Controversy in the past: How did the ancient Egyptians get Nicotine and Cocaine?


Today, many people believe that Christopher Columbus was not the first non-American to set foot in the New World. The Vikings, Chinese, Greeks, and Italians may have all been his predecessors. There is also a belief that ancient Egyptians were in the Americas as far back as 1,000 BC. The reason for their proposed journey is rather surprising.

Dr. Svetla Balabanova made a shocking find while examining the mummy of a member of the ancient Egyptian elite – traces of nicotine and cocaine . The question soon arose: How did Lady Henut Taui have access to elements from the tobacco and coca plants about 3,000 years ago?

The curious aspect is that these plants are believed to have only grown in the Americas at the time – they weren’t exported across the ocean until the 19th century. The confusion led researchers to wonder if the mummy was fake or the tests were contaminated. However, a thorough analysis of the results show that they were authentic. Does this mean the ancient Egyptians had reached the Americas?

An examination in the 1970s of the mummy of Ramesses II revealed fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Archaeological findings show that Egyptians were adept at navigating the seas. For example, Queen Hatshepsut is known to have funded an expedition to the mysterious Land of Punt around 1477 BC. A relief depicting the journey has been found at Deir el-Bahri (in modern day Luxor). That mural shows large ships packed with men, gold, trees, and exotic animals. The flora and fauna shown in the artwork is thought to have existed along the coasts of African and the Arabian Peninsula. These findings show that the ancient Egyptians could complete some longer oceanic voyages.

Members of Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the mysterious ‘Land of Punt’ from this pharaoh’s elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. ( CC BY 2.0 )

A 2011 discovery made on the Red Sea coast, furthered the belief in the seafaring capacity of the ancient Egyptians. An archaeologist working in a dried-up lagoon came across the ruins of an ancient harbor. Timber, rigging, reed mats, steering oars, cedar planks, and limestone anchors were all unearthed.

Original knots which were joining the main pieces of the Khufu Boat. The cedar timbers of the boat’s curved hull were lashed together with hemp rope in a technique used until recent times by traditional shipbuilders on the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. (kairoinfo4u/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

Possible evidence of an unproven Egyptian voyage to the Americas has been found in the Marble Region of the Grand Canyon. The Arizona Gazette reported on April 5, 1909 that two explorers funded by the Smithsonian found various Egyptian artifacts, including tablets with hieroglyphics, inside caves.

The problem is the Smithsonian has no known records of the discovery. That find would provide strong evidence to support the belief ancient Egyptians reached the Americas – though it may also be considered inconvenient by some groups to go against the story of the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, as it could drastically alter perceptions of events and the celebration of traditions such as Columbus Day .

Egyptian tomb painting from 1450 BC. Caption: “Officer with sounding pole…is telling crew to come ahead slow. Engineers with cat-o’-nine-tails assuring proper response from engines.” (Public Domain )

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