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A Non-Tobacco Plant

Archaeologists Find Traces of Non-Tobacco Plant in Pre-Columbian Native American Pipe

The 1,430-year-old basalt pipe from central Washington State, the United States, not only contained nicotine, but also had strong evidence for the smoking of the Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) and the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). Until now, the use of specific plant mixtures by ancient people in the American Northwest had only been speculated about.

The ancient pipes analyzed by Brownstein et al: (A) pre-contact pipe and (B) post-contact pipe are roughly 7 and 4 cm in length, respectively. Image credit: Brownstein et al, doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2020.00133.

The ancient pipes analyzed by Brownstein et al: (A) pre-contact pipe and (B) post-contact pipe are roughly 7 and 4 cm in length, respectively. Image credit: Brownstein et al, doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2020.00133.

“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,” said lead author Dr. Korey Brownstein, a researcher at the University of Chicago.

“We think the smooth sumac may have been mixed with tobacco for its medicinal qualities and to improve the flavor of smoke.”

The discovery was made possible by a new metabolomics-based analysis method that can detect thousands of plant compounds or metabolites in residue collected from ancient pipes, bowls and other artifacts.

The compounds can then be used to identify which plants were smoked or consumed.

“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,” said senior author Professor David Gang, a scientist in the Institute of Biological Chemistry at Washington State University.

“It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this technology represents a new frontier in archaeo-chemistry.”

This new study also helps elucidate the complex evolution of tobacco trade in the American Northwest.

The analysis of a second pipe that was used by people living in Central Washington after Euro-American contact revealed the presence of a different tobacco species, the strong tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), which was grown by native peoples on the east coast of what is now the United States.

“Our findings show Native American communities interacted widely with one another within and between ecological regions, including the trade of tobacco seeds and materials,” said Dr. Shannon Tushingham, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University.

“The research also casts doubt on the commonly held view that trade tobacco grown by Europeans overtook the use of natively-grown smoke plants after Euro-American contact.”

The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.

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Korey J. Brownstein et al. An Ancient Residue Metabolomics-Based Method to Distinguish Use of Closely Related Plant Species in Ancient Pipes. Front. Mol. Biosci, published online June 26, 2020; doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2020.00133

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