Utah desert outbreak site reveals human tobacco use 12,300 years ago


WASHINGTON, Oct.11 (Reuters) – Scientists have unearthed evidence of a milestone in human cultivation – the oldest known use of tobacco – in the remains of a home built by the first inhabitants of the interior of North America about 12,300 years ago in the Great Salt Lake of Utah Desert.

The researchers found four charred seeds of a wild tobacco plant in the contents of the hearth, as well as stone tools and duck bones left over from meals. Until now, the first documented use of tobacco has been in the form of nicotine residue found inside a pipe in Alabama dating from 3,300 years ago.

The researchers believe that the nomadic hunter-gatherers at the Utah site may have smoked tobacco or perhaps sucked on wads of tobacco fiber for the stimulating qualities offered by the nicotine it contained.

After tobacco use originated among the indigenous peoples of the New World, it spread throughout the world following the arrival of Europeans more than five centuries ago. Tobacco now represents a global public health crisis, with 1.3 billion tobacco users and more than 8 million tobacco-related deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

“Globally, tobacco is the king of intoxicating 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, senior author of research published on Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

The seeds belonged to a wild variety of desert tobacco, called Nicotiana attenuata, which still grows in the area.

“This species has never been domesticated but is still used by the indigenous peoples of the region,” said Duke.

The Great Salt Lake Desert is today a large dry lake bed in northern Utah. The site of the outbreak at the time was part of a large swamp, with a cooler climate during the twilight of the Ice Age. It’s called the Wishbone site because of the duck triangles found in the foyer.

The remains of the hearth were found eroded in the barren mud flats where the wind blew away layers of sediment since the marshes dried up about 9,500 years ago.

“We know very little about their culture,” Duke said of hunter-gatherers. “What intrigues me most about this find is the social window it gives to a simple activity in an undocumented past. My imagination is wild.”

Artifacts present included small sharp stone tools and volcanic glass spear points called obsidian, used for hunting large mammals. A spear point carried the remains of blood proteins from a mammoth or mastodon – parents of elephants that later went extinct.

“We assume that tobacco must have been in the ecological knowledge base of those who settled inside the North American continent over 13,000 years ago,” said Duke.

The domestication of tobacco occurred thousands of years later elsewhere on the continent, in the southwest and southeastern United States and in Mexico, Duke added.

“We don’t know exactly when tobacco was domesticated, but there has been a great flowering of agriculture in the Americas over the past 5,000 years. Evidence of tobacco use, both direct – seeds , residues – and indirect – like pipes – increase during these times alongside the domestication of food crops, ”added Duke.

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

“There is no doubt that people would have at least cared for, handled and managed tobacco long before the people and the dietary needs incentives that drove investments in agriculture,” said Duke.

Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler

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