October 26, 2018

Seven Weeks to Venice: History Through Isochronic Maps

Detail of a 1921 map that visualizes its own accuracy: red regions are accurately mapped, orange less so, etc.

Historians love maps, but we don't always use them to their full potential. I'm as guilty of this as anyone; for my own book, I'm probably going to keep things cartographically simple, like most other academic historians. A few straightforward, black-and-white maps with labels for the key places mentioned in the book. Nothing innovative; just a practicality to help the reader.

Sometimes, however, historians manage to do something truly interesting with maps.

My favorite example has long been a series of maps by the French historian Fernand Braudel, featured in his first book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The history of the book itself is pretty fascinating in its own right: remarkably, Braudel managed to write much of it while he was in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Lübeck, Germany, between 1942 and 1945.

Three of Braudel's maps from the book, which I've stitched together into a single GIF, brilliantly depict the time it took for a letter to reach Venice if it had been sent from a number of different cities: Moscow, Lisbon, Istanbul, and more.



Each line in the map depicts a week. So, for instance, in 1500 a letter sent from Antwerp to Venice would've taken three weeks to arrive; one from Lisbon would've taken around seven. An amazing amount of work went into these simple images: for each city in each time, Braudel was drawing on letters he'd found in his archival research. (If you want to study these maps more carefully, they've been digitized here.)

I didn't know the name for this type of map until recently. It turns out that they're called isochrone or isochronic maps. An isochrone is, according to Wikipedia, "a line drawn on a map connecting points at which something occurs or arrives at the same time."

They're not just brilliantly concise ways of conveying information - in my opinion, isochrone maps can also be incredibly beautiful. Sometimes they seem on the verge of becoming abstract art, like this 1882 map of the communication times between Paris and the rest of France:

E. Martin, "Carte des communications rapides entre Paris et le reste de la France," 1882, via the University of Chicago Map Collection.
Or this map of Melbourne train times:

“Minimum Railway or Tramway Time Zones,” 1910-1922, via the State Library of Victoria

There's something biological about these maps, which sometimes look more like cell cultures in a Petri dish than the stuff of atlases: it's as if they reveal the unthinking, unplanned, semi-random aggregate behaviors of huge numbers of humans. There's also something distinctively modern about such maps. They rely on large amounts of information, which needs to be at least somewhat accurate, and hence it wasn't really possible to make them until fairly recently. 


Francis Galton in 1893.

The creator of the first isochronic map appears to have been Francis Galton. He was Charles Darwin's cousin and colleague (here are some letters they sent to one another), and one of the founders of the concept of what came to be called "social Darwinism." His legacy is mixed, to put it mildly. Galton's advocacy for scientific racism and eugenics would, after his death, indirectly inspire Hitler. But he was also a pioneer in the field of data visualization: he invented the idea of composite portraiture and created some of the first systematic weather charts.

In 1881, Galton also published one of the first isochronic maps. 

Francis Galton, "Isochronic Passage Chart for Travellers," London, 1881.
The map was color-coded to show the expected travel time from London to anywhere on earth. Green areas could be reached in less than ten days, yellow in ten to twenty, pink in twenty to thirty, and so on. It was clearly a rough approximation, and I doubt that it was useful to many people on a practical level. But as a new way of thinking about data visualization, it was a breakthrough. 

One product of doing historical research is that you end up with vast amounts of metadata. That's what Braudel so shrewdly capitalized on with his Venetian letters map: anyone who works in historical archives for long will end up leafing aimlessly though stacks of letters sent by bureaucrats. Usually, when we do this, we're scanning for a specific bit of information or thematic element. 

But we also happen to be accessing all sorts of additional data in the process: when and where was the letter written, when it was received? Who read it, and what did they underline? Or even, how damaged is paper? What color is the ink? The answers to all of these questions, taken in aggregate, have the potential to tell us something new. 

Isochronic maps relating to travel times for humans and letters have been particularly popular with historians, because it's so easy to find archival documentation relating to the setting-off and arrival points of both. 

Here are two examples from the early United States, made by Allan Pred:


Thanks to Leon Jackson for sharing these with me.

And here's an attempt to update another isochronic map of global travel times, from the 1920s, with the estimated times in 2016:

Via Reddit user r2r_, originally posted in r/dataisbeautiful.
Another interesting example of the technique comes from a vintage map I own, a detail from which began this post. It depicts the state of English geographic knowledge of the earth in 1921, with high cartographic accuracy labelled in darker reds and lower accuracy shading into orange and yellow. Entirely unknown areas are in white; most of them seem to be in the Arctic Circle and the Sahara.


 I'm curious whether other forms of information that historians come across in archives could also be visualized in this way. One example that comes to mind from my own research in the history of drugs is  an isochronic map of travel times for important drugs: i.e., how long did it take for opium to travel from India to China in 1800? What about tea? Sugar? It would conceivably be possible to create such a thing using records relating to taxation and purchasing at different points. 

Or, perhaps isochrones could be based on  prices for drugs or other commodities: where are the boundaries between the prices of silver, say, or tobacco, at different time periods, and how do these differences flatten out as globalization accelerates? If you have any ideas for other interesting approaches to mapping history, please let me know in the comments. 

August 23, 2018

Opium or Cucumber? Debunking a Myth About Sumerian Drugs


"Protective spirit" from Nimrud, c. 850 BCE, British Museum, London.

If you turn to an early page in one of the dozens of books about the history of opium, there's a decent chance that you will run into the claim that opium use goes back to ancient Sumer. Specifically, the argument goes, the Sumerians called opium hul gil, meaning "joy plant," and memorialized their use of the drug in sculptures like the one above, which supposedly shows a deity holding poppy pods.

This blog post is about how everything in the above statement is wrong.

Why do I care about what is, admittedly, kind of a trivial detail? Two reasons. The first is that the history of opiates strikes me as a highly underrated topic. Despite the recent popular interest in opiate addiction and opiate production in the US media, the deeper history of opiate use and addiction rarely gets mentioned in major public forums. Based on my anecdotal experiences talking to members of the public (and teaching a history of drugs class at UCSC), there's a lot of interest in the topic, but very little popular knowledge about itno Ken Burns documentaries, no best-selling books, no education in secondary schools. So when we do talk about the history of opium and other drugs, we should try to get it right.

A second reason for why the "hul gil myth" matters is that it's a great example of how historical misinformation spreads even long after it has been proven wrong. The origin of the myth actually turns out to be a now-forgotten book from the 1920s, which was then debunked in the 1970s. But somehow that almost century-old error continues to have a life of its own.

*   *   *


Here are some examples of the hul gil myth in action, from two recent, well-respected academic books both published by Oxford University Press:

David O. Kennedy, Plants and the Human Brain (Oxford University Press, 2014), pg. 6.

Virginia Berridge, Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs (Oxford University Press, 2013), pg. 9.
The list goes on. If you search "hul gil opium" on Google Books, you'll end up with over a thousand hits. In a classic 1997 Harpers article about his attempts to grow opium poppies, Michael Pollan notes that his interest in the topic was piqued by "read[ing] about what the ancient Sumerians had called 'the flower of joy.'" Hul Gil shows up on an official DEA website which claims the drug dates back to 3400 BCE, and in a PBS Frontline documentary about opium. Someone at the River's Edge Brewing Company even decided to name a golden ale after it. And, naturally, hul gil has made its way into Wikipedia. Although the core information (Sumerians, "joy plant," etc) remains the same in these accounts, the dates given range widely. As it happens, if there really were references to opium in 4000 or 3400 BCE, they would not only be the oldest references to a drug in history. They'd be the oldest decipherable written texts of any kind.

Abraham Krikorian, a biology professor, was the first to map the tangled web of assumptions and misunderstandings that gave rise to the Hul Gil myth. His paper "Were the Opium Poppy and Opium Known in the Ancient Near East?" (1975) traced the origin of the claim that Sumerians used opium back to a British colonial official and physician named A. R. Neligan, who had served as physician to the United Kingdom's legate in Tehran and who published a 1914 book of "hints" for travelers to the region.

Title page and frontispiece illustration of a book by Reginald Campbell Thompson (1876-1941), accidental founder of the Sumerian opium myth.
Neligan's book The Opium Question (1927) erroneously reported that the Sumerian state dated back to "five or six thousand years before the birth of Christ" and speculated that Persian opium use was based on an older Sumerian precedent.  Neligan appears to have based this on conversations he had with a Cambridge archaeologist named Reginald Campbell Thompson, who had translated a series of Assyrian medical texts in the early 1920s and authored the wonderfully-titled book Devils and Evil Spirit of Babylonia. Thompson thought he'd found references to opium use in a set of Assyrian medical tablets that had belonged to an ancient library in Nineveh, and shared the information with Neligan.

The tablets in question were from the 7th century BCEsome 2,000 years after the Sumerians. Thompson thought he'd discovered a word in them ("HUL-GIL") which was Sumerian in origin, and thus much older than the Assyrian civilization which had created the texts themselves. But the connection between this term and opium was based on the flimsiest of guesses.

A fragment of a film that was apparently made at Thompson's dig in Ninevah in the 1920s or 30s.

Raymond Dougherty, a colleague of Thompson's who led the Babylon Collection at Yale and assisted in translating the tablets in question, explained their reasoning. HUL, Dougherty wrote, was thought to mean "joy" or "rejoicing," while GIL "as a single ideogram represented a number of plants." Beyond this, things got ambiguous. "It may be suggested in a very tentative way," continued Dougherty, "that the Sumerians in their system of pictographic writing endeavouerd to depict the power of opium to produce a sense of delight."

However, the only evidence we really have for this is the prior assumption that Sumerian "joy plant" simply must mean opium because... well, there really is no "because" here. It's a shot-in-the-dark guess that snuck into the scholarly record via a 1920s conversation between an archaeologist and a colonial physician. This theory was then "very tentative[ly]" entertained as a possibility by another scholar, and has been repeated as truth ever since.

Once the idea was established, it made it easy for sleuths to spot supposed iconographic references to opium poppies in Near Eastern art. Two examples are the following:

LEFT: Relief from the palace of Sargon II, 8th century BC. RIGHT: Detail from first image in this post.
The image at left is from a restatement of the hul gil myth that has been shared nearly 500 times on Facebook. At right is a photo I took of an Assyrian bas relief when I was at the British Museum last month. Both images have been theorized to depict opium pods.

But if we take into account that the textual evidence for Ancient Near Eastern opium is non-existent, it seems much more likely to me that they're simply holding pomegranates, which we already know had a significant symbolic role in Mesopotamia and which show up elsewhere in Assyrian art of the same periodand which happen to look almost exactly like the "poppy pods" that scholars have identified in other ancient artworks.  

A Neo-Assyrian ivory pomegranate from 9th century Nimrud, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

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In the end, it seems that this early generation of scholars was completely wrong about the hul gil ideogram. We can't really blame them. After all, Dougherty and Thompson were working in a language which was still being deciphered, and were tasked with translating a set of technical and uncommon botanical terms. It turns out that the cuneiform that had been interpreted as "HUL-GIL" in the 1920s could also be interpreted as "UKUS-RIM." As best Krikorian could figure outand he seems to have gone really deep when it comes reading the relevant cuneiform scholarship, so I believe him on thisthe ideogram in question actually means something like "cucumber-like plant" or perhaps the unrelated plant known as bitter cucumber (Citrullus colocynthis).

Thompson himself was aware of the confusion later in his career, but explained it by saying that the Sumerians used the term UKUS-RIM for both plants "because of the similarity of the poppy capsule to the small cucumber."

Honestly, I'm not seeing it.

(Admittedly, Citrullus colocynthis looks a little bit more like a poppy pod, but still, the comparison seems like a stretch to me.)


These new finding debunking the older theory didn't spread widely enough. Some mentions of Sumerian opium use do hedge their bets somewhat (for instance, Antonio Escohotado, in his widely-read General History of Drugs, repeats the claim but adds "there is also argument against this.") The thing is, it's not an argument or a debate. As far as I can tell, it's a settled fact.

I realize I'm getting into the scholarly weeds here. But I think it's important to pay attention to how myths about drugs originate and circulate. Drugs are not just a topic for niche scholarship. They're a major social force: our assumptions about drugs and drug history can reshape social policy, which in turn can directly impact the course of people's lives. And it seems to me that drug history is particularly susceptible to misinformation because the field has been neglected for so long by academic historians, and because there's so much distrust about official narratives relating to drugs.

One example: I could write a whole other blog post about the "fact," circulated by Joe Rogan among others, that ancient Egyptian art contains drug-inspired depictions of the pineal gland, which is supposedly the part of the brain that contains DMT. I actually like listening to Rogan's podcast and particularly enjoyed his recent talk with drug researcher Hamilton Morris. But I really wish he would stop spreading a false claim about the history and biology of a genuinely fascinating drug (which maybe appears in trace amounts in human brains, in amounts orders of magnitude too small to be psychoactive). In the end, this kind of thing just adds to the mistrust and misinformation surrounding the whole topic of drug history.

*   *   *


As is often the case in history, it turns out that the truth is actually more interesting than the fiction here. Based on the best guesses of contemporary archaeologists, opium actually turns out to be a drug native to western Europe. Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) residue has been conclusively identified in analyses of early Bronze Age European agricultural sites in the Alps, and there's some reason to think that Papaver somniferum is native to this region. Although it's possible that the poppies were processed for their oil rather than their psychoactive latex, their presence in ritual burials (notably in a Bronze Age cave in Spain) point to the use of opium as a drug. Certainly by the time of the Greeks of the 5th century BCE, who widely interpreted Helen's use of a sadness-reducing substance called nepenthe in the Odyssey as a reference to opium, the drug had become widespread in the Mediterranean.

A wall painting showing poppies, mandrakes, and cornflowers in the tomb of Sennedhem, Deir el-Medina. Via.
The question of whether the Egyptians used opium in earlier centuries is still open. There's some iconographic evidence of poppy pods in Egyptian art, but we need to be careful about distinguishing between the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) and its non-psychoactive cousins like the corn poppy (P. rhoeas), the seeds of which were found in a Middle Dynasty Egyptian tomb. Although it has been claimed that a set of jars traded by Cypriot merchants in the 14th century Eastern Mediterranean contained opium, this was recently disproven using chemical analysis of the residue.

Gold earrings of Queen Tausret, circa 1190 BCE, possibly made in imitation of poppy pods. Via.


In short, we're left with a story that's very different from what the public seems to think. Opium is actually a native European drug. It didn't reach Egypt, Persia or Mesopamia until the the classical period, some three to four thousand years later than the Hul Gil proponents claim. Opium use never disappeared in Europe (medieval and early modern drug manuals commonly mention the drug). But over the centuries, opium became associated with "the East" and disassociated from its European origins.

With the opiate crisis constantly in the news, it's important to remember just how much we don't know about the history of drugs, and how much misinformation circulates. By assuming that opium is an Eastern product which was only relatively recently imported into Europe, we add to a centuries-old tendency to turn the scary drug of the moment into a hostile, foreign invader.

The same thing played out with cannabis (which, like opium, was not hard to find in early modern European herbals) when it was rebranded as "marijuana" in an intentional effort to make the drug sound foreign to audiences in the United States.

Why exactly did drugs with ancient histories in European medicine, like cannabis and opium, become transformed into foreign invaders? It's a topic that I'll pick up in a future post, but if you're interested, I've also written about it in a chapter that recently appeared in a book from the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book is called Entangled Empires, and the chapter is called "Empires on Drugs." Here's a preview courtesy of Google Books, and I'm happy to send the complete PDF of the chapter to anyone who might be interested. Just contact me via Twitter or email.

Further reading:


"Poppies in Ancient Egypt" from At the Mummies Ball.
- "Poppy and Opium in Ancient Times: Remedy or Narcotic?" by Ana María Rosso.
- "Were the Opium Poppy and Opium Known in the Ancient Near East?" by Abraham D. Krikorian (paywalled, but I'm happy to email a PDF to anyone who's interested)