Humans Have Been Using Tobacco for Over 12,000 Years Says New Study

Smoking may have been a human habit for far longer than previously imagined. In a new study, published in Nature Human Behaviour on Monday, archaeologists said they've found evidence that people have been ingesting tobacco as long as 12,300 years ago—a whopping 9,000 years earlier than scientists had thought.

Primarily known today as the stuff that comes inside cigarettes, tobacco is derived from plants in the genus Nicotiana, a member of the nightshade family (also home to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers). Native to North and South America, the plant was domesticated by indigenous communities thousands of years ago and often used in religious, medicinal, and ceremonial contexts. Until now, the oldest-known record of tobacco use suggested it had been smoked in pipes.

Cigarettes
Archaeologists said they've found evidence that people have been ingesting tobacco as long as 12,300 years ago in a recent find in Utah. Cigarettes pictured in Bristol, England, 2015. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

As noted by the authors of the study, tobacco "has arguably had the most critical social and economic impact" of all "the intoxicant plants preferred by humans."

In an excavation of the Wishbone site in the Great Salt Lake Desert of present-day Utah, lead author Daron Duke and his colleagues found four "charred" seeds from a wild desert variety of tobacco known as Nicotiana attenuata.

"This species was never domesticated but is used by indigenous people in the region to this day," explained Duke to Reuters.

The seeds were found in the remains of a hearth, a fact which suggests they were being used by humans at the time. "Seeds identified in prehistoric hearths usually represent human use unless attributable to natural factors," said the study—but after investigating two alternate hypotheses, the authors concluded that neither would have explained the tobacco seeds' appearance.

Though the archeological team is certain that humans were using the tobacco, the method of consumption remains unknown. As Duke and his colleagues noted, they "cannot determine for certain the manner of human use for the tobacco at the site, but a few considerations are useful for narrowing the range of possibilities." One idea is that the tobacco was used as "a fireside activity along with food preparation."

According to Reuters, sharp tools and obsidian spear tips were also found at the Wishbone site. On one of these spear tips, scientists even found remnants of blood from either a mammoth or mastodon—both of which went extinct thousands of years ago.

"We know very little about their culture," said Duke, speaking to the news outlet. "The thing that intrigues me the most about this find is the social window it gives to a simple activity in an undocumented past. My imagination runs wild."