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The abstract for this paper on PubMed, Historical evidence for a pre-Columbian presence of Datura in the Old World and implications for a first millennium transfer from the New World says,

Datura (Solanaceae)is a small genus of plants that,for long, was thought to occur naturally in both the New and Old Worlds. However, recent studies indicate that all species in the genus originated in the Americas. This finding has prompted the conclusion that no species of Datura could have been present in the Old World prior to its introduction there by Europeans in the early 16th century CE. Further, the textual evidence traditionally cited in support of a pre-Columbian Old World presence of Datura species is suggested to be due to the misreading of classical Greek and Arabic sources. As a result, botanists generally accept the opinion that Datura species were transferred into the Old World in the post-Columbian period. While the taxonomic and geographic evidence for a New World origin for all the Datura species appears to be well supported, the assertion that Datura species were not known in the Old World prior to the 16th century is based on a limited examination of the pre-Columbian non-Anglo sources. We draw on old Arabic and Indic texts and southern Indian iconographic representations to show that there is conclusive evidence for the pre-Columbian presence of at least one species of Datura in the Old World. Given the systematic evidence for a New World origin of the genus, the most plausible explanation for this presence is a relatively recent but pre-Columbian (probably first millennium CE) transfer of at least one Datura species, D. metel, into the Old World. Because D. metel is a domesticated species with a disjunct distribution,this might represent an instance of human-mediated transport from the New World to the Old World, as in the case of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas).

So the possibilities seem to be:

  • It's endemic to several continents since time immemorial
  • Pre-Columbian transfer by humans to the Old World, "probably" in the first millennium CE
  • Post-Columbian transfer by humans to the Old World (well into the second millennium CE)

My question includes:

  • How good is the evidence for this thesis? How good is this paper in particular? Do other experts agree or disagree with it?

  • Including any other papers as well as this paper, what are the earliest clear/convincing testimonies/evidence for the existence of Datura in the Old World? Is there any chance that it existed in India in the centuries BCE?

Reasons why I'm skeptical include:

  • I don't know how to evaluate or search academic/scientific literature, which some other people on this site are said to be good at doing.
  • Apparently this paper supposes and/or claims to be evidence for Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact which Wikipedia says is "controversial", "debatable", and sometimes called "fringe science"
  • I know very little, in general, about the Origin of the (botanical) Species, so I don't have strong preconception about the likelihood that a species might be endemic on both land-masses
  • Datura is poisonous and entheogenic, so I presume it should exist in Ayurvedic and/or other historic texts? IMO isn't it likely that many (perhaps all) historians cannot be familiar with all these texts? There's a language problem, i.e. the texts presumably exist in many languages. How well has this paper done a literature search on a millenium's worth of texts over a whole continent, which has who-knows-how-many languages? How confident can they be that whichever antique text they cite identifies Datura and not something else? Has anyone else been able to finesse the whole "historical literature" question using another tool, e.g. archaeology of seeds or something like that?
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    I'm not sure this community is likely to have the expertise necessary to evaluate a peer-reviewed scientific paper. – Nate Eldredge Nov 22 '14 at 17:25
  • @NateEldredge I sure don't; but isn't that just what moderators say that this can community can do? – ChrisW Nov 22 '14 at 17:27
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    More often this community challenges claims in the popular literature and evaluates them by comparing them to evidence from the peer-reviewed literature. Here we already have peer-reviewed evidence. Maybe History.SE or Biology.SE would be more appropriate. Relevant meta thread: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1138/… – Nate Eldredge Nov 22 '14 at 17:33
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    Why not do that yourself? PubMed has a list of papers citing this one. By the way, the term "peer review" usually refers to something different: before the paper is published, it is read by one or more other experts in the same subfield, who give their opinion on its quality. In most cases, those opinions are not shared with anyone except the author(s) and the journal editor. – Nate Eldredge Nov 22 '14 at 17:48
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    @NateEldredge Why not do that yourself? Well if someone posts on StackOverflow, saying "why don't you figure out the answer youself?" is barely appropriate. I am NOT used to reviewing citations, finding any further papers on the same topic, etc. I've never used Google Scholar, done any searches or used any search tools of that type. Almost anybody else could answer this question better than I could, IMHO. – ChrisW Nov 22 '14 at 17:55
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+300
  1. How good is the evidence presented in the thesis?

    The thesis does not draw upon molecular phylogeny evidence. Like DNA evidence in court, DNA phylogeny is considered to be much more compelling evidence than 1000 year old witness accounts. Most scientific studies to determine when speciation occured is nowdays done by molecular analysis rather than scientific fossil and morphological evidence.

    The Abstract presumes that, because there is established Datura in the old world, it must have arrived by human transport. That is an scientifically weak assumption. Datura belongs to the family Solenaceae, i.e. tomatos, potatos, of which most occur in the Americas, of which many occur in the old world i.e. Madrake. It is not an unreasonable assumption, and is not fringe science. Pre-Colombian exchange of DNA is an ongoing field of science: Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Suggest Pre-European Admixture with Native Americans. Current Biology, 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.057 Old World iconography of Solenaceae: http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/actahort745.pdf

    There are also molecular studies of solenaceae available online.

  2. What evidence is there that Datura existed in the old world?

    I have searched for you, and have found various phylogenetic studies of Datura species and solenaceae, and have not found any unrefuteable evidence that Datura existed in the old world, save for references to old texts with varying interpretations.

    The best study is the phylogeny for natural hybridization of Datura species Systematic Botany, Volume 38, Number 3 which studies the genetics of Jimsonweed, purported to have existed in India in the PubMed paper, but he doesn't report any evidence for the timing of the arrival of Jimsonweed in India.

    There are many scientific papers studying history which are more historical conjecture and historical research papers than scientific. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1186%2F2241-5793-21-11#page-1

    A quality scientific paper studing the age of the first plants would rely on a clear painting or description from an old source, carbon dating, or DNA, and for the moment, the best evidence for pre-colombian arrival of Datura species is historical conjecture.

If Datura did arrive in Asia, it could have done so by trade in the many hundreds of years that the Behring strait was accessible 14000 years ago, in return journeys from northern California. Guides and adventurers may have done the journey multiple times and brought proofs of the strange plants and animals they encountered in the new world. To prove if and when arrived is difficult using books more than 500 years old.

  • Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Perhaps it's less surprising to hear of pre-Columbian contact across the Pacific than the Atlantic. Do you happen to know whether there's any near-irrefutable evidence of pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic migration, of any other botanic species? – ChrisW Dec 6 '14 at 13:38
  • When you say, "molecular phylogeny", does that mean not analyzing archaeological samples but rather looking at the speciation or genetic drift of modern samples? – ChrisW Dec 6 '14 at 13:39
  • In one sentence you said, "That is an scientifically weak assumption", and then two sentences later, "It is not an unreasonable assumption, and is not fringe science". I think that in that paragraph you're implying that there is (scientifically stronger assumption) trans-oceanic migration by some mechanism other than human transport (e.g. floating logs, or birds, or something)? – ChrisW Dec 6 '14 at 13:43
  • And in summary I think you're saying that this thesis is "considered to be much less compelling evidence", because it depends on history (i.e. "1000 year old witness accounts") instead of DNA evidence? – ChrisW Dec 6 '14 at 13:55
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    Yes absolutely, if there was a historical document of datura existing in the old world, it would have to describe "pointy seeds, lobed and toothed leaves with velvet surface, giant trumpet flowers, alkaloid effects" and much more precision, that would convince many that datura existed in india. Vaguer descriptions could be Mandragora Officinalis, a very close relation of Datura known since antiquity. It still doesnt prove that humans brought it, when it arrived, seed pods can survive 3 months at sea after a land slide and wash up on land far away, and even bird transport has to be examined. – com.prehensible Dec 7 '14 at 11:35
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Attacking this purely from the angle of locating pre-Columbian mentions of any species of datura in the Old World, here's one example.

From page 201 of Ronald M. Davidson's book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement:

Moreover, many of the siddha scriptures discuss ointments and drugs, especially those applied to the eyes or feet. The use of the various species of datura (especially datura fastuosa) is particularly evident. Sometimes termed the “crazy datura” (unmattadhattura) or “Śiva's datura,” it was generally employed as a narcotic paste or as wood in a fire ceremony and could be easily absorbed through the skin or the lungs.103 The seeds of this powerful narcotic, termed “passion seeds” (candabīja), are the strongest elements and contain the alkaloids hyoscine, hyoscyamine, and atropine in forms that survive burning or boiling. In even moderate doses, datura can render a person virtually immobile with severe belladonna-like hallucinations.

Datura fastuosa is a variety of Datura metel. Davidson's provided reference for the above section reads:

Kṛṣṇayamāri-tantra IV.45, IX.4 (seeds); Sampuṭa, To. 381, fols. 121b5, 128a6; Saṃvarodaya-tantra X.36, XXVII.10–14; Mahākāla-tantra, in Stablein 1976, pp. 169, 267, 275–277; Vajramahābhairava-tantra, in Siklós 1996, p. 83; Guhyasamāja XV.81.

Assuming that the "Krishnayamari-tantra" (which apparently concerns "seeds") is the source of his assertion, I came across the following paper by another academic, Kenichi Kuranishi, in which he notes:

The Kṛṣṇayamāritantra, which is categorized in the Yogottaratantra category, most likely dates to from the ninth to the tenth century.1 The tantra consists of eighteen chapters.

(The reference discusses the dating in more detail.)

So, if these gentlemen are to be believed, then D. metel was in use in India in the first millennium CE.

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    So, to summarize: Robert Davidson's book says that the use of datura is "particularly evident" in many scriptures, and has a footnote which claims that "seeds" are mentioned in the Kṛṣṇayamāritantra (which Kenichi Kuranishi dates to the 9th or 10th century). – ChrisW Dec 6 '14 at 14:52
  • Vajrayana is Tantric Buddhism. Kṛṣṇayamāritantra is part of Tantric Buddhism. Datura is mentioned in Kṛṣṇayamāritantra. The Vajrayana wiki notes that Tantra became popular in the 7th or 8th century (but was prevalent before). Therefore, the 9th century date provided by Kuranishi fits the timeline. (But yes, the paragraph was probably unnecessary.) – user7920 Dec 6 '14 at 15:09
  • The logic works fine if what is being dated is a (palm-leaf) manuscript (which is what Kuranishi is doing in his paper). Furthermore, and strictly speaking, in the context of this question, there's about a 500 year acceptable margin of error to work with. – user7920 Dec 6 '14 at 16:15
  • I'm not implying that datura was being used in the 7th century. As I said 2 comments ago, the Krishnayamaritantra date estimate fits within the window of Vajrayana. It's simply a corroboratory check. Nothing more is being implied. Let me remove the paragraph altogether since it irks you so much :) – user7920 Dec 6 '14 at 18:45
  • What about this, it's page explaining the travels to and from alaska and russia 14000 years ago and that it was possible that any kinds of traders could have brought boxes mades of bone full of seeds with them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – com.prehensible Dec 8 '14 at 20:34

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