Old pipes and pipe fragments found at five archaeological sites along the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Washington contain evidence of tobacco use, according to new research. The findings suggest that the Indians smoked pipes full of tobacco long before the Europeans took the plant west.
The chemical traces of nicotine, the key ingredient of tobacco, in the artifacts date back approximately 1,200 years. That's roughly 600 years before it was thought that European fur traders had introduced domesticated tobacco for the first time to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, researchers report online on October 29 at the Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cultivated tobacco seeds have been found for approximately 3,500 years in archaeological sites in the southern United States, and evidence of domestication of the plant in South America dates back almost 8,000 years. But this is the first "biomolecular evidence of tobacco use anywhere in the northwest," says Shannon Tushingham, an anthropologist at Washington State University in Pullman.
Tushingham and his colleagues used modern pipes to burn wild plants, probably smoked by the first natives. Those plants included Bearberry, which is believed to have been smoked a lot at that time, and some species of wild tobacco, such as Nicotiana quadrivalvis, N. attenuata Y N. obtusifolia. Using chemical signatures identified in those experiments, the team was surprised to find no traces of bearberry in the artifacts. But the scientists did detect measurable traces of nicotine, which could not be identified at the species level, in eight of the 12 tubes and tube fragments.
For many early indigenous groups, the practice of tobacco smoking played an important role in ceremonial events. The researchers hope that the study of the ceremonial use of tobacco will help provide a context for health programs that seek to mitigate its widespread use in Native American communities today. And Tushingham and his colleagues are working with local indigenous tribes, such as Nez Perce, to raise awareness about the cultural significance of tobacco and help the plant transition to its sacred state.