Rensselaer Research Review Winter 2011-12
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Mayan Vessel
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spacer Dmitri Zagorevsk

Dmitri Zagorevski, director of the Proteomics Core in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies

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High Technology Uncovers an Ancient Habit

A scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an anthropologist from the University at Albany teamed up to use ultra-modern chemical analysis technology at Rensselaer to analyze ancient Mayan pottery for proof of tobacco use in the ancient culture. Dmitri Zagorevski, director of the Proteomics Core in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) at Rensselaer, and Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman, a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, have discovered the first physical evidence of tobacco in a Mayan container. Their discovery represents new evidence on the ancient use of tobacco in the Mayan culture and a new method to understand the ancient roots of tobacco use in the Americas.

Their research will appear in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, in an article titled "The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by GCMS and LCMS methods."

In recent years, archaeologists have begun to use chemical analysis of residues from ancient pottery, tools, and even mummies in an attempt to piece together minute clues about ancient civilizations. Among the potential problems with isolating a residue for analysis is preservation and contamination. Many vessels serve multiple purposes during their lives, resulting in muddled chemical data. Once the vessels are discarded, natural processes such as bacteria and water can destroy the surface of materials, erasing important evidence. Additionally, researchers must be attentive to archaeological field handling and laboratory treatment of the artifacts that might lead to cross contamination by modern sources.

To make their discovery, the researchers had a unique research opportunity: a more than 1,300-year-old vessel decorated with hieroglyphics that seemingly indicated the intended contents. Additionally, the interior of the vessel had not been cleaned, leaving the interior unmodified and the residue protected from contamination.

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Scientists Discover the First Physical Evidence of Tobacco
in a Mayan Container
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