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Research finds Nez Perce had tobacco long before Euro-American trappers, settlers arrived in NW

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 30, 2018

Nez Perce Indians grew and smoked tobacco long before white traders and settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest, new research from Washington State University has revealed.

By testing stone pipes for nicotine residue, the researchers determined the Nez Perce were cultivating wild strains of tobacco 1,200 years ago in the warm, dry climate along the Snake River.

The research represents the “longest continuous biomolecular record” of tobacco smoking from a single region in the world, the study’s authors wrote in an article published Monday in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings upset previous theories that interior Northwest indigenous people only smoked other plants – such as kinnikinnick – before traders introduced tobacco from the Eastern U.S. around 1790.

“Humanity’s dance with this powerful plant is much more ancient than the 140 (years) since the first mass-marketed cigarettes were produced,” according to the research article.

Nicotine addiction stretches back thousands of years, the study said, and scholars are just beginning to understand the history of tobacco and its “co-evolutionary relationship with humans.”

The research could have implications for Native American smoking cessation programs.

About 34 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives age 18 and older smoke cigarettes – the highest prevalence among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also have high rates of smoking-related diseases, including lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Although tobacco use has a longstanding role in tribal culture and ceremonial use, the varieties smoked by the Nez Perce’s ancestors contained lower nicotine levels, the study said. And instead of being used for recreation, tobacco was smoked in limited quantities by select community members, the research said.

Shannon Tushingham, assistant professor of anthropology and director of WSU’s Museum of Anthropology, is the study’s lead author. During an earlier excavation of plank houses in Northern California, she came across two soapstone pipes. Tushingham started wondering what the ancient residents of the houses were smoking and whether tobacco was part of the mix.

“Usually in archaeology we just find little pieces of artifacts, things that you might not think much of,” she said in a news release. “But the information you can extract from them on a molecular level is phenomenal.”

Tushingham worked with another WSU professor, David Gang from the Institute of Biological Chemistry, to analyze pipes and pipe fragments in the WSU Museum of Anthropology. With Nez Perce tribal leaders’ cooperation, they used mass spectrometry to analyze a dozen artifacts from sites along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the tribe’s ancestral homelands. None of the pipes or fragments was damaged during the study.

Nicotine was present on pipes dating before and after Euro-American contact. Tobacco native to this area (Nicotiana attenuata) is sometimes called coyote tobacco. It’s a small, scrubby species grown in sandy river bars. A second variety of Northwest tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvus) had a natural range in southwestern Oregon and Northern California.

Because tobacco needed to be planted to thrive in the interior Northwest, Tushingham said it’s evident Native Americans were cultivating it. But new, higher nicotine strains of tobacco arrived on trading routes.

The tobacco Euro-Americans used for trade originated in the Andes of South America, where the domestication process began as much as 8,000 years ago. Genetic selection led to plants with larger leaves and higher nicotine content than wild varieties.

Those tobacco varieties spread to the Caribbean – natives of the Bahama Islands introduced Columbus to tobacco. By the 1500s, tobacco plantations had sprung up in the Caribbean and Eastern U.S., and tobacco became a global trade commodity in the 1600s.

“Explorers, missionaries and traders soon discovered that tobacco was highly prized by native peoples, especially in places where tobacco was difficult to obtain and hard to grow,” the research article said.

Dried trade tobacco was more potent than wild varieties and came in easily transportable bundles called “twists” or “candles.” As the Hudson Bay Co.’s explorers spread through the Northwest, use of introduced tobacco overtook native varieties among the tribes.

“Few realize the extent to which domesticated strains of commercial tobacco have replaced indigenous species of tobacco and other smoke plants,” the research said.

The shift from traditional smoking of indigenous tobaccos and other plants to commercial tobaccos has had “significant deleterious effects on tribal culture and health,” the study said.

Understanding the difference between native tobaccos used in traditional ceremonies and the commercially manufactured product could help tribal members quit smoking.

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