Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pre-Columbian Tobacco History

There are 64 species of the genus Nicotiana but only two, rustica and tabacum, are used by the modern tobacco industry. The widespread cultivation of these species began as far back as 5000 B.C., and their genetic origin is the Andes Mountains near Peru or Ecuador. Over the course of the next several millennia, tobacco worked its way across the Western Hemisphere, having "reached every corner of the American continent, including offshore islands such as Cuba" by the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.


Quite how humans became interested in tobacco is unknown. Our ancestors were certainly open minded about diet and probably adopted an "eat it then find out" approach. It is, however, certain that early Americans invented a new method of consumption for their herbal friend: smoking. That lungs had a dual function - could be used for stimulation in addition to respiration - is one of the American continent's most significant contributions to civilization. Human lungs have a giant area of absorbent tissue, every inch of which is serviced by at least a thousand thread-like blood vessels, which carry oxygen, poisons and inspiration from the heart to the brain. Their osmotic capacity is over fifty times that of the human palate or colon. Smoking is the quickest way into the blood stream short of a hypodermic needle.

It is more likely that the practice of smoking evolved from snuffing, i.e. inhaling powdered tobacco through the nose. Snuffing tubes are among the most ancient tobacco-related artifacts discovered in the Americas and the practice coexisted with smoking in South and Central America. Snuffing as a human habit was unique to the Americas, whose inhabitants seem to have considered the nose as a more versatile object than a bifurcated passage for air. They snuffed through their noses, smoked through their noses and even drank through their noses. It is tempting to imagine that the ever resourceful Americans, having conquered the nasal passages, perceived their lungs as the next challenge.

Smoking was only one of many tobacco habits in South America. Beginning at tobacco's centre of origin around the Andes and tracing its progress north, the most striking features of early tobacco use are the variety of reasons employed to justify its consumption, and the diversity of ways in which it was taken. Tobacco was sniffed, chewed, eaten, drunk, smeared over bodies, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked. It was blown into warriors: faces before battle, over fields before planting and over women prior to sex, it was offered to the gods, and accepted as their gift, and not least it served as a simple narcotic for daily use by men and women. Tobacco's popularity is in part explained by its biphasic nature as a drug. A small quantity of tobacco has a mild effect on its user, whereas in large doses it produces hallucinations, trances and sometimes death.

Many of the external applications of tobacco such as fumigation of crops and virgins were justified on practical grounds. Tobacco is a powerful insecticide, and blowing smoke over seed corn or fruit trees was an effective method of pest control. Some South American tribes also applied tobacco juice directly to their skin to kill lice and other parasites. These real qualities were embellished with mythical properties, so that tobacco came to be associated with cleansing and fertility, hence its application to maidens on their wedding night. As a result of its use in the planting season, tobacco became linked with initiation, and was adopted by many tribes as a symbol of the rites of passage between puberty and adulthood. For example, the Tucano of the north-west Amazon would give tobacco snuff to adolescent boys before they were presented formally to the sacred trumpets as newly initiated men. It is fascinating to note that even in ancient civilizations tobacco was considered to be something that youth should aspire to use - it was part of being grown-up, and children yearned for the day when they would be treated as adults and be allowed to smoke.


Perhaps the most important use of tobacco in South American societies was as a medicine. Its mild analgesic and antiseptic properties rendered it ideal for treatment of minor ailments such as toothache, when its leaves would be packed around the affected tooth, or wounds, when leaves or tobacco juice would be applied to the area. It was further believed to be an effective remedy for snake bites and, by extension, a charm to ward off snakes. In addition to healing such straightforward ailments, tobacco was employed to cure serious illnesses, and to comprehend its perceived virtues as a cure for fever, or cancer, it is necessary to examine the South American Indian conception of disease. They believed that diseases were caused by supernatural forces, in one of two manners. These were either: (1) intrusion - a form of possession, whereby an evil spirit or object had entered the body of the sufferer, making them ill; or (2) soul loss, whereby 'the sufferer's soul was believed to be drawn away, and/or to have wandered off into reaches of the supernatural world, often into the land of the dead. In order to be capable of curing diseases defined in these terms, South American witch doctors, or shamans, underwent a rigorous spiritual training to enable them to undertake vision quests, in the course of which they might identify the cause of the disease, and either eject the evil intruder, or retrieve the wandering soul, and thus restore the sufferer to health.

Tobacco played a central role in the spiritual training of shamans. In the right doses, tobacco is a dangerously powerful drug and a fatal poison. Shamans used tobacco, often in conjunction with other narcotics, to achieve a state of near death, in the belief that "he who overcomes death by healing himself is capable of curing and revitalizing others". Shamans undergoing initiation training were required to take enough tobacco to bring them to the edge of the grave.

A tobacco shaman used the weed in almost every aspect of his art. Tobacco smoke was employed as a diagnostic tool to examine sick patients, and formed a part of many ceremonies over which these doctor-priests officiated. Ritual smoke blowing, by which a shaman might bestow a blessing or protection against enemies both real and invisible, was intended to symbolize a transformation, in which the tobacco smoke represented a guiding spirit, and thus is reminiscent of Christian ritual, whereby wine and bread are transubstantiated by a priest into the body and blood of Christ himself. Shamans therefore were early proponents of passive smoking, which they believed to be a force for good for non-smokers.


Turning to the methods by which tobacco was consumed in South America, the astonishing diversity of tobacco habits reflects not only the multitudinous purposes it served, but also the different climatic conditions in which the weed was employed. For instance, it was hard to smoke in the thin, dry air of the Andes, so snuffing tended to prevail. Similarly, in the swamplands of the Amazon, where fires could not be kindled readily, tobacco was taken as a drink. Different methods of tobacco consumption often existed side by side - one form for everyday use, another for magic or ritual.

Probably the oldest way of taking the weed, and the most straightforward, was chewing it. Cured tobacco leaves were mixed with salt or ashes, formed into pellets or rolls, then tucked into the user's cheek, or under a lip. The juices thus released then dissolved in saliva and slid down the masticator's throat. Tobacco chewing could be recreational, or magical. The next method of consumption, in terms of complexity and pedigree, was drinking tobacco, in a sort of tea. Tobacco leaves were boiled or steeped in water and the resulting brew drunk via the nose or mouth. This was a popular method of consumption among shamans, as the strength of the brew could be adjusted to deliver the massive doses they preferred. The provenance of the tobacco used in making tea was a matter of great importance. For instance, Acawaio men would travel to a special stream to collect Mountain Spirit tobacco, which was steeped in the water of the stream to enhance its potency. Drinking tobacco also presented the opportunity of mixing other narcotics into the brew. Novice shamans would sometimes add a dash of the fluids they collected from a dead shaman, and a qualified shaman's tea was often loaded with other hallucinogenic plant extracts. Tobacco was drunk in sufficient quantities at shamanic initiation ceremonies to induce vomiting, paralysis and, occasionally, death. Even everyday tobacco drinkers attributed mystic powers to their brew. Hunters of the Mashco tribe drank to communicate with the game animals that they wished to kill. Hunters in some tribes would apply tobacco juice as eye drops in order to help them see in the dark. In several cases this privilege was extended to their hunting dogs.

Tobacco tea was also "drunk" via the anus where it was introduced in the form of a clyster, using a hollow length of cane or bone, or with a bulb made out of animal skin and a bone or reed nozzle. An early example of such a device, dating from AD 500, has been discovered in the tomb of a Colombian shaman. Tobacco enemas were used for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. The Aguarana tribe, for example, employed enemas to protect apprentice shamans from were-jaguars during initiation ceremonies. A further variant of tobacco drinking, tobacco licking, was popular among some South American civilizations. This form of consumption involved boiling down tobacco tea into syrup or a jelly known as ambil. Sometimes alkaline salts were added, and the syrup thickened with manioc starch. Ambil was used by dipping a stick or finger into the jelly and rubbing it over the gums. It was often carried in a little pot on a string around its devotee's neck.

Far more widespread than tobacco licking, and uniquely American, was tobacco sniffing. Snuff was prepared by drying, toasting then pulverizing cured tobacco leaves, and the resultant powder was blended then stored in calabashes or bottle gourds. Other plants were often snuffed in conjunction with tobacco, especially coca. In the days before paper currency, insufflators (snuffing machines) were created in a variety of shapes. The most simple of these consisted of a hollow reed or bone, which was inserted into a single nostril. An equally common design was Y-shaped, which enabled the snuffer to accelerate the charge by blowing down one tube, with the other up one nostril, or to take both barrels at once. Some tribes blew snuff up one another's noses using elongated insufflators to speed up the snuff's narcotic effect. Snuffing was the preferred method of tobacco consumption of the Incas, whose remarkable civilization, governed by semi-divine rulers along communist lines, and distinguished by an impressive road-building programme, was exterminated by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.

The most common form of tobacco consumption in South America was smoking, usually using cigars or a simple form of cigarette consisting of cured strips of tobacco wrapped in musa leaves or corn husks. The act of smoking was not merely a method of tobacco consumption, but an integral part of ritual. Shamans used tobacco smoke for healing and blessing, and also as a form of food to nourish their guiding spirits. Shamans believed that they entered into a contract with the spirit world upon initiation, whereby they undertook to provide sustenance to the spirits in the form of tobacco, in return for receiving healing and other powers. Spirits that had taken up residence within the shaman's body were nourished by the tobacco he himself used, whereas those living in crystals or other sacred objects had smoke blown over them. For example, the shaman of the Campa tribe owned a sacred rock which he would smoke over and "feed" daily with tobacco juice.

The preferred implement for smoking tobacco was the cigar, which could be of prodigious size, especially those prepared by shamans, where examples of a metre or more in length are not uncommon. These were made from rolls of cured tobacco, often wrapped around a stick or the rib of a banana leaf. Some tribes developed special cigar supports, resembling giant tuning forks, which could be held in the hand, or whose sharp end could be stuck in the ground to support these monsters. Shamans’ cigars occasionally were sprinkled with carana granules which affected the vocal cords and masked the voice of the smoker, giving it a harsh, deep inflection which was considered appropriate for ritual discourse between mankind and the spiritual powers.

Following tobacco's historical progress from its centre of origin northwards into Central America, methods of consumption became less diverse, with smoking gaining at the expense of other tobacco habits. The earliest historical record of tobacco use in Central America resides among the artifacts of the Mayans, a sophisticated metropolitan civilization that flourished between about 2000 BC and AD 900. The Mayans farmed tobacco and considered its consumption to be not only a form of pleasure, but also a ritual of immense significance. At least two of their principal gods were habitual smokers.

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