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The 'Elixir of Immortality' Was Found Next to a Dead Guy in China

Archaeologists uncovered the ancient Chinese substance in a tomb. It doesn't appear to have worked.
March 6, 2019, 6:06am
The elixir of immortality and a Chinese tomb where it was found

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

When Chinese archeologists searching an ancient tomb found a bronze pot containing a yellow liquid last October, they thought it was probably wine. But it turns out alcohol wasn’t the only substance the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 8 CE) was enjoying, as recent tests revealed the substance was in fact an "elixir of immortality." The 2,000-year-old pot was found among other remains—including a man’s dead and very-much-mortal body—inside a 210-square-feet tomb.

Archeologists concluded that the liquid must be an "elixir for immortality" after multiple tests showed that the 3.5-liter concoction contained potassium nitrate and alunite as its primary ingredients—matching a recipe from ancient Taoist texts. Although mentioned extensively in historical Chinese transcripts, this is "the first time that mythical ‘immortality medicines’ have been found in China” according to Shi Jiazhen, head of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology in Luoyang. Speaking to Xinhua, Shi added that “the liquid is of significant value for the study of ancient Chinese thoughts on achieving immortality and the evolution of Chinese civilization.”

Ancient Chinese elites were on the constant hunt for such remedies. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, was obsessed with finding a potion for immortality, and commissioned multiple nationwide army expeditions to find an elixir. It didn't quite work out for him, unfortunately, as he likely died of mercury poisoning while trying to achieve eternal life.

Pan Fusheng, an archeologist involved with the site where the 2,000-year-old elixir, believes that “the tomb provides valuable materials for study of the life of Western Han nobles as well as the funeral rituals and customs of the period.” As the elixir was found in a tomb, however, archeologists haven't made final conclusions as to whether it was partially consumed by the man, or simply placed there as a burial ritual. In any case, it's pretty safe to say the whole "immortality" thing was something of an oversell.

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