WASHINGTON: Scientists have unearthed evidence of a milestone in human culture – the earliest-known use of tobacco – in the remnants of a hearth built by early inhabitants of North America’s interior about 12,300 years ago in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert.
Researchers discovered four charred seeds of a wild tobacco plant within the hearth contents, along with stone tools and duck bones left over from meals.
Until now, the earliest documented use of tobacco came in the form of nicotine residue found inside a smoking pipe from Alabama dating to 3,300 years ago.
The researchers believe the nomadic hunter-gatherers at the Utah site may have smoked the tobacco or perhaps sucked wads of tobacco plant fibre for the stimulant qualities offered by the nicotine it contained.
After tobacco use originated among the New World’s native peoples, it spread worldwide following the arrival of Europeans more than five centuries ago.
Tobacco now represents a worldwide public health crisis, with 1.3 billion tobacco users and more than 8m annual tobacco-related deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
“On a global scale, tobacco is the king of intoxicant plants, and now we can directly trace its cultural roots to the Ice Age,” said archaeologist Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Nevada, lead author of the research published yesterday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The seeds belonged to a wild variety of desert tobacco, named Nicotiana attenuata, that still grows in the area.
“This species was never domesticated but is used by indigenous people in the region to this day,” Duke said.
The Great Salt Lake Desert today is a large dry lake bed in northern Utah.
The hearth site at the time was part of a vast marshlands, with a chillier clime during the twilight of the Ice Age.