Biomolecular archaeology reveals ancient origins of indigenous tobacco smoking in North American Plateau
Shannon Tushingham, Charles M. Snyder, Korey J. Brownstein, William J. Damitio, and David R. Gang
Chemical analysis of residues contained in the matrix of stone smoking pipes reveal a substantial direct biomolecular record of ancient tobacco (Nicotiana) smoking practices in the North American interior northwest (Plateau), in an area where tobacco was often portrayed as a Euro-American–introduced postcontact trade commodity. Nicotine, a stimulant alkaloid and biomarker for tobacco, was identified via ultra-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry in 8 of 12 analyzed pipes and pipe fragments from five sites in the Columbia River Basin, southeastern Washington State. The specimens date from 1200 cal BP to historic times, confirming the deep time continuity of intoxicant use and indigenous smoking practices in northwestern North America. The results indicate that hunting and gathering communities in the region, including ancestral Nez Perce peoples, established a tobacco smoking complex of wild (indigenous) tobacco well before the main domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was introduced by contact-era fur traders and settlers after the 1790s. This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world—initially during an era of pithouse development, through the late precontact equestrian era, and into the historic period. This contradicts some ethnohistorical data indicating that kinnikinnick, or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) was the primary precontact smoke plant in the study area. Early use likely involved the management and cultivation of indigenous tobaccos (Nicotiana quadrivalvis or Nicotiana attenuata), species that are today exceedingly rare in the region and seem to have been abandoned as smoke plants after the entry of trade tobacco.
While tobacco is one of the most heavily consumed (and abused) plant substances of the modern era, with profound global health consequences, its early use remains poorly understood. Here we report a substantial direct biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking by hunter-gatherers of interior northwestern North America. Nicotine-positive samples demonstrate deep time continuity of indigenous tobacco smoking in a place where tobacco has been depicted as being introduced by early Euro-American traders and explorers. The spread of domesticated trade tobacco seems to have overtaken and obscured ancient indigenous tobacco practices. The information—represented here by the longest continuous biomolecular record of tobacco use from a single region—informs programs designed to combat persistent commercial tobacco use rates among modern Tribal communities.