There are many bizarre human uses of crop plants that make you wonder, “How did anybody ever think of doing that?” Tobacco is a great example of this. You might well ask the question – how did the Native Americans ever think of harvesting tobacco leaves, curing them, shredding them, putting them in a pipe, setting fire to them and finally inhaling the fumes? The question could be further refined to ask “Exactly how many different species of plant did they try inhaling until they found one with the desired effect?” Plus given what we now know about the harmful effects of tobacco on human health, why did they go to so much trouble? In fact the more you look at this question the more difficult it becomes to answer.
There are 64 species of tobacco which originally grew wild across the Americas, Australia and on a few Pacific Islands. Of these about ten species were used by Native Americans and one by Australian aborigines for religious or medicinal reasons. Today only four species are cultivated for consumption and of these just one (Nicotiana tabacum) makes up the bulk of the world crop. So what is the mystery surrounding the domestication of these species?
Nicotiana tabacum, like many crop plants is unknown in the wild, but again like many other crop plants its parent species are still found in the wild. There is however, something very strange about these parents. Tobacco is cultivated and consumed, because it contains the toxic alkaloid, nicotine, that acts as a stimulant / hallucinogen in the human brain. Nicotine is chemically synthesised in the roots and then transported within the plant to the leaves. However, in both the wild parents of Nicotiana tabacum, once the nicotine arrives in the leaves, it is rapidly broken down to become ineffective and it seems reasonable to assume that the same was once also true of Nicotiana tabacum. Exactly how the Native Americans managed to produce the domesticated tobacco plant in which the nicotine survives in the leaves is completely unknown. It is unclear why they cultivated this species in the first place if it contained no nicotine in its leaves. The Native Americans turned to the Devine to answer this question. According to Huron legends, in the ancient time the land was barren and the people had nothing to eat. So the Great Spirit sent a woman to feed the people of the earth. As she walked through the land, anywhere her right hand touched the ground potatoes sprang up and wherever her left hand touched the ground there grew corn. When her job was finished and the earth was fertile and productive, she sat down and rested, and from where she sat and rested sprouted the first tobacco plants.
Although the different tribes of Native Americans differed in their beliefs about the details of the origin of tobacco, it was widely held to be a gift from the Great Spirit, given to aid communications between humans and the spirit world. To this end, they tended not to use tobacco recreationally or routinely but occasionally and in much higher doses for religious purposes. Shaman or medicine men would take high concentrations of tobacco frequently as an enema as part of religious ceremonies. In such high doses tobacco induces hallucinations and it was believed that this allowed the Shaman to communicate with the spirits. Alternatively when smoking tobacco, the exhaled smoke was believed to carry a person’s thoughts to the spirit world. In contrast, because tobacco use was considered sacred, the routine recreational use of smoking was typically regarded as being disrespectful to the gods. Possibly being the equivalent of making a nuisance telephone call to god. Interestingly such disrespectful behaviour was considered likely to be punished by poor health. In contrast the traditional Native American method of consuming tobacco, (infrequently and in high dosage) is thought to be much less damaging to health than is the regular addictive smoking of cigarettes. But then again a shaman with a 30 a day habit might find sitting in a doctor’s waiting room rather uncomfortable.