Rameses II and the Tobacco Beetle

By Buckland, P. C.; Panagiotakopulu, E. | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Rameses II and the Tobacco Beetle


Buckland, P. C., Panagiotakopulu, E., Antiquity


Introduction

The recent publication of an extensive review of Egyptian trade and industry (Nicholson & Shaw 2000) revives a biogeographic conundrum, which should have been laid to rest over a decade ago. In her chapter on mummification, Rosalie David (2000) refers to the presence of Nicotiana sp. and Anthemideae [sic] in the abdominal cavity of Rameses II, as plant substances utilized in the preservation process by the ancient Egyptians. Both were discovered during the re-examination of his mummy in Paris in 1976, the former as comminuted fragments of leaf and the latter as massive amounts of pollen ([is greater than] 500,000 grains/cc) (Layer-Lescot 1985; Leroi-Gourhan 1985). The evidence for Nicotiana, tobacco, was published in 1978 (Anon. 1978), and later with the entomological data from the mummy by Steffan (1982). The refusal of the Egyptian authorities to permit the removal of a sample for a radiocarbon date only served to fuel the controversy of the origins of tobacco in the Old World (cf. Castello 1983). Whilst the family Solanaceae is distributed through both the Old and New World, the genus Nicotiana is a Nearctic, Neotropical and Australasian genus (Goodspeed 1954), although Merxmfiller & Buttler (1975) have described a species from southwest Africa. Whilst some botanists suggested that Layer-Lescot's (1985) identification to the generic level was perhaps over-enthusiastic, Paris & Drapier-Laprade (1985) were able to demonstrate the presence in the mummy of the alkaloid nicotine by gel chromatography and electrophoresis. Whilst most Egyptologists either did not know of the results or chose to ignore them, a few, and the more popular press, remembering Thor Heyerdahl's successful crossing of the Atlantic on the papyrus raft, Ra II, favoured a direct connection between Egypt and the New World for this exotic substance, whilst others preferred a contact via the longer route through Asia and the Far East. Botanists tended to be more circumspect. Hepper (1990), perhaps mindful of his own find of a maize cob as a contaminant in early Dynastic material from Saqqarah (Hepper 1981), suggested that the comminuted leaves might be snuff, accidentally introduced during the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Such an explanation, however, did not account for the abundant pollen of Anthemidae, Matricariatype, and including the genera Matricaria, Anthemis, and Chrysanthemum, of the original report. Leroi-Gourhan (1985) had suggested that this reflected the pulverized flowerheads of the plant used to make an aromatic oil of camomile employed in the mummification process. Species of this group are widespread weeds in Egypt at the present day (Boulos & el-Hadidi 1984), and the explanation is plausible, but it does not solve the related problem of the presence of Nicotiana leaves in the same samples from Rameses' body cavity.

The tobacco might have been quietly forgotten -- David (1992) does not mention it in her paper reviewing plant and plant products used in mummification -- but for additional evidence obtained from both radioimmunoassay and gas chromatography by Balabanova and others on samples from mummies in the Munich Museum (Balabanova et al. 1992). These showed the presence of nicotine, and its metabolized derivative cotinine, in hair, soft tissue and bone, and this was initially interpreted as evidence for the use of tobacco during the lives of the individuals sampled, not necessarily by direct use in smoking, for which there is no pictorial or epigraphic evidence, but perhaps by its use in fumigation (Balabanova et al. 1993). (These authors also note that Alfieri (1931) had found `coleoptera of tabac' in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and whilst he makes nothing of this, they go on to suggest, `In the first clays after burial, the insects devoured the tobacco leaves then died.'!) Steffan (1982) had also found the `tobacco beetle', Lasioderma serricorne L. (Coleoptera, Anobiidae) in the mummy of Rameses II, a point not lost on Balabanova et al. …

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