It's no secret that people have been using tobacco for a long time, but just how long has it been, and what were they doing with it? Recent archeological finds are providing priceless insight into these and other questions with potentially paradigm-shifting implications.
In 2018, a team of archaeologists from Troy University in Alabama began a new examination of artifacts recovered in the 1930s. Originally excavated as part of an archaeological rescue operation when workers discovered the site during the construction of a hydroelectric dam, the assemblage was archived in brown paper bags and without being studied. The team from Troy, led by archeologist Stephen Carmody, revisited the finds as part of a project in collaboration with Native American communities to learn more about the ritual use of plants in pre-Columbian societies.
What the archaeologists found in those paper bags included animal bones, fragments of pottery and one partial bowl from an early tobacco pipe, referred to as a "medicine tube." The pipe, though found broken, likely took the form of a straight cylinder with an opening at either end, not unlike the chillums used in India. Instead of clay, as was popular later, this piece was carved from limestone. The pipe was tested and determined to contain nicotine residue, not entirely out of character for a pipe. What was most remarkable about the find, however, was its age.
Based on the radiocarbon dating done on the animal bones associated with the pipe, the team determined that the limestone tube dates to between 1685 and 1530 B.C.E. That makes this seemingly insignificant piece of rock the earliest known evidence of tobacco smoking in North America. It predates the formerly oldest evidence by at least 1,000 years. Personally, I find it extremely interesting to know that while Babylon was being sacked by the Hittites, people across the Atlantic were already enjoying tobacco. But, as we'll see, this discovery does more than just change the dates in history textbooks.
this seemingly insignificant piece of rock the earliest known evidence of tobacco smoking in North America
Even more remarkable is what Carmody found in the age-old pipes in addition to tobacco residue. The researchers were able to identify the aromatic alkaloids vanillin and cinnamaldehyde in the same pipe that was used to smoke tobacco. These compounds are, as their names might suggest, the active ingredients in vanilla and cinnamon, responsible for the flavoring properties of the plant. In essence, it appears that ancient North Americans were smoking aromatic blends thousands of years before the first vanilla cavendish was ever produced.
ancient North Americans were smoking aromatic blends thousands of years before the first vanilla cavendish was ever produced
The presence of these botanicals presents a serious question, however, as Carmody's team was unable to match these compounds to specific plants from North America. Vanilla is native to South America, as well as several species of cinnamomum; such compounds being present in a pipe in modern-day Alabama could suggest not only that they were a part of customary tobacco consumption, but that trade networks at that time could have been far more extensive than previously thought. After all, the plants had to come from somewhere.
Another recent discovery in the Great Salt Lake Desert of Utah has unearthed the earliest known evidence of human consumption of tobacco. A team made up of researchers from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center found the seeds of Nicotiana Attenuata, a species related to the tobacciana we know and love, around the remains of a campfire that dates back to the Pleistocene era, also known as the last ice age.
The site also turned up hundreds of bones from various species of waterfowl, giving the location the name of the Wishbone site. According to Daron Duke, the lead researcher, the seeds were most likely left behind from quids, which are wads of tobacco for chewing. Since tobacco seeds are very small, it's likely they were wrapped among leaves unnoticed and preserved in the mud of the ancient marshland of ice age Utah.
Since no evidence of pipes was present at the site, the researchers ruled out smoking as a method of consumption. The research team also had to contend with the question of whether or not humans at such an early date were the ones responsible for depositing the seeds. For example, what if the seeds were contained in the stomachs of the waterfowl eaten at the site? Duke addressed this hypothesis in an interview with Haaretz, stating, "theoretically, it is possible a duck could nibble on a tobacco plant, but that duck would have to avoid hundreds of square kilometers of its typical diet, go up a rocky mountain range, which they don't do, and eat a fairly uncommon plant." This is a truly rare breakthrough discovery, one that proves that human beings have had a relationship with tobacco for the last 12,500 years, predating the rise of agriculture by roughly two millennia.
human beings have had a relationship with tobacco for the last 12,500 years
The discoveries surrounding the long history of tobacco use among Native Americans has led many researchers to hypothesize that tobacco was one of the earliest, if not the very first, crops to be domesticated and farmed in the Americas. While it may seem far-fetched at first glance, the idea that ritually significant plants, rather than food staples, were the first to be cultivated has been a matter of discussion for decades among experts of ancient agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, evidence of fermented grain shows up in the archaeological record at roughly the same time as intensive wheat and barley cultivation, leading some researchers to ask whether it was bread or beer that kickstarted the agricultural revolution.
In North America the question is especially relevant, as the evidence suggests that indigenous people here thrived as hunter-gatherers for millennia. Why make the transition to large-scale agriculture if not a matter of putting enough food on the table? Having easier access to larger quantities of sacred plants for consumption and trade may well have been a primary motivator in adopting a more settled lifestyle. While we're not likely to find definitive answers to such questions, they certainly provide a wealth of ideas to ponder during a long smoke. I, for one, will think of my favorite tobaccos the next time I order a side of hash browns.