ‘mummy’ comes from the Persian ‘mummia’ meaning bitumen. A business seems to have developed wherein recently dead bodies were deliberately aged to appear as mummies and that some of the perpetrators of such deeds were drug abusers”[18]. However, as previously stated, this possibility was dismissed by a specialist of mummies from the Museum of Manchester further to an in-situ mission to the German one. For Wells, this assumption is highly unlikely in almost all cases [8]. This said, instead of Persian, the word “mummy” is also believed to come from Greek “mummia” which means bitumen, one of various elements used for the embalming of corpses [20]. The Embalming Ritual would reveal that “menen” (i.e. bitumen) was a key element for the preparation of mummies [21]. It was used to fill the cranium, pin the thorax and the anointing (unction) of the back and lower limbs [22].

Finally, Wells warns that the most popular criticism is that the cocaine, nicotine and cannabis found in the mummies would be products of necro(bio)chemical processes, put forward once again by Schaffer: “One explanation is that Egyptian priests used tropine-alkaloid-containing plants during the mummification process that subsequently underwent changes in the mummy to resemble the identified compounds”[8, 18]. For Wells, the benefit of the doubt in this case goes to Balabanova et al [8]. In response to the same argument, S&J, citing Balabanova and colleagues (1995)[12], reminds that more than 60 kinds of wild tobacco plant forms are known in the world. They add that “it seems possible” that “in past centuries nicotine was used in medicine. Or nicotine may have entered the picture as a secondary alkaloid in some other plants. Thus, e.g., in Withania somnifera, family nightshade, in the levels (sic) of Prunus ceresus, family Rosaceae, in the Narcisse, family amaryllidaceae, etc. Use of these plants [not demonstrated, of course] “may” be followed by accumulation of nicotine in the body. Also, possibly imported. E.g., Withania somnifera is the best-known drug in ancient India”[15]. Wells’ review is in agreement with the anthropological consequences of these findings: the existence of early Pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages. Once they are reconstructed” by anthropologists with others of not less importance (about similar plants, clothes, etc., to be found on several continents), “significant evidence exists for contact with the Americas in Pre-Columbian times”[8]. Indeed, one such plant which could serve as an example is the custard apple. Indian botanists have recently found that Carbon 14 dated samples “pushes back the antiquity of custard apple on Indian soil to the 2nd millennium B.C.”[23].

4. Fourth and Last Stage (New Findings of Most Recent Scientific Research)

The fourth and last stage of the issue of the relation of Pre-Columbian mummies to tobacco use is reflected in the findings of the most recent research on nicotine in mummies. Further tests were published in 2009 by another German team in the wake of a multi-disciplinary original exhibition of 70 mummies from several parts of the world (Egypt, South America and Asia) which took two place two years earlier at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museen (Mannheim, Germany). The team comprised Musshoff and Madea from the Institute of Forensic Medicine (Bonn, Germany) and Rosendahl from the very museum.  The scientists analysed hair samples of eight Pre-Columbian mummies using modern routine gas chromatographic–mass spectrometric techniques [24].


No substances other than nicotine were found this time. The alkaloid levels reached 57.5ng/mg and 11.4 ng/mg in the hair of two female mummies (from Peru/Argentina: one of both was radiocarbon dated to 1095 +/- 50 A.D.) and 14.1 ng/mg in that of a child (Peruvian Chancay culture, radiocarbon dated to 1415 +/- 16 A.D.). Interestingly, no trace of cotinine was detected. The latter, as a nicotine metabolite, is widely used to assess with precision tobacco use among today’ smokers since the presence of the main alkaloid (nicotine) may also reflect contamination or superficial consumption [24, 25].


Musshoff et al stress that “the target analysis was performed with limits of detection of 0.04 ng/mg for nicotine and 0.033 ng/mg for cotinine” and that “the washing solutions yielded negative results for both analytes, nicotine as well as cotinine”[24]. They add that the nicotine concentrations found were similar to those reported in cases of (today’s) active smokers. However, one should always keep in mind that in the ancient world of the mummies, cigarettes –which are generally associated with smoke inhalation and regular use- were unknown. Tobacco was chewed, snuffed or smoked in cigars, (dry and water) pipes and quite often in a recreational or ritual way.

This is where present-day research on “drugs” in Pre-Columbian mummies stands so far. While the Balabanova group’s findings elicited a wide range of speculations, the latest results by Musshoff et al, in spite of the low number of tested samples, are less “enthusiastic”. Notably, they stress that the most complex decontamination procedures do not completely rule out the possibility that drugs enter hair, particularly damaged hair, from external sources [24].

PART II: Early Transoceanic (Africa/America) Pre-Columbian Voyages: Diffusionist vs. Isolationist (Evolutionist) Positions

In the debate over the origin of nicotine (in particular) in Pre-Columbian mummies, few experts have noted that the diffusion properties of cocaine and nicotine are quite different from each other. In fact this is an argument supporting the actuality of early contacts between both the Ancient and New worlds, according to Pr Molimard [19]. If, as official history states, tobacco smoking would have remained unknown to the Ancient World before Colombus brought it back from the Americas by the end of the 15th century, a first consequence is that all forms of smoking (particularly “dry” pipes), as “cultural inventions”, were transferred to the rest of the world by the Europeans. A second consequence is that there would not have been such things as native African pipes. Even water pipes would fall within this historical interpretative framework. They would be at the best a sort of “local” evolution of the pipes brought by Europeans to Africa and Asia.

Such a position could be termed “isolationist”, as opposed to the “diffusionist” one which implies that Pre-Columbian contacts actually took place and, from there, peoples have exchanged cultural traits and inventions between each other. For instance, diffusionists naturally claim that the spread of such a technique as tobacco smoking actually took place (and thus, involved contacts between peoples) in ancient (here Pre-Columbian) times and has followed various parallel patterns. Such a possibility is strongly rejected by isolationists (evolutionists) who contend that such uses appeared or were invented in one given place of the globe and from there spread to other regions through an evolutionist process.

For example, such a smoking method as the (“dry”) short pipe would have evolved from South America to which it would be exclusively native (ex-nihilo invention). In a broad perspective (embracing all cultural traits and inventions), this debate actually took place in the 19th century when the anthropology discipline saw the light. The issue at stake was to know whether or not human cultures (in particular material culture) developed through an evolution scheme or randomly at different historical moments. Scholars specialising in anthropology have stressed that one cannot always be sure that a given invention is the product of a given culture [26].

1. The Mysterious Water Pipe

Neander_1626__Let us now take another interesting example: that of water pipes because these artefacts did trigger a relevant debate as early as 1622, when tobaccology, the scientific discipline whose object is tobacco and its use, was launched by a physician named Johann Neander [27]. Unfortunately, it has stayed dormant for centuries until a French scholar brought it back to life and gave it a tremendous impetus against the background of a growing interest in tobacco smoking by the last quarter of the 21st century [28]. In his book (in Latin), Neander offered the first human representation of water pipes of the Persian type in use as early as 1622. Two original drawings show pipes with a screw thread offering per se an extra argument supporting the fact that man could not have developed such sophisticated devices within a few years between 1605, the arbitrarily “official” birth date (in India) of the hookah, according to a flawed World Health Organisation report, and 1622 [29-31]. Even Berthold Laufer, an authoritative scholar in the field of tobacco anthropology (particularly, its spread across the world), showed that he had been surprised by the technical complexity of the smoking contraption [32]. The advocates of the “official” account actually relied on an anecdote according to which Abul-Fath, a physician to the Court of Indian Emperor Akbar, would have figured out a way to render tobacco (recently arrived in India) less harmful (not “harmless”) to the monarch by making smoke pass through water [29]. However, they failed to mention the archaeological discovery of water pipe bowls dug out in an Ethiopian cave and radiocarbon dated to one century before Columbus [30, 33-34]. In a further broad reflection, Van der Merwe contends that the smoking habit in Africa long preceded the arrival of tobacco and that “various materials were smoked, of which cannabis was the most common”. The scientist cites a “cylinder pipe from Botswana at ca. A.D. 750, confirmed elbow pipes of fired clay from Zambia at ca. A.D. 1200” and, of course, the above-mentioned water pipe”. He concludes that “Arab maritime traders probably introduced the habit to Africa in the 1st millennium A.D.”[35].

Interestingly, Spanish archaeologists have recently found in Ethiopia a water pipe base “made in beautifully worked red stone”, speculating that the contraption arrived there a few decades earlier”[36]. In India Ashraf mentions a temple in Himachal Pradesh dated to A.D. 1422-1424 confirming, archaeologically, the use of the hookah (huqqa) by that time. The early prohibition of tobacco smoking in the Sikh religion (likely the only one in the world to explicity ban this product) supports the argument that “there would be no prohibition without the practice being common”[37]. Anthropologist Kehoe goes so far as stating that “tobacco may have been one of the exotic mystical plants smoked in hookah in India for at least two thousand years”[38]. Literary research also shows that tobacco smoking in a qalyan (one type of Persian water pipes) is described in a poem by Shirazi dated 1535, i.e. some six decades before the “official” arrival of tobacco in Asia [34, 39-40].

This complexity (from an anthropological standpoint) of the water pipe led Dunhill to assume the existence, in the Ancient World, of a smoking method that would have pre-existed the discovery of the New World [41]. Once again, such a viewpoint collides with those who contend that cannabis began to be smoked only when tobacco and its instruments (pipes) appeared outside America at the dawn of the 17th century. This last argument was termed “diffusionist” by African ethno-archaeologist Ossa Mvondo who has authored a 1000 page doctoral thesis on the subject [42-43]. In fact, this scientist meant the denial of a local invention of smoking in Africa (which actually would fall within the diffusionist paradigm). In particular, similar arguments by Thurstan Shaw would have paralysed research in relation to local African pipes: “for about thirty years, the study of African archaeological pipes has collided with problems related to the persistence of diffusionist theories on one hand and, on the other, the chronologic postulate of 1600 A.D., as the beginning of their introduction in Africa. These two elements have hampered the development of archaeological thought, and actually became stagnation, regression and inertia factors for African archaeology…»[43-44]. Philips warned that some researchers have actually paid little attention to Thurstan Shaw’s observations that pipes from Western Africa were similar to those of American Indians whereas some of the latter would be absent on the first continent [34, 44-45]. Philips also reported that according to Shaw, it was John Hawkins, a famous English privateer of the second half of the 16th century, who would have introduced tobacco and pipes to Western Africa [44-45].

As an example of epistemological obstacles related to the question of the mysterious origins of the water pipe, the French “Encyclopédie du tabac”, prepared by half a hundred experts from various scientific disciplines, reports (free transl.) that the cooling and partial absorption of tobacco smoke by water is neither of American or European origin. It was invented in Africa. In the latter, smoking cannabis (dakka=cannabis) is very old and we know few things about the evolution of the dakka pipe itself. In the Zambeze region, calabashes (gourd) contained water and in the Kalahari, where wood is not available, water pipes had bowls made of stone. In any case, when the Dutch founded Cape Town by 1652, dakka pipes were being smoked everywhere. Once tobacco found its ways, it was mixed to hashish [1]. It appears that according to such a an « official » evolutionist representation, the water pipe would have been a particular form of the « European » « dry » pipe that local populations would have adopted and adapted [34].

2. Ethnographic and Linguistic Investigation

Arguments supporting the diffusionist paradigm, particularly in relation to tobacco use, heavily and usefully draw on ethnographic and linguistic investigation. In southern Africa, Brian Du Toit has studied the dagga (cannabis, spelt “dakka” elsewhere) pipe. He has observed how this pipe seemed to be connected with the use of this substance throughout the whole African sub-continent, across regions, socio-economical strata and linguistic affiliations. Thus from Natal, to Zaire, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, be they Bugakwe, Zulus, Swazi, Sandawe, Bambuti, Venda, all these peoples would have smoked cannabis and/or tobacco in water pipes based on calabashes (gourds). The most likely hypothesis is that Bantu-speaking black people along the east coast, from Lamu to the Zambezi, had contact with Arabs who smoked bangi, believed to have been introduced from India. As the Bantu took up the custom of smoking cannabis, they also adopted the water-pipe and referents which underwent linguistic adaptation »[34, 46]. However, Philips pointed out that cannabis, in Asian Muslim societies was consumed through digestion rather than inhaled before the supposedly “official” arrival of the water pipe by the 17th century: « Ethnographic reports are fairly consistent in maintaining that cannabis in Africa is exclusively smoked, while tobacco is snuffed or chewed as often as not »[45]. From there, according to Philips, Dunhill’s hypothesis of an African origin would be more plausible. As emphasised before, Dunhill actually asked from the beginning how it was possible to figure out a smoking method so different from that of the Europeans supposed to have brought tobacco use in Africa [34, 41].

Du Toit also noted that researchers and explorers such as Henry Lichtenstein (1928) or G.S. Nienaber (1963) even doubted that that the world “dagga” could be found in the Bushmen (“Hottentots”)’s language and therefore be ingrained in the local environment. For Meinhof, citing the latter, it would derive from the Arabic word for (tobacco) smoke/smoking: “duhan” [34, 46]. The Arabic word for the plant is “tabgh”. An Antikitera article points out that the very action of smoking, in various parts of Africa, including Western Sudan, and long before Columbus, was described as “tubaq”. This word would have been in use in several African dialects with varying spellings: taba, tabgha, tawa, tama, etc. [47]. Interestingly, in the latter country, the word “tumbak( toombak)” is still used nowadays to describe a local variety of smokeless tobacco [48]. The word “tabaco” would have been used by Pre-Columbian populations of the Carribbean for the same purpose [47]… Leo Wiener, a scholar of the early 20th century, contended that tobacco smoking found its ways from America into Africa long before Columbus [34, 49]. He inspired Ivan Van Sertima who argued that African men actually lived in America by then and brought back from there techniques such as tobacco smoking [50]. Wiener also claimed that forms of the word “tubaq” are found in Semitic and Sanskrit and that the Náhuatl and Tarascan words for tobacco and pipe come from Arabic. He was criticised by Dixon for whom tobacco would be exclusively American [15, 49, 51-52]. Nadkarni explicitly refers to the Sanskrit name [15, 53].

According to Ashraf (cited by S&J): “Hikmat, or Tibb-e-Unani (Greco Arab Medicine), along with Ayurveda, were the two dominant schools of medicine before the advent of modern medicine. It was practiced all over India. In that system, tobacco was one of the important plants used as a cure for a number of diseases. One of the earliest mentions of “tanbaku”, or tobacco, as a medicinal plant is found in a collection of prescriptions titled “Majmua-e-Ziai”, penned by the court-physician of Muhannad-bin-Tughlaq of the Delhi Sultanate. It is dated 737 AH (AD 1329). This manuscript mentions use of tobacco as a component of a compound preparation, “nás”, used for a number of diseases [] “Tanbaku” falls in the category of names identical in Persian and Sanskrit. Hence, we suspect the tobacco tradition goes much further back than the 14th century. That is confirmed by another medieval source, a Persian translation of a Sanskrit classic of Ayurvedic medicine, completed AD 1512. “We find mention of tobacco in traditional Indian medicine of a period almost a millennium before the discovery of the New World and the introduction of tobacco into Europe.” Not only Indian but European practitioners of Greco-Arab medicine who were residing in India and were familiar with Indian traditions of both medicine and culture, considered tobacco to be native to India and not an introduction”[15, 37].

In the same vein, the Antikitera paper states that in their use of tobacco in medicine (as Americans had been doing for a series of diseases), Africans/Arabs would toast or dry the leaves, then press them in bricks and finally burn them all together with wood charcoal. This would represent a striking difference with Amerindian practices in which people would dry and roll tobacco leaves to smoke them (perhaps also in Egypt). Tobacco would have also been used as coins, named “taba” in a local language of Darfur (Sudan [47]. The tobacco plant would be mentioned in a medical treaty of the Middle Ages authored by Ibn al-Baitar (1197-1248) in his “Corpus of Simples (Al-Qanun fi t-Tibb – The Canon of Medicine)… Ibn Sina (Avicenna) would have described the plant as a type of tree as tall a man which grows in group in the Mecca mountain, having long tapered green leaves which slip and get squashed between fingers [47, 54]. According to Jeffreys, cited by S&J, tobacco was there in Africa before any Iberian influence and is likely to be attributed to Arabs [15, 55]. Finally, La Rosa has pointed out that there would be clues for the “slow smoking” habit in Syria, a country known for its antique close links with Egypt. (free transl. from Italian) The analysis of antique low-reliefs would show that Phoenicians seafarers had “learnt” how to breathe in smoke. The first Spanish explorer in the Caribbean found tribes using Y-shaped pipes that they introduced in their nostrils. Since tobacco had also been used for medical purposes, it is necessary to mention here the sacred use of tobacco by shamans. The latter would have used clysters filled with resins and it is believed that the changes in consciousness states were the results of high nicotine concentrations. Tobacco was also chewed just as coca leaves to stop hunger [56]. Interestingly, one of the Southern American mummies submitted to computer tomography in the most recent German study, displayed symptoms of tuberculosis and was positively tested positive for nicotine. The researchers did not rule out the possibility that such a mummy participated in a ceremony involving the performance of a shaman”[24]…


Smoking or breathing in and out smoke (not necessarily tobacco) before Columbus is fairly documented in historical records. For instance, an Assyrian cylinder of the 6th century B.C. shows a king inhaling smoke through a tube connected with a round bowl. In Ireland and Denmark, tools very similar to today’s pipes were found in Celtic tombs. These artefacts may have been designed for the purpose of inhaling some herbs. However, renowned scholars point out that a type of wild yellow-flowered tobacco plant, which may turn to be a variety of Nicotiana rustica (vs. Nicotiana tabacum, that of the New World), has been documented in China (Gan Su province) as early as 225 A.D. [19, 57]. The origins of Nicotiana tabacum cultivation would be obscure and it would likely be a hybrid of Nicotiana sylvestris, Nicotiana tomentosiformis and another species (perhaps Nicotiana otophora) deliberately selected by humans “a long time ago”, according to Jochmans [58]. B&P note that whilst the family Solanaceae is rather universal, the genus Nicotiana is a Nearctic, Neotropical and Australasian genus. However, a South-West African species has actually been described in the literature [5]. To put these arguments in a nutshell, a variety of forest tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) would have been widespread across Africa long before Columbus. The research methodology of the German team which found drugs and nicotine in Egyptian mummies proved to be irreproachable. In these conditions, wouldn’t it be the very idea -that these substances actually found their way from the New World to Egypt long before Columbus- which would not be acceptable to some people [8]? Yet, archaeological discoveries (particularly water pipes radiocarbon dated centuries before Columbus), linguistic facts (such as striking similarities between words describing the tobacco plant and the very action of smoking in both the New and Old Worlds), anthropological analyses (of similar fauna, flora, clothes, fabrics, ships, genes, etc. in Africa, Asia and America), all tend to confirm the actuality of Pre-Columbian voyages across the oceans. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that anthropological research led by separate teams from the USA, South Africa and Tunisia, unfailingly agree on this point.


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Warning: This article is republished from the original source: the Tabaccologia scientific journal, a peer-reviewed biomedical publication from Italy. The proper citation is as follows:

Kamal Chaouachi. Did pre-Columbian mummies smoke tobacco ? Evidence in the light of most recent tobaccological & anthropological findings [Una revisione critica degli elementi di prova ala luce delle conclusioni tabaccologiche e antropologiche più recenti]. Tabaccologia 2012;1-2:31-46.

Note: title and captions by Editors of the journal, not by the author. (Original proposed title: “Tobacco Smoking Mummies?”) (full related issue of the Tabaccologia journal)

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