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Native Americans: What Herb Did The Indians Smoke?

The importance of pipe smoking among the North American indigenous people is shown by the fact that they could choose from 100 different herbs for their mixtures. At least that's what European immigrants reported, who first encountered this custom in the New World. Accordingly, four different types of tobacco were also in use.

What exactly was in the tobacco pipes, however, cannot be determined without further ado, even if - like the team led by Korey Brownstein from Washington State University - you have historical pipes with remnants attached. In order to determine which typical traces a plant leaves behind, the scientists recreated Indian pipes based on historical originals and burned herbs in them that could be considered. Then they analyzed their charred remains. The elemental composition could ultimately provide information about what the pipe bowl was stuffed with, they write in the journal "Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences".

This article is featured in Spectrum - The Week, 27/2020

They then examined two old pipes that came from what is now the state of Washington on the west coast of the United States. One of them was around 1430 years old, the other came from the time after contact with Europeans. While the older tobacco of the kind Nicotiana quadrivalvis contained, came in the younger of the two Nicotiana rustica. Perhaps the taste had changed over time and smokers now preferred the stronger Rustica-Variant. This species was not originally found on the west coast. Brownstein and colleagues assume that the tribes traded in tobacco plants and seeds with one another.

For the first time it was also possible to detect a plant in the pipes that does not reveal itself through nicotine: In the older of the two, there was also smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) used. The Indians may have used this plant for medicinal reasons or because it improved the taste. The pipe from the 18th century shows that the Indians of the west coast continued to use their old varieties even after contact with the Europeans. The colonists imported tobacco from South and Central America, primarily to produce for the domestic market, but also sold the varieties to the indigenous people.