New technique finds first non-tobacco residue in ancient pipes
Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have, through an examination of pipes from 1400 year-old archaeological sites, discovered that Native Americans in what is now Washington State weren't just smoking tobacco. The plant, a native to North America called smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), was likely consumed for medicinal qualities, but it's the method used to make the discovery that is really getting archaeologists excited.
Smoking in the New World dates back at least 5,000 years and has been the subject of numerous studies, but according to WSU, no traces of a non-tobacco plant have been identified from the residue of an archaeological pipe until now.
In the case of the current study, the researchers found traces of sumac in a pipe excavated in Central Washington, along with residue from a species of tobacco called Nicotiana quadrivalvis, which is known to have been cultivated in the region in the past.
"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 Korey Brownstein, the team leader, now at the University of Chicago. "We think the Rhus glabra may have been mixed with tobacco for its medicinal qualities and to improve the flavor of smoke."
What is significant about these findings is that the WSU team was able to identify the specific plant species that went into the pipe rather than merely speculating, which is what past scholars have had to settle for.
The reason why they were able to make this identification is thanks to a new analysis method that identifies metabolites – tiny plant compounds that are an intermediate or end product of metabolism. Previously scientists have had to be content with identifying plants in pipe residues by means of some simple biomarkers like nicotine, anabasine, cotinine, and caffeine. These are useful, but the metabolites allow for much more specific identifications by providing a wider range of markers.
"Not only does it tell you, yes, you found the plant you’re interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being smoked," says David Gang, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. "It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this technology represents a new frontier in archaeo-chemistry. Also, if you are only looking for a few specific biomarkers, you aren’t going to be able to tell what else was consumed in the artifact."
The research was published in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.
Source: Washington State University