Want to know whether an ancient Sogdian smoked cannabis or a Viking got high on henbane? A new method, which analyzes drug residue in the tartar of teeth, may soon be able to tell. The method, which found drug traces on 19th century skeletons—and more substances than standard blood tests in 10 recently deceased individuals—could trace humanity’s drug habits back hundreds of thousands of years.

Shannon Tushingham.

It’s a “new frontier,” says archaeologist Shannon Tushingham of Washington State University, Pullman, who investigates ancient tobacco use in North America, but was not involved in the new work.

To study the history of medicines and drugs, most scientists scour smoking pipes and drinking vessels for lingering psychoactive molecules. But analysis of drug-coated artifacts often misses substances like hallucinogenic mushrooms that didn’t need containers. And the artifacts don’t reveal who got buzzed.

Because tartar seems to keep a long-term record of drug intake, it could be used in place of hair samples when criminal investigators need to test for substance use after drugs leave the bloodstream. And it could help rewrite the history of drug use, Tushingham says.

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