Image: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons.

Nicotine: an ancient addiction?

Image: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons.

It must be terribly depressing if you don’t have plants in your life to give you purpose and a reason to get up in the morning, put digit to keyboard, or whatever. Still, for those who are intellectually botanically bereft, there is always one plant-derived stimulant or another to fill the void. And most of those in use have been exploited by man for a long time. But for how long have ‘we’ been using such phytological pick-me-ups as crutches to prop up our humdrum lives?

Well, a rather long time in the case of nicotine, according to work by Dmitri Zagorevski et al. Using GCMS (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry) and LCMS (liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry) they detected the presence of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask (from approx. 700 AD/CE). Tellingly, clues to the former contents of the now-empty container were its inscription, which translates as ‘the home of its/his/her tobacco’. Still, in accordance with a true sceptical scientific approach, the flask’s residues were duly examined and the presence of nicotine (which addictive alkaloid is famously found in tobacco) was proved. Interestingly, if rather circularly, this independent hi-tech ‘proof of contents’ apparently constitutes only the second case to confirm that the text on the exterior of a Mayan vessel corresponds to its ancient use(!).

Presumably, this also represents evidence that even if you live in a supposed sub-tropical paradise like olden-days southern Mexico, you may still seek distraction and abstraction by indulging in the occasional bit of alkaloid abuse. And perhaps modern-day Mayans will choose to puff away on a cheroot as the world ends on 21st December 2012 (according to pessimism connected with the misunderstanding that the ancient Mayan calendar ‘runs out’ on that date), and – hopefully! – still be doing so on the 22nd of December, 2012 in relief that the world didn’t end… [This was written before the 21st December 2012. If you’re reading this item after that date, count yourselves lucky! – Ed.]

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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