Secrets in the Smoke: Prehistoric Tobacco Use in Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 23

Stephen Carmody
Sewanee: University of the South

The use of tobacco by ancestors of Native Americans has been well documented across the Eastern Woodlands by some of the continent’s earliest European explorers, including Christopher Columbus, who noted that the use and importance of the plant rivaled that of maize and was grown almost as extensively. Whereas maize played an important role in subsistence practices, tobacco was considered central to religious ceremonies as a means to put the user into direct communication with the spirit world. It was the premier sacred substance for making offerings to the spirits and played a critical role in the evolution of more complex religious organization.

Images of tobacco seeds. Image courtesy of the USDA.

Images of tobacco seeds. Image courtesy of the USDA.

While studying paleoethnobotany, the identification and interpretation of plant remains recovered from archeological sites, I recognized what appeared to be a substantial gap between historical and academic claims of tobacco’s widespread use in prehistoric times and concrete, archaeological evidence to support these claims. And despite the extensive amount of literature focused on the importance of the plant, direct evidence for its use has been hard to come by. There are many explanations for tobacco’s apparent absence from archaeological sites, including taphonomic, environmental, and cultural issues. However, the greatest factor contributing to a lack of recovered tobacco seeds might be methodological. Prior to the “flotation revolution”, in the 1960’s, plant remains from archaeological sites were not systematically collected. This would have prevented the capture of small (0.5–1.1 mm), carbonized tobacco seeds from archeological contexts, further complicating our understanding of the plants use.

Besides the tiny seeds researchers have identified tobacco pollen or chemical signatures for nicotine from archaeologically recovered pipes. Because smoking pipes are one of the most recognizable and prominent artifacts recovered from archaeological contexts in eastern North America, the analysis of pipe residues seemed to be a promising source of evidence for the prehistoric use of tobacco and the evolution of smoking customs in prehistoric societies.

Images of pipes that contained tobacco pollen. The duck effigy pipe from the Barnes Collection and the two smaller pipe bowl fragments (upper right) recovered from excavations at the Hiwassee Island site are all housed at the University of Tennessee McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Images of pipes that contained tobacco pollen. The duck effigy pipe from the Barnes Collection and the two smaller pipe bowl fragments (upper right) recovered from excavations at the Hiwassee Island site are all housed at the University of Tennessee McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Fourteen pipes curated in the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville were selected for initial pollen analysis and GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) analysis. These pipes were recovered from eight Woodland and Mississippian period archaeological sites across the state of Tennessee. Residues from six pipes were processed and analyzed for pollen grains, while residues from all 14 pipes were analyzed for the presence of nicotine alkaloids. Processing and analyses were made possible through the support and assistance of Dr. Sally Horn and Maria Caffery from the University of Tennessee’s Department of Geography and the Initiative for Quaternary Paleoclimate Research and Belinda Lady from the University of Tennessee’s Department of Chemistry.

Mass spectra of Pipe 4 showing positive match for nicotine. a) Mass spectrum of peak at 6.34 min from Pipe 4 sample b) Mass spectrum of nicotine (also known as (3-(1-methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl)-pyridine, nomenclature from International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)) from the instrument database. Notice that the major peaks in a) and b) are the same as well as the relative intensities of the peaks.

Mass spectra of Pipe 4 showing positive match for nicotine. a) Mass spectrum of peak at 6.34 min from Pipe 4 sample b) Mass spectrum of nicotine (also known as (3-(1-methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl)-pyridine, nomenclature from International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)) from the instrument database. Notice that the major peaks in a) and b) are the same as well as the relative intensities of the peaks.

Of the six pipes sampled for pollen, three contained pollen grains identified as tobacco pollen. The pipes with tobacco each contained several other pollen types, including pollen from Pinus (pine); the flowering plant genera and families Amaranthaceae, Apiaceae, Ambrosia, Asteraceae, Ericaceae, Lauraceae, Poaceae, Cephalanthus, Solanaceae, Typha, and Urticaceae; and fungal spores that resembled Pleosphora and Spherodes.

A pipe from the Ausmus Farm site that tested positive for nicotine.

A pipe from the Ausmus Farm site that tested positive for nicotine.

GC/MS analysis of the pipe residues detected the alkaloid nicotine in one pipe, matching both the retention time and mass spectra of nicotine. The pipe was recovered during excavations at the Ausmus Farm site in Claiborne County, Tennessee.  Two mounds were present at this Late Mississippian Dallas phase site (Webb 1938).

Our study has continued to move forward since these preliminary analyses. Dr. Jon Russ and undergraduate research assistant Ryan Hunt from the Department of Chemistry at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, have recently analyzed residues from an additional 5 pipes with one testing positive for nicotine. The pipe was collected from the Spencer site (40DV191), an Early Mississippian period settlement in the Nashville Basin.  Other alkaloids were recognized in these residues and are the subject of further study.

A pipe excavated from the Spencer site in 1984 that tested positive for nicotine (image courtesy of Mark Norton, Tennessee Division of Archaeology).

A pipe excavated from the Spencer site in 1984 that tested positive for nicotine (image courtesy of Mark Norton, Tennessee Division of Archaeology).

The diffusion of tobacco, specifically Nicotiana rustica, through the New World and its use by Native Americans in eastern North America has been largely attributed to its high level of nicotine, which is believed to have led to the plant’s central role in religious ceremonies as a means to induce visions allowing the user to communicate with the spirit world. To date, five of 18 pipes analyzed from the state of Tennessee have produced positive evidence for tobacco use. As significant as these findings are, the absence of evidence for tobacco use from the other 13 pipes possibly illustrates the point that pipes do not always equal tobacco use. While it is possible that nicotine levels were too low to be detected, it also leads us to new research questions regarding the smoking culture and the plants that were involved. Continued analyses of residues from archaeological pipes will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of tobacco use, the role tobacco played in prehistoric smoking cultures, and the incorporation of additional plants into the smoking culture of the region.

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