Researchers in Utah find evidence of earliest human tobacco use 12,300 years ago

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Scientists have unearthed a milestone in human culture—the earliest known use of tobacco—in the remains of a stove built by early settlers to the interior of North America about 12,300 years ago in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert.

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Researchers discovered four burnt seeds of a wild tobacco plant, stone tools and duck bones left over from food within the contents of the fire. By far, the earliest documented use of tobacco was 3,300 years ago from Alabama in the form of nicotine residue found inside smoking pipes.

Researchers believe that nomadic hunter-gatherers at the Utah site may have sucked in tobacco, or perhaps the fiber of the tobacco plant, for the stimulant properties offered by nicotine.

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After the introduction of tobacco use among the native peoples of the New World, it spread around the world after the arrival of Europeans more than five centuries ago. Tobacco now represents the world countries with public health crisisWith 1.3 billion tobacco users and over 8 million annual tobacco-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

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“Globally, tobacco is the king of narcotic plants, and we can now trace its cultural roots directly to the Ice Age,” said archaeologist Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Nevada, lead author of the research published in Nature. Monday in the Journal of Human Behavior.

The seeds were from a wild variety of desert tobacco called Nicotiana attenuata, which still grows in the region.

“This species was never domesticated, but is used by indigenous peoples in the region to this day,” Duque said.

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The Great Salt Lake Desert is a large dry lake in northern Utah today. At that time the hearth site was part of a vast marshland, which had a cold climate during the twilight of the Ice Age. It is called the wishbone site because of the duck bones found in the hearth.

The remains of the hearth were found erupting from barren clay flats, where wind has been peeling away layers of sediment since the marshland dried up about 9,500 years ago.

“We know very little about their culture,” said the duke of hunter-gatherers. “The thing that worries me most about this discovery is the social window that lets a simple activity into an uncontrolled past. My imagination runs wild.”

Artifacts there included small pointed stone cutting tools and spear tips made of volcanic glass called obsidian used for hunting large mammals. The tip of a spear contained the remains of a mammoth or mastodon—the blood proteins of elephant relatives that later became extinct.

“We speculate that tobacco may have joined the ecological knowledge base of the peoples who settled the interior of the North American continent about 13,000-plus years ago,” said Duke.

Duke said the domestication of tobacco occurred thousands of years later on the continent, in the southwestern and southeastern United States, and in Mexico.

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“We don’t know exactly when tobacco was domesticated, but there was a major development of agriculture in the Americas within the last 5,000 years. There has been evidence of tobacco use, both direct – seed, residue – and indirect – such as pipe-in grow with the domestication of food crops over the course of time,” said Duke.

Some scholars have argued that tobacco may have been the first plant domesticated in North America—and for socio-cultural rather than food purposes.

“There is no doubt that people may have been consuming, manipulating and managing tobacco at least recklessly even before population and food-need incentives were in place,” Duke said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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