I remember reading a book some years ago that claimed there was chemical evidence of trans-Atlantic trade in ancient times from traces of cocaine being found in Egyptian mummies. I cannot remember what book this was, or if it was a respected source or a pseudo-historical pack of lies.

Is there an actual scientific study that conducted such an analysis, or is it just another fantasy dreamed up by a hack to mislead the masses?


It turns out that if you hunt hard enough, there is a fragment of a wikipedia page that covers this.

First off, what was found was traces of coca and nicotine in hair from Egyptian mummies by one person. Nobody has ever duplicated the coca find (after multiple attempts), but some other folks have found traces of nicotine in some other mummies.

Its worth noting that none of these samples were exactly controlled specimens. For example, the initial mummy tested had its person and its tomb looted multiple times over hundreds of years. The general consensus at the moment seems to be that these results, if accurate (a big if), probably represent some other local source for nicotine.

The alternative of course would be to postulate that there were transatlantic voyages going on between North America and Africa. The problem there is that nobody at that time had any navigation technology capable of that feat (and wouldn't for nearly 3000 years). Transatlantic voyaging isn't just a matter of one piece of knowledge that someone could have found and forgotten. It takes a whole set of interacting technology.

For now, I'd leave it at the "interesting mystery" category. It'll probably get figured out eventually.

  • Would be curious to learn what constitutes the whole set of interacting technology wrt Transatalntic navigation- but I guess that's outside History SE bounds. +1 – Rajib Feb 17 '14 at 15:25
  • Nicotine might just be from second hand smoke. The Phoenicians were good sailors, but went the other way toward the far east. – Oldcat Feb 21 '14 at 0:41
  • Re: "Transatlantic voyaging isn't just ... one piece of knowledge" : while Thor Heyerdahl didn't prove it had been done, he certainly proved it wasn't totally out of reach. It's a long time since I read the "Ra Expeditions" book but the successful second voyage relied on a rigging detail from an inscription that didn't make sense until the first failure. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_Heyerdahl#Boats_Ra_and_Ra_II – Brian Drummond Feb 23 '14 at 22:38

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