Ig Nobel Prize 2022 winners include research showing ancient Maya used enemas to get high

Ig Nobel Prize 2022 winners include research showing ancient Maya used enemas to get high

Enemas are used today for health reasons, like purging your blocked plumbing, but back in the day of the ancient Maya, they were used for something much more fun.

That’s according to one of the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

The Ig Nobels are satirical prizes for scientific achievements that “make people laugh and then think”.

They’re organised by US publication the Annals of Improbable Research for legitimate research in areas including biology, medicine, physics and social sciences.

Winners were awarded a fold-up paper prize and an old (and basically worthless) Zimbabwean $10 trillion note today during an online ceremony.

One particularly probing piece of research came from the winners of the Ig Nobel Art History Prize, who analysed scenes on ancient Mayan pottery, such as vases and jugs from the 6th to 9th centuries.

Scenes depicted on the pottery, found in countries like Guatemala and Mexico, include ceremonies with people dressed as animals such as jaguars, deer or monkeys.

Ig Nobel Prize 2022 winners include research showing ancient Maya used enemas to get high
The ancient Mayan pottery vases and jugs show gatherings where inebriated people are stumbling around and being helped by others.(The Maya Vase Book, vol 1 p.58: Justin Kerr www.famsi.org.)

And in some scenes, inebriated people are seen being held up by others.

“In the scenes on the pottery, they’re getting high and they’re getting drunk,” prize recipient Nicholas Hellmuth said.

Ancient Mayan vase showing enema scenes
An ancient Mayan vase showing an enema scene.(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:Justin Kerr www.famsi.org)

“These are people having fun in the royal palace on Friday and Saturday nights.”

Lurking in the artwork is evidence that the Maya ritually used enemas to make the most of their drugs of choice.

“They’re taking the enema to get alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs into their body more easily than drinking them,” said Dr Hellmuth, who is from the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research.

In some pottery scenes, people are seen receiving an enema from another person, while in others they are administering it to themselves. But whatever the case, this is not some private affair.

“This is a ritual that is carried out in public,” Dr Hellmuth said.

Jaguar character with enema syringe on Mayan pottery
A jaguar character holding an enema that appears on a vase from the Mayan Lowlands dated to 750AD.(Nicholas Hellmuth, FLAAR Photo Archive, Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquin)

Dr Hellmuth shares the prize with retired ethnopharmacologist Peter de Smet, who first documented evidence of enemas being used for recreational and ritual purposes for his PhD in the 1980s.

“This idea is quite contrary to the traditional view that the ancient Maya were a contemplative people, who did not indulge in ritual ecstasy,” reads a 1986 article Dr de Smet wrote with Dr Hellmuth.

While the 1986 paper suggested water lily may have been used as a hallucinogen, following a 2020 update of his research, Dr de Smet now argues the most likely hallucinogens used were made from Ipomoea corymbosa (morning glory seeds), or parts of datura, a plant with white flowers also known as “devil’s trumpets”.

Dr Hellmuth notes, however, that the water lily is the flower most commonly pictured in classic Mayan art.

Two researchers hold recently discovered enema syringes from Guatemala
Dr Hellmuth with Senaida Ba Mucu (left), who found these modern-day syringes likely used by older generation Maya for medicinal use only.(Supplied)

Clever ducks

From enemas to energy saving, and the Ig Nobel Physics Prize goes to research that explores why exactly ducklings swim in formation behind their mother.

Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, measured the oxygen consumption of mallard ducklings and concluded swimming behind their mum took less effort than if they swam out of formation.

Ducklings swimming in single file behind mother
Ducklings may be taking a lead from pro-cyclists.(Getty Images: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography)

Professor Fish argues the physics at work is the same as that involved when cyclists “draft” or “slipstream”.

As the front-runner slices through the air, the air flowing around them, a low-pressure area forms in their wake, and if someone behind can get close enough, they can be hauled along.

When it comes to ducklings specifically, Professor Fish said a straight line or diamond formation directly behind the mother was the best.

And he found the longer the string of ducklings, the more advantage to the last in the line.

“They could essentially just coast behind everyone,” Professor Fish, who even drew a cartoon to illustrate the fact, said.

Cartoon of a row of ducklings
Dr Fish drew this cartoon to illustrate how the last duckling in the line could essentially take it easy.(Supplied: Frank Fish)

His work (published in 1994) wins the prize along with 2021 research that used computer modelling to conclude ducklings in formation are, in fact, surfing behind the mother.

“We have to experiment a little bit more to find out which might really be the case,” Professor Fish said, adding that both processes could be at work.

But he was over the moon at winning an Ig Nobel.

“This is something I’ve always dreamed about,” said Professor Fish, whose email signature reads: “You’re not doing science if you’re not having fun.”

Decoding legalese

What’s not much fun is reading a legal contract.

To that end, the Ig Nobel Literature Prize went to a team that just this year provided quantitative evidence of what makes legal documents notoriously – and unnecessarily — difficult to understand.

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