The earliest evidence of opium use in the ancient world was discovered at a burial site in central Israel dating to around the 14th century BC, during the Late Bronze Age.
Residue of the narcotic, which is made from the seed capsules of the poppy plant, was found inside more than half of the 3,500-year-old vessels at the site, which is located in Tel Yehud just outside Tel Aviv, an area in the past. Known as Canaan.
archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Weizmann Institute of Science discovered the pit tomb during an excavation in 2012. However, they found the opium pottery, along with the skeletal remains of a man who died between 40 and 50 years old, on the return of the excavation in 2017, according to a study published July 2 in the journal Archaeometry (opens in new tab).
After testing 22 storage jars and juglets using chemical analysis, researchers discovered that eight of the ceramic containers contained traces of the highly addictive drug. Of the pieces that tested positive, several resembled the bulbous shape of an inverted poppy capsule. Some of the vessels were imported from the island of Cyprus, located west of Tel Yehud, the researchers determined, noting clay bands on the long-necked vessels and other characteristic decorations associated with vessels from that region.
According to a study in Nature (opens in new tab)the opium poppy was “present from at least the mid-sixth millennium in the Mediterranean, where it probably grew naturally and was cultivated by pioneer Neolithic communities.”
Related: Ancient hangover prevention ring found in Israel
“There was a hypothesis in 2017 that because some of the jugs looked like poppies, that they might contain opium,” Vanessa Linares, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University and lead author of the study, told Live Science. “We found that this was the case and that opium was contained in some of the ships.”
While it’s not clear why opium was part of this particular burial, Linares said researchers have several theories based on historical documentation from other ancient cultures around the world.
“According to the historical and written record, we see that the Sumerian priests used opium to reach a higher state of spirituality, while the Egyptians he kept opium for warriors as well as priests, probably using it not only to have a psychoactive effect but also for medical procedures, as its main compound is morphine, which is used to help with pain,” Linares said.
“Maybe it was also there as an offering for the gods and maybe they thought the deceased would need it in the afterlife,” he added. “I think we can make a lot of guesses and suggestions as to why it was there.”
Originally published in Live Science.