Monday, January 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tobacco used 9,000 years earlier than previously thought, study finds

The tobacco seeds were found at a camp site on the vast prehistoric lakebed of western Utah. They date from a time when the land would not have been a barren sand-blasted desert it is today, but a humid climate of springs, streams and marshland.

(CN) — On an Air Force bombing range in western Utah, a team has found evidence that tobacco may have been enjoyed far earlier than previously thought.

Archeologists at the Utah Test and Training Range found tobacco seeds at what had been a hearth campfire site from approximately 12,300 years ago, 9,000 years earlier than previously identified. They published their findings Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

"We have no evidence for how the tobacco was used," said Daron Duke, principal and COO of Far Western Anthropological Research Group Inc., a private archeological firm that works on the range. "Certainly smoking is always viable. There is no direct evidence of how they did what they did."

Stephen Carmody of Troy State University made a previous finding of earliest known tobacco use in North America north of Mexico, back in 2018. He was excited to hear the news.

"It forces us to rethink our previous narratives about the use of sacred plants in the past, but more importantly, it connects contemporary indigenous communities to their ancestors through practice," he said via email (Carmody was on a flight to Italy to participate in a dig there). "New finds force us to revisit old interpretations and reconsider a different past."

The tobacco seeds were found at a camp site on the vast prehistoric lakebed of western Utah. They date from a time when the land would not have been a barren sand-blasted desert it is today, but a humid climate of springs, streams and marshland.

"There was still so much water in the geology of the region," Duke said. "A really bountiful kind of environment."

Now the site is a bone-dry desert. It was found out in the open because of erosion.

"Any bone is going to be blasted away in no time. Artifacts, if they are not heavy enough, will blow away. But right below that surface, just a centimeter, everything is just perfectly intact," he said. "Things are really preserved well until they get blown out and destroyed.”

The seeds were found as if they had been thrown into the fire. Duke speculated the users of the tobacco may have consumed it by filling small pouches made of yucca plant fibers with tobacco and placing it in their mouth. They may have thrown them in the fire after.

The Air Force is required to understand the historical artifacts on the range. Duke has been working there for about 20 years, and it was the subject of his Ph.D dissertation. The seeds were identified in the company's botany lab in Davis, California.

“The deeper meaning to me and a lot of other researchers who are working on this is, what explains a deep tie to a plant that has more of a social value?" he said. "There is a human plant symbiosis there."

"People think tobacco was discovered by Columbus but that’s only a recent twist," Duke said. "Indigenous people have been refining and using this plant for many thousands of years. What the Spanish explorers saw was merely a result of that.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...