Recent discoveries on the history of tobacco suggest the plant may have played an important role in North America’s transition to farming.
Two studies published this year show indigenous populations began smoking tobacco much earlier than previously thought, and were likely growing the crop at least 1,200 years ago in some parts of the US.
An analysis of a dozen ancient pipe fragments containing traces of nicotine from a Pacific Northwest tribe is now said to be the longest continuous record of tobacco smoking from any single region in the world.
In the WSU study, researchers worked with Nez Perce tribe leaders to analyze pipes and fragments from three sites on the Snake River using a solvent and mass spectrometry. The oldest dates to roughly 1200 years ago
‘I think it’s a very reasonable proposition that people were cultivating tobacco,’ says Shannon Tushingham, a Washington State University assistant professor and director of its Museum of Anthropology.
‘This is just another sign of the sophistication of cultures in this area and how they managed plants and animals.’
In the WSU study, researchers worked with Nez Perce tribe leaders to analyze pipes and fragments from three sites on the Snake River using a solvent and mass spectrometry.
The team expected to find traces of kinnikinnick (bearberry), which it was long thought the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest smoked exclusively until traders arrived with tobacco from the east in the 1790s.
Tobacco does not grow plentifully in the cool, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest.
Coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuate) typically grows on sandy river bars, while N. quadrivalvus grows further south.
Despite this, none of the pipes were found to contain the compound associated with this plant.
N. quadrivalvus (illustrated) was among the species found in the pipes
Instead, the team detected nicotine dating to periods before and after the group made contact with European settlers.
The oldest date as far back as 1,200 years ago.
The history of tobacco in North America has largely been overshadowed by the boom in trade that occurred in the 17-1800s, after settlers realized potent, dried tobacco was easy to transport.
‘This occurred so rapidly and so early in the historic record that a complete understanding of in situ pre-contact smoking practices has been obscured,’ the researchers explain in the paper.
A second study published this summer pushes the date of tobacco smoking to more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
According to that team, led by anthropologist Stephen Carmody of Troy University, traces of nicotine were found in a pipe from around 1685 BC, Smithsonian reports.
This was found during excavations at the Moundville complex in central Alabama. Before this, the oldest evidence was a smoking tube from around the year 300 BC.
Nez Perce tribe members can be seen holding tobacco pipes in the images above, all from the late 1800s. These pipes are post-contact-era elbow pipes
Tobacco does not grow plentifully in the Pacific Northwest. Nicotiana attenuate grows on sandy river bars, while N. quadrivalvus grows further south. But, researchers detected nicotine dating to periods before and after the group made contact with European settlers
Much like the WSU team, Carmody also suspects indigenous groups in North America may have cultivated tobacco, as the discovery somewhat narrows the gap between hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the onset of crop domestication.
With the arrival of the Europeans, however, much about the way tobacco was used changed, transforming from a largely religious and ceremonial practice to be a recreational activity.
‘Once [Europeans] discovered tobacco and smoked it, the desire wasn’t just for its stimulant qualities, but also for its sociability, says archaeologist Georgia Fox, author of The Archaeology of Smoking and Tobacco, told Smithsonian Mag.
‘It became a tool in the social world for people to converse and drink and smoke and create relationships.’
WHEN DID NORTHERN AND SOUTHERN NATIVES SPLIT?
While the Ancient Beringians split from all other Native Americans around 20,000 years ago, the Northern and Southern groups diverged later on.
Based on previous research, this suggests they must have already been on the American continent south of the glacial ice when they diverged.
The divide probably occurred after their ancestors had passed through the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets.
Analysis of prehistoric human remains ranging from Alaska to Patagonia has helped redefine the movement of people across and throughout North and South America
These are two vast glaciers that covered what is now Canada and parts of the northern United States, but began to thaw around this time.
The ice sheet isolated southbound travellers from the Ancient Beringians in Alaska, who were eventually replaced or absorbed by other Native American populations.
Although modern populations in Alaska and northern Canada belong to the Northern Native American branch, the new analysis shows that these derive from a later ‘back’ migration north, long after the initial migration events.