Early Residents of the Pacific Northwest Smoked Smooth Sumac

Researchers used a new technique to detect the chemical fingerprints of specific plant species in a 1,400-year-old pipe’s residue

Pipe replicas
Researchers used these five replica clay pipes to "smoke" tobacco and other native plants. Washington State University

A new technique for analyzing ancient plant residue has yielded evidence that Native Americans living in what is now Washington State smoked smooth sumac and wild tobacco some 1,400 years ago, reports David Szondy for New Atlas.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, is the first to identify non-tobacco residue in an ancient pipe, according to a statement.

Researchers unearthed the pipe in question in central Washington. Per the analysis, it contained traces of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and a type of wild tobacco commonly called Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis). Though the tobacco species may have once been widely cultivated, it is no longer found in Washington, and until now, scientists lacked direct evidence suggesting it was smoked in conjunction with other plants.

“Smoking often played a religious or ceremonial role for Native American tribes and our research shows these specific plants were important to these communities in the past,” says lead author Korey Brownstein, a biochemist at the University of Chicago, in the statement. “We think the Rhus glabra may have been mixed with tobacco for its medicinal qualities and to improve the flavor of smoke.”

The archaeological significance of the find stems from a shortage of information on the plants Native Americans smoked prior to Europeans’ post 18th-century introduction of Aztec and common tobacco (Nicotiana rustica or Nicotiana tabacum, respectively).

Existing methods for detecting plant residue rely on biomarkers, or chemicals used to infer the presence of a particular plant. But these techniques have limitations: Tobacco’s biomarker, nicotine, can’t be linked to a specific variety of the plant. And most biomarker analyses can only confirm or exclude the presence of a handful of compounds at once.

The method detailed in the paper relies on metabolomics, a process capable of detecting thousands of metabolites, or plant-derived compounds, that allow for more in-depth analysis. To identify relevant metabolites, the researchers “smoked” an array of plant species by burning their dried leaves or needles in five clay pipes.

As study co-author David Gang, a biochemist at Washington State University, notes in the statement, the technique could have broad applications for archaeologists studying the history of human-plant interaction.

“It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this technology represents a new frontier in archaeo-chemistry,” he adds.

The team also applied the method to a more recent Native American pipe found in central Washington. Dated to after Europeans’ arrival in North America, the pipe contains traces of N. rustica, reports Brooks Hays for United Press International (UPI). This variety was likely introduced to eastern North America via pre-European contact trade routes; by the time Europeans arrived on the continent, the potent tobacco was widely cultivated by Native American tribes along the East Coast, according to the study.

“Our findings show Native American communities interacted widely with one another within and between ecological regions, including the trade of tobacco seeds and materials,” says study co-author Shannon Tushingham, an anthropologist at Washington State University, in the statement. “The research also casts doubt on the commonly held view that trade tobacco grown by Europeans overtook the use of natively-grown smoke plants after Euro-American contact.”

The researchers are working with members of the Nez Perce, a Native American tribe with a deep cultural history of smoking tobacco, to cultivate some of the seeds from pre-contact plant species used in the study, according to UPI.

“We took over an entire greenhouse to grow these plants and collected millions of seeds so that the Nez Perce people could reintroduce these native plants back onto their land,” says Brownstein in the statement. “I think these kinds of projects are so important because they help build trust between us and tribal communities and show that we can work together to make discoveries.”

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