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Washington State University researchers David Gang and Shannon Tushingham have found that tobacco use among the Nez Perce goes back centuries. They’re holding two of the pipes that were analyzed for nicotine residue. (WSU Photo)

Tobacco plays a big role in Native American history and culture, predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival by well more than a millennium. But what did ancient tribes smoke? And can history help modern-day tribes put tobacco in its proper place?

A newly published study by Washington State University researchers traces the smoking habits of indigenous peoples in southeastern Washington state over the course of centuries, based on a molecular analysis of residue extracted from smoking pipes found at archaeological sites.

“This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world — initially during an era of pithouse development, through the late pre-contact equestrian era, and into the historic period,” the research team, led by WSU anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In this image from around 1861, Nez Perce Chief Lawyer holds an elbow pipe that was commonly used after trade tobacco spread across the Pacific Northwest. (Univ. of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NA 627)

Back when Columbus got his first taste of tobacco, Native Americans viewed smoking as a ceremonial and religious ritual, marking occasions that ranged from prayers to peace treaties.

Today’s dominant strain of commercial tobacco, known by the scientific name Nicotiana tabacum, was introduced to tribes in the western United States European settlers in the 1800s. Before contact, Western tribes ranging from Alaska to California used wild strains of tobacco instead, such as N. quadrivalvis (Indian tobacco) and N. attenuata (coyote tobacco).

Some tribes were also known to smoke an entirely different kind of plant known as kinnikinnick or bearberry (which is now a popular ornamental plant for Northwest gardens).

Over the course of several years, Tushingham and her colleagues have developed a technique to identify the molecular signatures of the plants that were smoked in a pipe. “We smoke pipes experimentally,” she told GeekWire. “We don’t actually ‘smoke’ them. I have an apparatus where we smoke them with a large veterinary syringe.”

The researchers then extracted residue from 12 stone pipes and pipe fragments that were recovered from five archaeological sites in the Columbia River Basin, and looked for those molecular signatures.

They expected to see the signs of kinnikinnick smoking in the earliest samples, transitioning to tobacco in the later samples.

Instead, they found molecular traces of nicotine from tobacco in eight of the pipes, dating back as far as 1,200 years. Nicotine was also found in residue from a pipe fragment that might go back to 500 B.C. or earlier, but the carbon dating record is unclear in that case.

None of the pipes contained any traces of arbutin, the molecular indicator that researchers expected to find for kinnikinnick. “I was surprised,” Tushingham said. The researchers also looked for any signs of marijuana smoking — but as expected, found none.

Cloud blower
This soapstone smoking pipe, or “cloud blower,” was found at an archaeological site in the Columbia River region. Plant material was placed inside the tube and lit. (Nez Perce National Historical Park Photo)

The findings led researchers to several conclusions. First of all, the ritual use of tobacco by inland Northwest tribes goes back centuries before their first contact with European settlers. Secondly, the types of tobacco used in those earliest times had to be indigenous varieties rather than commercial trade tobacco.

“This information can be helpful to tribal efforts toward educating youth about the dangers of commercial tobacco and the sacredness of indigenous tobaccos,” the researchers write. “Rejuvenation of additive-free indigenous tobaccos … used in traditional contexts can be part of this process.”

Those traditional contexts could include using tobacco in ways that don’t involve pipes, such as smudging, gift-giving and ritual offerings.

That fits in with the goals of “Keep Tobacco Sacred,” a consciousness-raising campaign that’s being conducted by Native American tribes across the country, including the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho. The Nez Perce recently received a $200,000 federal grant to support the tribe’s efforts to reduce cigarette smoking while preserving ceremonial practices that make use of tobacco.

“I’m thrilled at the notion that this study can have an impact at a broader level,” Tushingham said.

In addition to Tushingham, the authors of the PNAS paper, “Biomolecular Archaeology Reveals Ancient Origins of Indigenous Tobacco Smoking in North American Plateau,” include Korey Brownstein, William Damitio and David Gang at WSU, and Charles Snyder at Rhodes College. 

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