Hidden History

Archeologists discover earliest known use of a mind-altering plant

“The find has implications for our understanding of deep-time human use of intoxicants.”

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illustration of tobacco

Twelve thousand years ago, a group of hunter-gatherers huddled around a hearth on a rare patch of dry space within what is today the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, seeking rest and refuge.

They carried with them the seeds of a plant that would go on to become one of the most profitable — and deadliest — drugs in human history: tobacco.

According to new research, where these individuals gathered — now known as the Wishbone hearth site — is the site of the earliest known use of tobacco. Its existence also suggests the use of tobacco goes back thousands of years earlier than scientists realized.

These findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

“We now know that Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been using tobacco for much of time since they arrived,” Daron Duke, lead author on the study and principal of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, tells Inverse.

A close-up of the tobacco discovered at the Wishbone site in 2015. The tobacco discovery confirms the earliest known use of this controversial drug.

Angela Armstrong-Ingram

What you need to know first — Tobacco plants are grown for their leaves, which are rich in the addictive, psychoactive chemical nicotine. After the leaves are cured, aged, and processed, they can be used within various tobacco products.

But how tobacco came to thrive in North America has been subject to debate. It’s possible:

  • Tobacco existed in North America before humans arrived
  • Or tobacco was brought to North America from Central and South America after those regions were populated

According to this study, most archaeological research suggests tobacco may have already been in North America — maybe even millions of years ago. But if that were the case, where was the archaeological proof?

People migrated into the Americas roughly 16,000 years ago (though the timing is contested). Duke and colleagues hypothesized these first Americans would have likely have discovered the psychoactive properties of tobacco soon after their arrival.

What was missing from this equation was actual evidence. Previous to this study, researchers had only dated tobacco use in North America to 3,300 years ago. This was based on nicotine residue discovered on ceramic pipes.

The Wishbone hearth site, in turn, was a game-changer.

Researchers dig at the Wishbone site, where ancient tobacco use was discovered.

Daron Duke

How they made the discovery — Archaeologists discovered the Wishbone hearth site in 2015. It is the oldest open-air archeological site in the American West.

It sits in the present-day Great Salt Lake Desert — a large dry lake in northern Utah. When hunter-gatherers resided there more than 12,000 years ago, the area would have been filled with low-lying marshlands.

Duke has been working on archaeological digs in this area for 20 years, and the area’s breathtaking landscapes keep luring him back.

“It truly is a fascinating place to work as one of the most barren settings you can find in the United States,” he says.

The site has “unique potential to tell us about how people lived” in their homes at this time, Duke argues. Other artifacts discovered at the site include Haskett spear tips, which represent evidence of “an early large game hunting technology,” he says.

But the discovery of tobacco may have the most far-reaching implications of any of the artifacts found yet.

Tobacco seeds in the palm of a human hand. Researchers discovered charred tobacco seeds at the Wishbone site, confirming indigenous cultural use of the tobacco plant.

Tammara Norton

What they discovered — The scientists discovered four charred Nicotiana — tobacco — seeds at the Wishbone hearth site. Using radiocarbon dating on charred wood from the hearth, the researchers estimated humans were using tobacco roughly 12,300 years ago.

For his part, Duke calls the discovery of the tobacco seeds a “surprise,” and calls the Wishbone “a trove of information” about ancient indigenous cultural practices — including tobacco consumption.

Tobacco, as the researchers write, is a plant that has “profoundly impacted humanity,” by shaping global trade and impacting human health.

A Haskett spear — evidence of large game hunting technology — found at the Wishbone site.

Daron Duke

But long before it became a commercial product you could buy at a gas station, tobacco had a significant cultural use in Indigenous communities that habited the area near the Wishbone site in the present-day Great Salt Lake Desert. Twenty Indigenous tribes, such as the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, claim ancestral ties to this region.

Now, researchers finally have archaeological proof to back what Indigenous peoples and researchers have long known: the deep cultural roots of tobacco use.

It wasn’t inevitable that tobacco became a domesticated global commodity, the researchers argue. Rather, ancient humans discovered and tended to the plants in a “mutually beneficial relationship” using their roots in “traditional ecological knowledge,” the researchers write.

A woman harvests tobacco in present-day Maryland.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This cultural use of tobacco by ancient peoples eventually gave way to domestication, spread to the rest of the world, and spurred modern tobacco use.

This finding provides insight into “a long human-plant relationship that ultimately resulted in the domestication of a plant that would have consequence to global issues of Western expansion, health, and commerce,” Duke says.

What’s next — Duke’s research could lay the groundwork for future studies, helping archaeologists identify similar hunter-gatherer indigenous sites in the Americas and allowing them to “work with a new clock on tobacco use.”

His team is now looking for other sites like Wishbone — and there are already a few candidates. Duke hopes these findings help advance the work of other researchers too.

He stresses their research team is working hand-in-hand with Indigenous representatives in the region “to better understand the diverse meanings of the find to the people whose forbearers were at the site, in the region ever since, and likely well before.”

Abstract: Current archaeological research on cultigens emphasizes the protracted and intimate human interactions with wild species that defined paths to domestication and, with certain plants, profoundly impacted humanity. Tobacco arguably has had more impact on global patterns in history than any other psychoactive substance, but how deep its cultural ties extend has been widely debated. Excavations at the Wishbone site, directed at the hearth-side activities of the early inhabitants of North America’s desert west, have uncovered evidence for human tobacco use approximately 12,300 years ago, 9,000 years earlier than previously documented. Here we detail the preservation context of the site, discuss its cultural affiliation and suggest ways that the tobacco may have been used. The find has implications for our understanding of deep-time human use of intoxicants and its sociocultural intersection with food crop domestication.
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