Research Press Release

Archaeology: Earliest known human use of tobacco revealed

Nature Human Behaviour

October 12, 2021

Humans were using tobacco around 12,300 years ago, suggests archeological evidence presented in a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour. These findings indicate that tobacco was used by some of the first human groups to arrive in the Americas — 9,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Tobacco (Nicotiana) is an intoxicant plant that originated in the Americas and has an important role in the traditions of many Indigenous North American groups. Its’ global use has had widespread impacts on human society. Previous evidence from smoking pipes suggested that the earliest users of tobacco lived in pre-agricultural North America, approximately 3,000 years ago.

Daron Duke and colleagues excavated the remains of a hunter-gatherer camp at the Wishbone site situated in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. The authors identified an intact human hearth — an ancient fireplace — from about 12,300 years ago, surrounded by stone and bone artefacts. Within the hearth were found the remains of four charred tobacco seeds, which at other sites are thought to be a byproduct of chewing tobacco. Other remains at the Wishbone site suggest that the tobacco was not used for fuel or eaten by other animals. These remains included animal bones, and also typical Haskett spear-tips, which were used to hunt large game.

The findings suggest that tobacco was used by humans for thousands of years before it was domesticated. As such, they may help us to better understand — from a cultural perspective — the driving forces behind the cultivation, use and subsequent domestication of tobacco.


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