Mummies and ‘impossible’ drugs. A new look to the Svetlana Balabanova’s ethnobotanical revisionism

In the 1990s, the Bulgarian chemist Svetlana Balabanova undertook a series of chemical analyses aimed at searching for drugs in almost a thousand human remains from the archaeological sites of four continents. Most of these analyses resulted in findings that were ‘impossible’ from the point of view of the accepted history of drugs, such as the presence of cocaine in Egyptian mummies, derivatives of Cannabis in Peruvian mummies, and nicotine in Eurasian mummies and skeletons; results that contradicted the established knowledge regarding the post-Columbian diffusion of cocaine, hemp and tobacco between the Old and New Worlds. What caused a sensation and brought Balabanova to global prominence were her theses to justify these results, which conjured up transatlantic journeys by the ancient Egyptians to reach South America, with a commercial exchange of coca and hemp, and the presence of native species of tobacco in the Old World. This article presents a review of the Balabanova affair based on a comprehensive consultation of all the publications of this scholar concerning archaeological and ethnobotanical research. Careful observation of the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies present in these studies lead to new deductions, which reveal the strong possibility of falsification of the results of various chemical analyses, and the likelihood that other chemical analyses were never even performed. The publication of the results of these ‘ghost’ researches can be explained by analysing Balabanova’s character, as evidenced by reading her writings on ethnobotanical revisionism which are generally not taken into consideration, and which show how much Balabanova can—and should be—considered a ‘proto-conspiracy theorist’, whose only interest was to ‘alter our cultural history’, at whatever cost.