People in the Pacific Northwest smoked tobacco long before Europeans showed up

Unearthed pipes reveal the earliest record of nicotine use in the region

drying tobacco leaves

TOBACCO THRIVED  Pipes found in the Pacific Northwest have traces of nicotine from around 1,200 years ago.


Ancient pipes and pipe fragments found at five archaeological sites along the Snake and Columbia rivers in Washington contain evidence of tobacco use, new research shows. The finds suggest that indigenous people there smoked tobacco-filled pipes long before Europeans brought the plant west.

Chemical traces of nicotine, tobacco’s key ingredient, on the artifacts date to around 1,200 years ago. That’s roughly 600 years before European fur traders were thought to have first introduced domesticated tobacco to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, researchers report online October 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cultivated tobacco seeds from roughly 3,500 years ago have been found at archaeological sites in the southern United States, and evidence of the plant’s domestication in South America stretches back almost 8,000 years. But this is the earliest “biomolecular evidence of tobacco use anywhere in the Northwest,” says Shannon Tushingham, an anthropologist at Washington State University in Pullman.

Tushingham and her colleagues used modern pipes to burn wild plants most likely smoked by early indigenous people. Those plants included bearberry, which is thought to have been widely smoked at the time, and some wild tobacco species, such as Nicotiana quadrivalvis, N. attenuata and N. obtusifolia. Using chemical signatures identified in those experiments, the team was surprised to find no traces of bearberry on the artifacts. But the scientists did detect measurable traces of nicotine, which could not be identified to the species level, in eight of 12 pipes and pipe fragments.

For many early indigenous groups, the practice of smoking tobacco played an important role in ceremonial events. The researchers hope that studying the ceremonial use of tobacco will help provide context for health programs seeking to mitigate its widespread use throughout Native American communities today. And Tushingham and her colleagues are working with local indigenous tribes, such as the Nez Perce, to raise awareness about the cultural significance of tobacco and help transition the plant back to its once-sacred status.

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