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Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World




By Iain Gately
Grove. 403 pp. $25
Friday, February 8, 2002

Chapter One

To Breathe is to Inhale

The discovery of tobacco and smoking — the social, ritual and medical roles of tobacco in South, Central and North America — tobacco pipes and their official functions


Why smoke? I drifted into the habit in the year between my eighteenth and nineteenth birthdays. I lived in Hong Kong at the time where smoking was so commonplace as to appear a natural act, not a habit. The first time I thought about it at all was on a train through south-east China, travelling in a third class carriage with a non-smoking friend. A middle-aged Chinese offered us both cigarettes — eager to break the ice and to practise his English. My travelling companion, Philip, declined, which amazed the Chinese.

    ‘Not want now?’ he inquired, with a look of concern for Philip's sanity.

    ‘No thanks. I don't smoke.’

    ‘Your friend not want cigarette.’

    ‘He never smokes.’

    ‘Mean: not smoke now?’ The Chinese was becoming defensive. Communicating with Westerners was more complex than he’d imagined.

    ‘Not smoke ever.’

    ‘Not smoke on train?’

    ‘Not smoke.’

    ‘Not smoke yet today? Here! Have first one!’

    Meeting someone who could not conceive that people existed who did not smoke made me curious as to why tobacco has such a hold on mankind — why people who have never seen a cigarette advert or watched a Grand Prix and whose lifestyle choices are limited to survival imperatives prefer tobacco to food — prefer stimulation ahead of nourishment.

    Why has smoking been so readily accepted into so many different cultures, where it has been the subject of creation myths and demonologies? What is the secret of its strange compulsion, which causes experiment to lead to slavery? And why, ultimately, a generation after the practice has been revealed as a killer, does it persist, and even multiply?

    Tobacco and mankind have been associated since prehistory, and in a manner, while not unique, unlike most human-vegetable relationships. Tobacco is raised to be burned. It is bred to stimulate our lungs, not feed our stomachs. An investigation of the answers to the question ‘Why smoke?’ must begin by looking at a prior question: ‘Why tobacco?’ Why are we such an excellent match for each other? And why is smoking the usual way of celebrating our friendship? Mankind smokes other plants, including cannabis and opium poppies, but none with such frequency or such ubiquity as tobacco. Tea, for instance, which resembles tobacco in the sense that it is consumed for stimulation, not nourishment, is rarely smoked.

    Although the tobacco plant is prettier than the tea bush, there is nothing in its appearance that singles it out for smoking. Tobacco's genus, Nicotiana, contains sixty-four species, two of which are involved in the affair with mankind, Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. Most tobacco presently consumed by humans is Nicotiana tabacum, a tall, annual, broad leafed plant. Nicotiana rustica is similar in appearance, but shorter and with fleshier leaves. They are attractive plants to look at — when confronted by a tobacco plant even botanists’ prose becomes voluptuous. Here, for example, is Nicotiana tabacum's debut in Gerard's Herball in 1636:


Tobacco, or henbane of Peru, hath very great stalks of the bigness of a child's arm, growing in fertile and well dunged ground seven or eight feet high, dividing itself into sundry branches of great length, whereon are placed in comely order very fair, long leaves, broad, smooth and sharp pointed; soft and of a light green colour; so fastened about the stalk that they seem to embrace it. The flowers grow at the top of the stalks, in shape like a bell flower, somewhat long and cornered, hollow within, of a light carnation colour, tending to whiteness towards the brim ... the root is great, thick and of a woody substance, with some thready strings annexed thereto.


Both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum are native only to the Americas, where mankind came across them about 18,000 years ago. The humans who first populated the American continent did not know tobacco and did not smoke. They were of Asiatic origin and after crossing the Bering Strait land bridge, they dispersed southwards through the continent. In those areas where the fauna and terrain most closely resembled that which they had left behind, they continued a nomadic existence. To the south, however, they cultivated vegetables, built cities, framed laws and gained empires through conquest. Both nomads and settlers shared an ancestral knowledge of herbs, which they augmented with the new plants they encountered. Tobacco was one of these. The discovery itself was unremarkable in a list of finds that included such everyday consumables as potatoes, tomatoes, rubber, chocolate and maize.

    Plant geneticists have established that tobacco's ‘centre of origin’, i.e. the meeting place between a species’ genetic origin and the area in which it was first cultivated, is located in the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes. Estimates for its first date of cultivation range from 5000-3000 BC. Tobacco use then spread northwards and by the time of Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492 it had reached every corner of the American continent, including offshore islands such as Cuba.

    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.

    Anthropologists have speculated as to how the discovery was made that smoke could be a source of pleasure as well as an irritant and have postulated several proto-smokers along Promethean lines. A typical mise-en-scéne of this cultural landmark involves an ancestor striding through the ashes of a forest he has just burned down when he trips and falls headfirst into a smouldering bush of Nicotiana rustica. Although injured, he is soothed by the burning herb and adopts the habit of inhaling upon recovery.

    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 artefacts 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.

    The spiritual journeys undertaken by initiate shamans were perceived as real quests, during the course of which the neophyte would encounter terrible hazards. The priest shaman of the Warao, for example, endured a series of perils similar to those set out in computer games. After clearing an abyss ‘filled with hungry jaguars, snapping alligators, and frenzied sharks, all eager to devour him’ the tobacco intoxicated neophyte had to


pass places where demons armed with spears are waiting to kill him, where slippery spots threaten to unbalance, and where giant raptors claw him. Finally, he must pass through a hole in an enormous tree with rapidly opening and closing doors. These symplegades are the actual threshold between life and death. Jumping through the clashing doors, he beholds the bones of those who went before him but failed to clear the gateway. Not finding his own bones among them he returns from the other-world restored to new life.


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 a 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.

    Cigars for hedonistic or everyday use came in an immense variety of shapes and sizes. They were the common currency of the tobacco habit in South America and, in addition to providing pleasure to their users, served simple social roles. Smoking was acknowledged to alleviate hunger — a useful attribute for subsistence level societies. Cigars were offered as tokens of welcome and friendship. They were smoked for relaxation and as self-administered medicine. They were employed to keep evil spirits and thunderstorms at bay. Such was their ubiquity in South American society that it is impossible to isolate a single or prime reason for smoking. The question ‘Why smoke?’ could have been answered effectively and truthfully with ‘Because we are humans.’


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 artefacts 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.

    The Mayans celebrated tobacco's place in their culture. Numerous extant artefacts testify to their official and recreational dedication to the weed. Its ritual importance derived from its symbolic role as a medium of transporting the blood offerings which were central to Mayan theology and culture towards heaven. The Mayans believed mankind had been created from the blood of God, and so humanity's purpose on Earth was to give blood back as frequently as possible, whether other people's or their own. In addition to tearing out the still-beating hearts of sacrificial victims, the Mayans obtained blood by pulling thorn studded ropes through their own tongues or by flaying their penises. The blood thus shed to nourish and communicate with their gods was then soaked up in paper or strips of cloth and burned. The smoke it released was a vehicle which conveyed the Mayans’ offerings to their deities. When not indulging in devout self-mutilation, the Mayans would pray by smoking, which represented communication with the divine, an association it had enjoyed to the south. Mayans also smoked tobacco with no greater purpose in mind than hedonism. Whilst smoking had a solemn ritual function, it was also an exercise in pleasure.

    The figure below shows a Mayan noble enjoying a cigar, seated on a jaguar skin. This prince of the royal blood reaches forward towards a vision serpent whose head can be seen emerging from the shell at his feet. The image is carved into a section of conch shell and the object is not known to fulfil a specific ritual function, which suggests it was a personal treasure and depicts a private moment. This early evidence of the use of tobacco for relaxation and contemplation demonstrates its importance in pre-Columbian America as a leisure activity. The Mayans were the world's first historians of smoking and their elegant depictions of smokers, both mythical and real, speak of their devotion to tobacco. Their civilization flourished in isolation for nearly three millennia until it fell apart in the early tenth century AD. By the time Europeans came across their ruins in the jungles of Central America the great cities of the Mayans had been deserted for 500 years.

(Continues...)

© 2002 Iain Gately