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Oldest traces of opium found so far in old cemetery

The psychoactive drug opium has been used by humans since ancient times. Researchers have now found the oldest evidence of this during excavations in Israel. The tracks are 3500 years old.

Israeli researchers have found traces of opium in ceramic vessels at an ancient cemetery about 3,500 years old. It is the earliest known evidence of human opium use, according to a statement released Tuesday by Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The inhabitants of Canaan at the time apparently used the psychoactive drug as an “additive for the dead,” it says.

The ceramic vessels were reportedly found during excavations in Tel Yehud near Tel Aviv. There are Canaanite tombs from the 14th century BC. The barrels of opium “were found to have been used in local funeral rites,” the statement said. “This exciting find confirms historical writings and archaeological assumptions that opium and the opium trade played a central role in Middle Eastern cultures.” So the barrels, some made in Cyprus and others locally, were shaped like a poppy pod.

Ron Beeri of the Antiquities Authority said hundreds of graves dating from the 18th to 13th centuries BC have been discovered in Tel Yehud. Most of the dead are adult men and women. The vessels in the tombs were used for ceremonial meals and rituals. At that time, the dead were seen as taking part in these meals at the grave. It is possible that during such a ceremony relatives would have taken opium themselves in order to become ecstatic “in an attempt to awaken the spirits of their deceased relatives”. Alternatively, it is possible “that the opium placed next to the corpse was intended to help the spirit of the deceased rise from the grave in preparation for meeting loved ones in the next life.”

Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University said it was “the only late Bronze Age psychoactive drug in the Levant.” In 2020, researchers found traces of cannabis on an altar in Tel Arad. However, these date from the Iron Age and were therefore several centuries “younger” than the opium from Tel Jehud. The opium apparently came from present-day Turkey and was brought to Canaan via Cyprus. “This shows the importance placed on the drug,” Linares said.

Article in the journal Archeometry


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