How many times have you said, “I’d like to know what they were smoking”? Have you ever said it during a discussion of Native Americans? The Indigenous People of what eventually became known as North America were know for turning Europeans on to tobacco and there was that whole ‘smoking the peace pipe’ thing which was completely ignored by the non-natives. Beyond tobacco, little is known about what Native Americans smoked, although it’s accepted that smoking dried vegetation was part of many ceremonies and rituals. But what substances?
“It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this technology represents a new frontier in archaeo-chemistry.”
Identifying the residue left in a pipe sounds easier that it is. David Gang, a professor in Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and co-author of a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, reveals in a press release that it took a new technology to isolate what Native Americans were smoking, especially when the pipe was used for many substances, possibly even blends. Earlier technologies could detect a limited number of biomarkers – in the case of pipes, those would be nicotine, anabasine, cotinine and caffeine – but not what species they were. That changed with a new metabolomics-based analysis method that can detect thousands of plant compounds in residue collected from pipes, bowls and other archeological artifacts. So, what were they smoking?
“An ~1430-year-old pipe from central Washington State not only contained nicotine, but also had strong evidence for the smoking of Nicotiana quadrivalvis and Rhus glabra, as opposed to several other species in this pre-contact pipe.”
Shocked? You will be when you find out that Nicotiana quadrivalvis is a species of tobacco not grown in the Washington area today and Rhus glabra is a plant more commonly known as smooth sumac. Smooth sumac sprouts were eaten in as a raw vegetable, while their seeds were either chewed or brewed into a lemonade-ish beverage. The WSU researchers believe it was blended with tobacco for both flavor and medicinal purposes. Feeling they were now on a roll, the researchers tested the residue from a second pipe from after the first contact with Europeans.
“Analysis of a post-contact pipe suggested use of different plants, including the introduced trade tobacco, Nicotiana rustica.”
A second shocker – N. rustica is an east coast species of tobacco never grown in Washington. This shows that Native Americans traded tobacco seeds and possibly pipes that came from tribes across the land. This appears to negate the idea that the tobacco trade didn’t begin until the Europeans arrived and domesticated certain species over native-grown ones.
So, did the researchers try what the early Native Americans were smoking?
“The researchers shared their work with members of the (Nez Perce) tribe who also used some of the seeds from the study to grow some of the pre-contact tobacco. The smoking of tobacco is a sacred tradition for Native American groups including the Nez Perce, Colville and other northwest Tribes and before now it was impossible to tell which kind of tobacco their ancestors smoked.”
A much better idea which celebrated the discovery and preserved the heritage of these Native Americans, who are now trying to grow the ancient tobacco plants on their own.
Finally … the peace pipe is working.