Over the last few weeks I’ve run into a few misconceptions about tobacco, as well as some interesting news, so I thought I’d share. If you already know some of this, forgive me, not everyone else does.
First, tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, is a member of the Solanaceae family of plants, which from a human perspective has got to be one of the most interesting plant families out there. It includes Belladonna, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. So, from this one family of plants, you can kill your neighbor, have a nice meal, and a smoke a cigar afterward.
Tobacco is a Native American cultivar. Native Americans discovered a wild version of this plant and domesticated it. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, tobacco was widely grown and used. Its use was probably a combination of recreational and ceremonial or religious, with emphasis on the ceremonial. The exact extent of its growth is not clearly known, but certainly it was traded well beyond the regions it was grown. (The plant will grow under a fairly wide range of conditions.)
People in Western countries or with access to Western goods, who smoke, are generally smoking a very mild form of tobacco. If you don’t smoke at all or have not for a long time, and you take a few puffs on a cigarette, you get an instant high which may be accompanied with a bit of hacking up of the lungs and a feeling of Nausea. Stronger tobacco provides a somewhat less intense instant high but one that lasts longer, in my experience smoking with Efe Pygmies, who have incorporated tobacco in their own ritual and recreational activities. (They usually mix it with Cannabis, but I’ve tried their home grown tobacco on it’s own quite a few times, as for some of my time living with them I was a smoker.)
The key ingredient in tobacco … the one you become addicted to and which causes the mild psychoactive effects … is Nicotine. I’m sure you knew that. Nicotine is an alkaloid molecule, which probably evolved as a defense used by plants to deter consumption by some kind of herbivore or another. While the molecule may vary across plants, some form of Nicotine is found at some level in a number of plants in the family Solanaceae, but it is very concentrated in tobacco. It is extremely addictive and has a number of negative health effects. It is a bit ironic, or at least, problematic, that most people seem to associate smoking tobacco with lung cancer, but the effects of Nicotine on health (which is not lung cancer) are certainly much more widespread and more likely to affect a smoker.
Although Nicotine is found in a number of species, it is generally true that specific molecules like Nicotine originally evolved as anti herbivore defenses, which also have other uses enjoyed by humans (many of our spices as well as a number of drugs) and are mostly species or genus specific. In other words, if you find a bunch of Nicotine in a sample inside a container in an archaeological setting, it was probably Tobacco being stored (or burned) there.
And this brings us to an interesting study that just came out: The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period ﬂask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. From the abstract:
Several ancient Mayan vessels… were examined for the presence of alkaloids. One of them, a codex-style ﬂask, bears a text that appears to read … ‘the home of its/his/her tobacco’. Samples extracted from this Late Classic period (600 to 900 AD) container were analyzed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS) methods. Nicotine was identiﬁed as the major component of the extracts. LC/MS analyses also yielded signals due to nicotine mono-oxides. … These analyses provided positive evidence for nicotine from a Mayan vessel, indicating it as a likely holder of tobacco leafs. The result of this investigation is the ﬁrst physical evidence of tobacco from a Mayan container, and only the second example where the vessel content recorded in a Mayan hieroglyphic text has been conﬁrmed directly by chromatography/mass spectrometry trace analysis.
The research was done by people at a couple of schools I used to have stuff to do with, so that’s fun: RPI and SUNY Albany. Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman of SUNY Albany said this of the research: “Investigation of food items consumed by ancient people offers insight into the traditions and customs of a particular civilization. Textual evidence written on pottery is often an indicator of contents or of an intended purpose, however actual usage of a container could be altered or falsely represented.”
The neat thing about this study is that it proves the obvious: The Maya are known to have used tobacco from way back, based on the occasional picture they carved of some guy smoking. Vessels that say “Tobacco” on them are likely to hold tobacco. But, in fact, the use of the substance and the specified use of the containers is conjectural. This research, then, represents basic forensic documentation.
RPI’s Dmitri Zagorevski notes, “Our study provides rare evidence of the intended use of an ancient container. Mass spectrometry has proven to be an invaluable method of analysis of organic residues in archaeological artifacts. This discovery is not only significant to understanding Mayan hieroglyphics, but an important archaeological application of chemical detection.”
Zagorevski, Dmitri, & Loughmiller-Newman, Jennifer (2012). The Detection of Nicotine in a Late Mayan Period Flask by GCMS and LCMS Methods Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 26, 403-411
Image of artifact supplied by Wiley-Blackwell.