Jan 19, 2021 I Paul Seaburn

How the Maya Got High — Residue Reveals the Secret Ingredient

If you’re of a certain age and get stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation, you soon find out that, despite your denials, they can find out what you were using prior to the offense by inspecting the residue in your ashtray. The ancient Mayas didn’t have cars but were suspected of smoking substances other that their (and other indigenous people on the continent) contribution to lung cancer and heart disease in the rest of the world – tobacco. Lacking ashtrays, researchers had no way of identifying those substances until recently when scientists from Washington State University found 14 miniature Maya ceramic vessels used for storing tobacco. Better yet, there was residue left on the bottom which they were able to analyze, finding two types of tobacco and the Maya non-tobacco drug of choice. If you want to get high like a Maya, pull out your annual seed catalogue, turn to the flowers section and order up an envelope of …

“When you find something really interesting like an intact container it gives you a sense of joy. Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead. There are literally tons of pottery sherds but complete vessels are scarce and offer a lot of interesting research potential.”

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Were they ancient ashtrays?

Before the big reveal, let’s let anthropology postdoctoral student Mario Zimmermann, who led the study published this week in Scientific Reports, brag a little. The first big deal was finding the 14 ceremonial vessels on the outskirts of Mérida where a contractor had uncovered evidence of a Maya archeological site while clearing lands for a new housing complex. Using GPS to divide the area into grids, he and his team searched for mounds and other evidence of artifacts and buried structures. While the 1,000-year-old vessels were uncovered in 2012, it’s taken until now to develop a technique for identifying the elements of the residue in them. (Why didn’t they ask a cop?)

“The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before.”

According to the press release, the new technique identified chemical traces of two types of dried and cured tobacco -- Nicotiana tabacum, the most common tobacco, and N. rustica, a tobacco plant from the east coast of North America, which indicates it may have been obtained in trade rather than grown locally. Finally, the analysis identified a substance believed to have been added to make the tobacco smoking more ‘enjoyable’ -- Mexican or Aztec marigold (Tagetes erecta), a wild plant known to have been used for shamanic rituals and medicinal purposes. But recreational use?

“The presence of residues associated with Mexican marigold is illuminating for the archaeological study of human use of drugs and cultural practices related to ASCs in general. It provides insight into the persistence in use of certain substances that have maintained importance among native communities in the region. Like other indigenous American cultures, Mesoamerican people like the Nahua or Maya appear to have mixed psychoactive substances with other products.”

While the assumed first reason for mixing Mexican marigolds with those harsh ancient tobaccos was smoothness and aroma, achieving ASCs (altered states of consciousness) was probably the second. Today we know marigolds contain substances used in the prevention of eye diseases (macular degeneration and cataracts), hearth disease, pain, indigestion, liver problems, parasites and other problems. Seeing the shamans get results with marigolds, the ancient Mayans no doubt followed the same logic as modern humans – if it works for them, it should work for self-medication, including achieving altered states of consciousness.

As always – kids, don’t try this at home. More research is needed, but science already knows that marigold seeds, rumored to have weak LSD similarities, have far more serious side effects than benefits. And besides that, the cop won’t care where you read about it – residue is residue.

Paul Seaburn
Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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