Humans used tobacco ‘9,000 years earlier than first thought’

Tobacco seeds found among remnants of hunter-gatherer camp in modern-day Utah

Humans may have used tobacco thousands of years earlier than was previously thought.

Researchers have found signs that early American hunter-gatherers were chewing leaves as they cooked their prey about 12,300 years ago.

An archaeological dig found four charred tobacco seeds at a hunter-gatherer camp in a once-fertile area of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah along with spear-tips, animal bones and the remains of an ancient fireplace.

The seeds, which do not contain nicotine, may have been pulled up along with the leaves and stems chewed by some of the first human groups to arrive in the Americas, according to a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

The findings suggest that tobacco, a plant that originated in the Americas, was used as an intoxicant around 9,000 years earlier than first thought, and long before the plant was cultivated for domestic use and trade. Previous evidence of tobacco’s ancient use came from residue in smoking pipes that dates back about 3,000 years.

Tobacco would not have been found growing near the Utah site and the spindly plants would have been of little use for burning. Researchers also ruled out the seeds having been eaten by birds cooked by the hunter-gatherers, leading to the conclusion that part of the tobacco plant would have been brought with them for chewing around the fire.

“The data suggest use as a fireside activity along with food preparation, food consumption and tool use,” said the study by researchers from Nevada.

Human activity in the area – known as the Wishbone site – has been dated to the latter years of the last Ice Age through radiocarbon testing of willow charcoal found from the hearth. The team from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group said the find raised profound questions about humans’ use of tobacco.

I became popular worldwide because of the global trade sparked by Spanish explorers and their dealings with indigenous American people more than 500 years ago. But the findings suggest that tobacco was being used soon after the first people arrived in the Americas about 16,000 years ago.

Updated: October 11th 2021, 3:00 PM