DAVIS, Calif. — The practice of smoking dates back 12,300 years — more than 9,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to new research. Study authors from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group say this points to the first humans in the Americas using tobacco to wind down after a hard day of chasing mammoths.
Scientists unearthed the evidence at an Ice Age hunting camp outside Salt Lake City, Utah. They discovered four charred tobacco seeds inside the remnants of a fireplace, surrounded by ancient artifacts including a spear point and thousands of broken waterfowl bones.
The Wishbone site in the Utah desert was discovered by the same research team six years ago, in the middle of a training ground for the U.S. Air Force. This site also contains the first known instances of cooking ducks, geese, and swans. It is shedding fresh light on the rich and intricate lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
“Within the hearth were found the remains of four charred tobacco seeds — a byproduct of chewing tobacco. Other remains at the Wishbone site suggest the tobacco was not used for fuel or eaten by other animals. These included animal bones and also spear-tips which were used to hunt large game including mammoths,” says lead investigator Dr. Daron Duke from Far Western Anthropological Research Group in a statement to SWNS.
“Tobacco was used by humans for thousands of years before it was domesticated. It may help us to better understand — from a cultural perspective — the driving forces behind the cultivation, use, and subsequent domestication of tobacco,” adds Dr. Duke.
Re-writing the history of tobacco cultivation
Christopher Columbus obtained dried tobacco leaves from indigenous Indians after discovering the Americas in 1492. It was soon being grown all over Europe. The plant was first cultivated for ceremonial, religious, and medicinal purposes.
“Tobacco is an intoxicant plant that originated in the Americas. It has an important role in the traditions of many indigenous North American groups,” Dr. Duke explains.
Previously, artifacts including smoking pipes pointed to the first tobacco users living in pre-agricultural North America, only 3,000 years ago.
“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. Excavations at the Wishbone site, directed at the hearth-side activities of the early inhabitants of North America’s desert west, have uncovered evidence for human tobacco use approximately 12,300 years ago — 9,000 years earlier than previously documented,” Dr. Duke tells SWNS.
So how did prehistoric humans use tobacco?
The four seeds discovered in Utah had been charred, suggesting the plants were burned. Researchers say it’s a sign the hunters actually used the tobacco in a similar way to modern Americans.
“The seeds are burned and definitely from within the hearth,” Dr. Duke adds. “The data suggest tobacco use as a fireside activity along with food preparation, food consumption, and tool use among mobile hunter-gatherers. The finding of seeds implies an emphasis on leaves and flowering stems, the parts with the intoxicant effect.”
“Seeds are the tobacco parts preserved most often in the archaeo-botanical record, but non-germinated seeds carry no nicotine. Because the seeds are small and easily caught up by the sticky hairs of the plant, they could be incidentally included when leaves and stems with attached flowering parts are harvested,” Dr. Duke concludes.
Study authors note early humans may also have chewed or sucked on wads of tobacco plant fiber.
The findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.