Tobacco plays a big role in Native American history and culture, predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival by well more than a millennium. But what did ancient tribes smoke? And can history help modern-day tribes put tobacco in its proper place?

A newly published study by Washington State University researchers traces the smoking habits of indigenous peoples in southeastern Washington state over the course of centuries, based on a molecular analysis of residue extracted from smoking pipes found at archaeological sites.

Shannon Tushingham.
Shannon Tushingham

“This is the longest continuous biomolecular record of ancient tobacco smoking from a single region anywhere in the world—initially during an era of pithouse development, through the late pre-contact equestrian era, and into the historic period,” the research team, led by WSU anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Back when Columbus got his first taste of tobacco, Native Americans viewed smoking as a ceremonial and religious ritual, marking occasions that ranged from prayers to peace treaties.

Today’s dominant strain of commercial tobacco, known by the scientific name Nicotiana tabacum, was introduced to tribes in the western United States by European settlers in the 1800s. Before contact, Western tribes ranging from Alaska to California used instead wild strains of tobacco, such as N. quadrivalvis (Indian tobacco) and N. attenuata (coyote tobacco).

Some tribes also were known to smoke an entirely different kind of plant called kinnikinnick or bearberry (which is now a popular ornamental plant for Northwest gardens).

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