Science

Oldest evidence of human tobacco use dates back 12,000 years

Oldest evidence of human tobac...
Eric Gingerich, foreground, and Kelly McGuire, both with Far Western Anthropological Research Group, work at the Wishbone dig site in Utah
Eric Gingerich, foreground, and Kelly McGuire, both with Far Western Anthropological Research Group, work at the Wishbone dig site in Utah
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The site was a hunter-gatherer camp dated around 12,300 years ago
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The site was a hunter-gatherer camp dated around 12,300 years ago
Eric Gingerich, foreground, and Kelly McGuire, both with Far Western Anthropological Research Group, work at the Wishbone dig site in Utah
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Eric Gingerich, foreground, and Kelly McGuire, both with Far Western Anthropological Research Group, work at the Wishbone dig site in Utah

Archeologists excavating a remote site in northwestern Utah have discovered the oldest evidence of tobacco use, dating back more than 12,000 years. The find is almost 9,000 years older than prior evidence of ancient tobacco use.

The discovery took place at an Ice Age hunter-gatherer camp known as the Wishbone site. The site was first unearthed six years ago in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert and radiocarbon dating of charred wood estimates it to be about 12,300 years old.

Amongst the remnants of the ancient fireplace the research team discovered four charred tobacco seeds. The seeds belong to a variety of wild tobacco known as Nicotiana attenuata.

The Wishbone site would have been quite a marshy area 12,000 years ago, and the researchers note it unlikely any tobacco plants would have been growing in that specific location. It is also unlikely the tobacco plant was used to simply feed the fire, as the seeds do not burn well.

The site was a hunter-gatherer camp dated around 12,300 years ago
The site was a hunter-gatherer camp dated around 12,300 years ago

The most likely hypothesis, presented in a newly published article reporting the findings, is the ancient hunter-gatherers were chewing or smoking the tobacco plant for its intoxicating qualities.

“To see them, fireside, using tobacco—we can pretty readily imagine what they were getting out of it,” explains lead author on the new study Daron Duke, in an interview with Scientific American. “It’s very human to imbibe.”

Before this discovery the oldest archeological evidence of tobacco use dated back around 3,300 years. A 2018 study found traces of nicotine on ancient smoking pipes found at an archeological site in Northern Alabama.

Ethnographic and historical accounts can trace tobacco usage back even further. Indigenous North and South American cultures have described long histories of complex ritualistic tobacco use, but even then these uses often can only be traced back five to six thousand years.

Duke says little is known about the early hunter-gatherers who colonized North America at the tail end of the most recent Ice Age. However, this find does imply early humans were aware of the intoxicating properties of tobacco much earlier than expected.

“We surmise that tobacco must have figured into the ecological knowledge base of those who settled the interior of the North American continent, some 13,000-plus years ago,” Duke told Reuters. “We know very little about their culture. The thing that intrigues me the most about this find is the social window it gives to a simple activity in an undocumented past.”

The new study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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