In March this year Chile became the 14th country in Latin Americas to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces. Authorities there are hoping to wean the nation of heavy smokers off nicotine but they are fighting a long history of tobacco use. A new study of Chilean mummies reveals the Chilean nicotine habit that goes back centuries.
SANTIAGO, CHILE (JULY 03, 2013) (REUTERS) - Smoking is a major part of Chilean culture, but it's nothing new. In fact, Chileans have been craving the nicotine buzz for centuries, according to new studies of mummies from Chile's Atacama Desert.
Indigenous cultures in the South American nation were consuming nicotine and other plant-derived hallucinogenic substances from 100 B.C. to 1450 A.D., according to a new report by scientists at theUniversity of Chile.
"We study mummies attached to the formative period, the middle period and also the late intermediate, that's to say, mummies that were approximately from the year 200 after Christ, until approximately 1400 -- 1300 after Christ. And during all that period there were mummies whose hair contained nicotine," Niemeyer said.
The Atacama Desert naturally mummifies bodies, thanks to the extreme dryness and salinity of the soil and high temperatures. The preserved remains allow scientists to get a glimpse into their lives and cultures.
Tobacco is thought to be native to the Andes, and pre-Colombian American cultures have reportedly been using nicotine since prehistoric times for religious ceremonies, medicine and even recreation, according to the scientists. The society smoked tobacco in pipes, and later inhaled ground tobacco.
"They smoked in pipes, the pipes disappeared and so what happened? They consumed tobacco, nicotine, through tablets, that's to say they didn't just inhale Cebil (a drug used in South America) but they also inhaled ground tobacco and that is interesting," Niemeyer said.
In other ancient cultures, the practice of smoking was limited to shamans and higher social classes. But in the Atacama Desert, researchers found that the entire population was getting a nicotine high.
"There weren't only shamans, not only the members of society highest socially or economically perhaps, nor were they particularly men rather than women, but they were members of society who consumed tobacco. Interesting, no, because it started to become a more habitual activity, not necessarily an activity connected with the afterlife and with the spiritual world," Niemeyer said.
It's unknown whether the desert inhabitants suffered negative health effects associated with nicotine -- like lung cancer, emphysema or other illnesses. Due to shorter life spans, the researchers said, any negative effects may not have appeared before their deaths.