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Scientists discover earliest remnants of opium use

Pottery, unearthed in an excavation in Yehud, Israel, with opium residue dating back to 14th century BC, is displayed at the Israel Antiquities Authority lab in Jerusalem on September 20, 2022. A joint study by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science shows the world's earliest evident of opium use by the Canaanites as an offering for the dead. Photo by Debbie Hill UPI | License Photo

Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered the earliest-known residue of opioids, according to research conducted at the University of Tel Aviv published Tuesday.

Researchers found the residue in ceramic vessels discovered at Tel Yehud, a city in the Central District of Israel.

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Excavation was done at the request of the Israel Antiquities Authority, while the research was done in conjunction with the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Scientists found the opium residue inside Canaanite graves, which date back to the 14th century B.C. Researchers believe the drug was used in local burial rituals.

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An organic residue analysis confirmed long-held theories about the opium use. The eight antique vessels it was found inside are similar in shape to the poppy flower.

"This is the only psychoactive drug that has been found in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age. In 2020, researchers discovered cannabis residue on an altar in Tel Arad, but this dated back to the Iron Age, hundreds of years after the opium in Tel Yehud," Tel Aviv University lead researcher Vanessa Linares said in a statement.

"Because the opium was found at a burial site, it offers us a rare glimpse into the burial customs of the ancient world. Of course, we do not know what the opium's role was in the ceremony -- whether the Canaanites in Yehud believed that the dead would need opium in the afterlife, or whether it was the priests who consumed the drug for the purposes of the ceremony."

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There are a number of theories as to the exact use of the drug during burial procedures.

"It may be that during these ceremonies, conducted by family members or by a priest on their behalf, participants attempted to raise the spirits of their dead relatives in order to express a request, and would enter an ecstatic state by using opium," Israel Antiquities Authority faculty member Ron Be'eri said in a statement.

"Alternatively, it is possible that the opium, which was placed next to the body, was intended to help the person's spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life."

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Linares, whose doctoral thesis led to the discovery, said it also lends more insight into the use of the drug outside of burials.

"The discovery sheds light on the opium trade in general. One must remember that opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor -- that is, in the territory of current-day Turkey -- whereas the pottery in which we identified the opium were made in Cyprus. In other words, the opium was brought to Yehud from Turkey, through Cyprus," she said in a statement.

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