Holy Smoke – By David Malakoff

Summer 2014: When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Cuba during his first voyage to the New World in 1492, he and his shipmates saw something that baffled them. Many of the native people—probably members of the Taino tribe—smoked like chimneys. Men and women were “always with a firebrand” made of dried plants that produced pungent trails of smoke, Columbus reported in his diary. They “take in with their breath that smoke which dulls their flesh and as it were intoxicates.” And they had a special name for the smoldering bundles: “Tobacos.

Columbus’ entry is likely the earliest historical account of Native Americans smoking tobacco, a habit then unknown to Europeans. And it marked the beginnings of a worldwide love-hate relationship with this intoxicating, addictive, and deadly plant. Within decades, tobacco cultivation and use spread from the Americas to Europe and far beyond. Today, the leaf is the basis of a $35 billion industry, and the world’s leading cause of preventable death.

How ancient Native Americans came to use and grow tobacco, however, has been something of a puzzle. The most popular varieties evolved in South America, but scholars have long debated exactly when early Americans began exploiting them, and how the plants spread to North America. Adding to the enigma is the difficulty of finding archaeological evidence of tobacco plants, which decay easily and produce tiny, almost invisible seeds. “It also doesn’t help that often the whole point of tobacco is that you burn it, which doesn’t leave much behind to work with,” said archaeologist Sean Rafferty of the University at Albany in New York.

In recent years, however, technological advances and new finds have begun to help clear the haze. Researchers have learned to detect minute quantities of nicotine, one of tobacco’s most potent and distinctive chemical constituents, in ash smudges on prehistoric pipes and even in residue on the hair of mummies. That’s helped them push back the confirmed use of tobacco by centuries.


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