Humans’ Earliest Evidence of Tobacco Use Uncovered in Utah

The charred seeds suggest that people used tobacco over 12,000 years ago—much earlier than previously thought

Charred tobacco seeds against a white background
While the seeds do not indicate how the ancient humans used tobacco, researchers suspect that tobacco leaves, stems, and other plants may have been twisted together and chewed or sucked and the seeds were discarded or spit out. D. DUKE ET AL/NATURE HUMAN BEHAVIOR 2021

Within the mudflats of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, archeologists uncovered four 12,300-year-old charred tobacco seeds in an ancient hearth once used by hunter-gatherers near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, reports Charles Q. Choi for Live Science. The find suggests that humans' use of tobacco began 9,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Before the discovery, the earliest known evidence of human tobacco use was 3,000-year-old ceramic pipes from Alabama that contained nicotine residue, per Live Science. The study published this month in Nature Human Behaviour could reveal a new timeline of human's use of intoxicants and how it may have led to food crop domestication.

"We now know that Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been using tobacco for much of time since they arrived," says study author Daron Duke, an archeologist at Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Nevada, to Inverse's Tara Yarlagadda.

Tobacco is so intertwined with human history that it has had the most impact socially and economically out of all the intoxicants humans use. From the ancient Maya to Indigenous peoples living in what is now the United States, tobacco is considered sacred and has been used for ceremonial or medicinal purposes, per Live Science. When Europeans colonized the Americas, the leafy plant drove the American colonial economy and Western expansion across North America.

The earliest evidence of the plant's domestication dates to about 8,000 years ago in South America, reports Bruce Bower for Science News. However, how tobacco came to North America is still debated. Some researchers argue that tobacco may have already existed in North America before humans arrived, or it was brought there from South and Central America by migrating humans, per Inverse.

The scorched tobacco seeds—unearthed in 2015—most likely came from plants taken from foothills or mountains near the Wishbone hearth archeological site. The fireplace where scientists discovered the seeds was also riddled with more than 2,000 bone fragments, some stone artifacts like spear tips used to hunt large animals, and charred willow wood that was most likely used as firewood. Researchers used the charred wood to carbon date the tobacco seeds to about 12,300 years old, Inverse reports. Most of the bone fragments belonged to ducks, per Live Science. Before the area was the desert terrain we know of today, it was a marshland filled with waterfowl and wetland plants, per Science News.

While the seeds do not indicate how the ancient humans used tobacco, researchers suspect that tobacco leaves, stems, and other plants may have been twisted together and chewed or sucked and the seeds were discarded or spit out, per Science News. Ancestral Puebloans in what is now Arizona chewed tobacco 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. Whether or not ancient humans smoked the tobacco at the Wishbone archeological site is yet to be determined, Science News reports. However, the find does suggest that tobacco has deep cultural roots dating back thousands of years. Duke and his team plan on searching for more archeological sites like the Wishbone hearth to further pinpoint a timeline for tobacco use and shed light on cultural forces behind its cultivation.

"People in the past were the ultimate botanists and identified the intoxicant values of tobacco quickly upon arriving in the Americas," Duke tells Live Science. "We have been working to get Indigenous input about the meaning and importance of the find. This will not only help us understand the find for the common scientific reasons, but also help us learn more about its values to the people whose forebears camped at the site and lived throughout the region."