By the time European explorers arrived in the New World, the tobacco plant was already employed in various ritual, social and medical customs.
Of the same nightshade (Solanaceae) family as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, petunias and even the poisonous Belladonna, the Nicotiana plant – tobacco’s genus – has over 60 species. Of those many varieties, the Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum are the ones involved in human consumption. Native to the Americas, Nicotiana Rustica and Nicotiana Tabacum have a long and complicated history.
Origin of Tobacco
In his book, Tobacco: A Cultural History of how an Exotic Plant Seduced a Civilization, Iain Gately states that mankind initially encountered tobacco roughly about 18,000 years ago, but that the estimates of its first usage date to 5000 – 3000 B.C. According to Gately, plant geneticist place tobacco’s “center of origin” in the Peruvian/Ecuadorian Andes. The “center of origin” is simply the place where tobacco cultivation and consumption initially met.
The logistics of just how Native Americans first began using tobacco via inhaling or sniffing is a matter of anthropological conjecture. Among the oldest tobacco-related artifacts that have been uncovered, however, are “snuffing” tubes dating to between 1000 and 1200 A.D. Snuffing tubes were used to sniff powered tobacco and appeared to be the preferred way for the Inca to ingest the plant.
Sacred Usage of Tobacco
Much in the way another plant native to the Americas, the cacao bean (more specifically chocolate), was used by Amerindians in religious ceremonies and other ritualistic occasions, tobacco was also used.
South American tribal medicine men would use tobacco smoke to enter into communion with the spirit world. Medicine men would not only consume the tobacco by smoking it in rolled form (rudimentary cigars and cigarettes) or simply inhaling the smoke of a bunch of tied burning leaves, but they would use its smoke in different blessing and healing ceremonies. Tobacco was viewed upon as the cure-all used as a wound dresser, pain killer, appetite suppressant, and muscle relaxant.
By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, the use and cultivation of tobacco had already spread to cover the entire continent – its islands included.
Early Recognition of Tobacco’s Addictive Power
In Historia de las Indias, Dominican priest and writer Bartolome de las Casas recorded the leafy plant as being addictive as early as 1527. Based in part on what he witnessed with the natives, as well as with his encounter with Spaniards who had taken up the habit, Las Casas correctly deduced the addictive power of tobacco.
Together with other native plants, Christopher Columbus took tobacco back to Europe with him. Europeans didn’t really take to it for several hundred years, though. It wasn’t until the mid 16th century when tobacco’s popularity took off in the Old World.
The First Cigarettes
Both the Maya and the Aztec engaged in cigar/cigarette smoking. Both cultures left proof the importance they ascribed to the activity of smoking in the form of temple engravings.
The earliest form of cigarettes came by way of dried strips of tobacco being wrapped or rolled in corn husks. Once across the Atlantic, tobacco leaves would be rolled within various types of thin paper. It wasn’t until the 1800s that small, rolled, paper covered leaves of tobacco hit the heights of popularity in France where they took the name cigarettes (French for “little cigars”).
Tobacco: The Cash Crop
Though the history of tobacco has not always been a pleasant one – especially as of the last 40 years – there is no denying that this plant was central in the cultures of early Native Americans of the entire continent, but tobacco was also instrumental in establishing and maintaining the economy of colonial America.
- “A Brief History of Tobacco”. CNN online.
- Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of how an Exotic Plant Seduced a Civilization. New York. Grove Press. 2001
- Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. New York. Cornell University Press. 2008
- “Solanales”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.