Contact High: Pre-Columbian Tobacco Use

10 Jan

“…men with half-burned wood in their hands and certain herbs to take their smokes, which are some dry herbs put in a certain leaf, also dry, like those the boys make on the day of the Passover of the Holy Ghost; and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck, absorb, or receive that smoke inside with the breath, by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue. These, muskets as we will call them, they call tabacos. I knew Spaniards on this island of Española who were accustomed to take it, and being reprimanded for it, by telling them it was a vice, they replied they were unable to cease using it. I do not know what relish or benefit they found in it.” -Bartoleme de Las Casas

Even before it exploded into Europe, tobacco was already a phenomenon in the new world both north and south. A few tobacco species do crop up in Australia and the Pacific Islands, but it never really caught on as it did in the Americas. We’ve even recently proven that the Mayans enjoyed the plant’s effects. Found some in a pot.

The range of applications was immense (I’ll try to hit the highlights).The peace pipe is, of course, the most ubiquitous image of Native tobacco use, although really that was only a single piece in a wide array of paraphernalia. Many other different types of pipes and applications existed. For some it was a spiritual thing, that prayers could travel upwards along it. If you smoked enough it could even produce religious hallucinations. Furthermore, aches and pains could be cured with powders and leaves. One group actually used a pasty mixture of tobacco and chalk as toothpaste.

I can’t touch on every culture’s application of the plant, although Smoking Tobacco and Random History have much more in-depth articles if you’re interested. It’s quite an interesting read, especially considering the modern vilification of cigarettes.

Sources: Charlton (2004)ScienceBlog,, Random HistoryWikipedia

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Anthropology


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