If you found a potion that could make you live forever, in perfect health, would you drink it? Scientists faced that question recently when they found a 2,000 year-old bronze pot in a tomb dated to the Western Han Dynasty. After getting a whiff of the liquid inside, they first thought it held some kind of yellow rice wine. Tests revealed that the liquid is in fact a blend of potassium nitrate and alunite. Why does this matter? The ingredients imply the liquid is an attempt at creating an elixir of immortality. It’s supposedly the first physical example of such a potion.
Ancient Chinese emperors obsessed over immortality and life elixirs. During the Qin dynasty, 1000 men and women were sent to find the elixir in the eastern seas, but no one returned. People also tried creating their own elixirs from materials like jade, hematite, cinnabar, and gold. In a Chinese alchemical book, recipes include ingredients like mercury, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. If someone were to actually drink these concoctions, however, they would become very sick or even die. This happened to at least one emperor who overdosed on an elixir containing mercury.
Knowing this, scientists are not interested in drinking the elixir they found. Alunite is not especially harmful. Potassium nitrate, however, which is used in fireworks and fertilizers, has been linked to all kinds of health problems like skin irritation, kidney failure, and death. We don’t know if anyone from the past ever sampled the elixir or if it was simply put in the tomb as a ritualistic object. Last year in 2018, thousands (jokingly) signed a petition to convince archaeologists to let them drink a mysterious red liquid found flooding an Egyptian tomb, so it’s likely that someone will try the same with this Chinese immortality elixir.