The History of Tobacco and the Origins and Domestication of Nicotiana

How long have ancient Americans been using tobacco?

Coca Leaves And Cigarettes In Plate

Jesse Kraft/EyeEm/Getty Images

Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica and N. tabacum) is a plant that was and is used as a psychoactive substance, a narcotic, a painkiller, and a pesticide and, as a result, it is and was used in the ancient past in a wide variety of rituals and ceremonies. Four species were recognized by Linnaeus in 1753, all originating from the Americas, and all from the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Today, scholars recognize over 70 different species, with N. tabacum the most economically important; almost all of them originated in South America, with one endemic to Australia and another to Africa.

Domestication History

A group of recent biogeographical studies reports that modern tobacco ( N. tabacum) originated in the highland Andes, probably Bolivia or northern Argentina, and was likely a result of the hybridization of two older species, N. sylvestris and a member of the section Tomentosae, perhaps N. tomentosiformis Goodspeed. Long before the Spanish colonization, tobacco had been distributed well outside its origins, throughout South America, into Mesoamerica and reaching the Eastern Woodlands of North America no later than ~300 BC. Although some debate within the scholarly community exists suggesting that some varieties may have originated in Central America or Southern Mexico, the most widely accepted theory is that N. tabacum originated where the historical ranges of its two progenitor species intersected.

The earliest dated tobacco seeds found to date are from early Formative levels at Chiripa in the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia. Tobacco seeds were recovered from Early Chiripa contexts (1500-1000 BC), although not in sufficient quantities or contexts to prove tobacco use with shamanistic practices. Tushingham and colleagues have traced a continuous record of smoking tobacco in pipes in western North America from at least 860 AD, and at the time of European colonial contact, tobacco was the most widely exploited intoxicant in the Americas.

Curanderos and Tobacco

Tobacco is believed to be one of the first plants used in the New World to initiate ecstasy trances. Taken in large amounts, tobacco induces hallucinations, and, perhaps not surprisingly, tobacco use is associated with pipe ceremonialism and bird imagery throughout the Americas. Physical changes associated with extreme doses of tobacco use include a lowered heart rate, which in some cases has been known to render the user into a catatonic state. Tobacco is consumed in a number of ways, including chewing, licking, eating, sniffing, and enemas, although smoking is the most effective and common form of consumption.

Among the ancient Maya and extending down to today, tobacco was a sacred, supernaturally powerful plant, considered a primordial medicine or "botanical helper" and associated with Maya deities of the earth and sky. A classic 17 year-long study by ethnoarchaeologist Kevin Goark (2010) looked at the use of the plant among the Tzeltal-Tzotzil Maya communities in highland Chiapas, recording processing methods, physiological effects, and magico-protective uses.

Ethnographic Studies

A series of ethnographic interviews (Jauregui et al 2011) was conducted between 2003-2008 with curanderos (healers) in east central Peru, who reported using tobacco in various ways. Tobacco is one of over fifty plants with psychotropic effects used in the region that are considered "plants that teach", including coca, datura, and ayahuasca. "Plants that teach" are also sometimes referred to as "plants with a mother", because they are believed to have an associated guiding spirit or mother who teaches the secrets of traditional medicine.

Like the other plants that teach, tobacco is one of the cornerstones of learning and practicing the art of the shaman, and according to the curanderos consulted by Jauregui et al. it is considered one of the most powerful and oldest of plants. Shamanistic training in Peru involves a period of fasting, isolation, and celibacy, during which period one ingests one or more of the teaching plants on a daily basis. Tobacco in the form of a potent type of Nicotiana rustica is always present in their traditional medical practices, and it is used for purification, to cleanse the body of negative energies.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Tobacco and the Origins and Domestication of Nicotiana." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). The History of Tobacco and the Origins and Domestication of Nicotiana. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Tobacco and the Origins and Domestication of Nicotiana." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).