Tobacco traces found in millenium-old pipes

UC DAVIS (US) — Native American hunter-gatherers living in what is now northwestern California grew and smoked tobacco more than a thousand years ago, according to a new report.

Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the study demonstrates that tobacco-smoking was part of the northwestern California culture very early, shortly after the earliest documented Pacific Northwest Coast plank house villages.

Testing organic residues extracted from pipes, researchers confirmed tobacco was smoked, and likely grown in the region, by at least AD 860.

The earliest known usage of tobacco in the Pacific Northwest was smoked using a pipe similar to these, according to Shannon Tushingham. (Credit: Shannon Tushingham/UC Davis)


Perhaps more importantly, additional studies may clarify the origins of nicotine addiction and the human management, geographic range extension, and cultivation of tobacco. As part of a second study, the authors have recently detected nicotine in ancient pipes from an 800-year-old site in the modern city of Pleasanton, California.

“Despite the economic importance of tobacco today, we know very little about its antiquity,” says Shannon Tushingham, an archaeology research associate at the University of California, Davis and primary author of the study.

“We believe Native American use of tobacco and other psychoactive plants is quite ancient. The methods we developed provide an important breakthrough which can be applied on even older pipes throughout the ancient Americas.”

Prior to this recent testing, which used sensitive gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, researchers were unsure of the historical use of tobacco on the Pacific Northwest Coast. It was unclear, for example, whether European traders had brought tobacco to the area much later, or if some other plant had been smoked in the pipes, Tushingham says.

Historic native peoples smoked a wide variety of plants, including tobacco, and pipes that researchers found at sites indicate smoking was an important part of ritual activities in the past.

But archaeologists had found it difficult to detect what plants might have been smoked in the pipes because of the age and deterioration of pipes found. Early tobacco also had less nicotine content—less than 2 percent—and it is more difficult to detect than tobacco today, with a nicotine content of 4 to 8.5 percent.

After two years of experimentation, researchers developed a chemical process where residue is extracted directly from the stone or clay matrix of the pipes, leaving the pipe intact. By applying the process to one complete pipe and various fragments found at village sites in Tolowa ancestral territory, researchers found the biomarker nicotine, indicating that tobacco had been smoked.

The study sites are located in the traditional homeland of the Tolowa people, in the Smith River basin and vicinity of northwestern California.

Source: UC Davis