New archaeological evidence suggests that people in the Americas have been using tobacco for at least 12,300 years. This finding pushes back the date for the plant’s cultural adoption by around 9,000 years, suggesting that it may have been used by some of the continent’s earliest human inhabitants.
Originating in the Americas, tobacco is now cultivated and consumed worldwide on an industrial scale. Previous excavations have revealed the presence of nicotine residues on smoking pipes from around 3,300 years ago in the south-eastern US, painting a picture of the plant’s social and cultural importance among ancient indigenous communities in North America. However, the authors of a new study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour suggest that hunter-gatherers may have been consuming tobacco while sitting around communal fires for many millennia.
“Tobacco arguably has had more impact on global patterns in history than any other psychoactive substance, but how deep its cultural ties extend has been widely debated,” they write. To help settle this debate, they describe the discovery of four charred tobacco seeds, recovered from an intact hearth at the Wishbone hunter-gatherer camp in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah.
Radiocarbon dating revealed the ancient fireplace to be around 12,300 years old, while morphological analysis suggested that the seeds belonged to a local tobacco species called Nicotiana attenuata. Also present around the hearth were spear tips, animal bones, the entrails of a cooked bird, stone tools, and a single piece of eggshell.
“The find recalibrates research on tobacco as a domesticate, putting some 8,000 to 10,000 years of human use before the great efflorescence of agriculture in North America and the domestication of [other tobacco species],” write the study authors. That the plant’s use predates agriculture by so many years is important, as it reveals how wild tobacco species helped to shape the ancient cultures that influenced later generations of Native Americans.
However, while this discovery implies that tobacco was used in some capacity over 12,000 years ago, the researchers say it is not possible to discern exactly how it was consumed. All that can be deduced is that seeds were at some point deposited into the hearth, though it is not clear if these were discarded from a pipe that had been filled with tobacco leaves and smoked, or spat into the fire after being chewed.
Today, tobacco is consumed in a number of ways by millions of people across the world, and has profoundly impacted human society and health. This discovery takes us back to the very beginning of humankind’s relationship with this controversial plant, shining a light on the very first people to come under its spell.