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Americans have been lighting up for more than 3000 years, ancient pipe reveals

In the late 1930s, archaeologists in northern Alabama rushed to excavate a now-submerged Native American site at the confluence of the Flint and Tennessee rivers, racing the rising tide brought on by the newly built Guntersville Dam. Dozens of artifacts were discovered, then sealed up in paper bags and kept at the Alabama State Repository. There they gathered dust until 70 years later, when a team of archaeologists and chemists came looking for a particular item noted in the repository catalog: FS74, an engraved smoking pipe or “medicine tube,” carved from limestone.

With the support of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the researchers had been examining ancient Native American pipes for years, using a chemical analysis technique called mass spectrometry to look for traces of plant material left behind. Their hunt, which was meant to shed light on the religious and ritualistic history of smoking, had already yielded tobacco and jimsonweed residue in pipes dating back a few hundred years.

But when they tested FS74, they hit the jackpot. The team found clear traces of nicotine, a tell-tale compound within tobacco, in residue ringing the inside of the pipe. Animal bones found alongside the pipe were dated to between 1685 and 1530 B.C.E., indicating the pipe is the earliest evidence yet of tobacco smoking in North America, the researchers report today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Scientists found 3500-year-old traces of nicotine inside this limestone pipe.

Stephen Carmody

That suggests the band of early Native Americans who lived here were growing and smoking tobacco at least 1000 years earlier than previously thought—around the same time they were first domesticating food crops like sunflower and squash. The findings raise the possibility that the plants grown for ritual use might have played an important role in the region’s early forays into agriculture.