The tobacco beetle in Egyptian mummies - Ethno biology supports transatlantic interactions by early humans

Dominique Görlitz

One of the main questions in respect to modern archaeology is whether the earliest civilizations of the Old World had cultural interactions with the pre-Columbian people of the New World. Findings from remains of the tobacco plant 'Nicotiana tabacum' L. and its main pest 'Lasioderma serricorne' Fab. inthe tomb of Tutankhamen have added further arguments for such a transoceanic exchange before Columbus.

In the attempt to put the emotional as well as ideological disputes about ancient transatlantic contacts on a more scientific fundament, the author wants to examine this paradigmatic subject with new results of invasion biology and archaeoentomology.

The question of whether tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), a plant native to the Americas, was found in ancient Egypt cannot be solved by geobotanical data alone. Of course, fragments of tobacco were found over 32 years ago in the abdominal cavity of the mummy of Ramses II in Paris 1976 (Layer-Lescot 1985). Over the intervening years, an extensive literature has arisen about the results of this discovery. In 1992, forensic scientists in Germany used sophisticated instrumentation to examine Egyptian mummies in order to learn more about the ancient use of hallucinogenic or narcotic substances. They found chemical residues of tobacco, cocaine and hashish in the hair, soft tissues, skin and bones of mummies, including metabolically processed derivatives of the drugs, signifying that the drugs were ingested while the subjects were alive. However, none of this evidence has ever convinced Egyptologists that the ancient Egyptians had a certain access to these shamanic and narcotic plants of the New World.

The core of the controversy is of course that, according to the standard paradigm of plant geography, tobacco 'should not' have appeared in Egypt at all or anywhere else in the Old World until after Columbus. The majority of scholars still hold the opinion that the presence of these alkaloids is neither the result of neither contaminations by tobacco-smoking cave robbers nor the existence of relict-endemedic species in the prehistoric Africa. These controversial discussions are completely overlooking the findings of the tobacco beetles in Ramses II as well as in the cave of Tutankhamen. This insect is clearly a Neozoon and has its genetic origin exclusively in the Americas before Columbus. New studies about the long distance dispersal of 'Nicotiana tabacum' and experiments in respect to the seaworthiness of pre-Egyptian rafts on the North Atlantic deliver new evidencen for the hypothesis than that 'N. tabacum' and its pest 'Lasioderma serricorne' were already introduced into the Old World by transatlantic voyagers in antiquity.