A broad network of tobacco plants that likely represented a lifeline to early Europeans and ancestors of other Americans, peppered across the Great Plains and up the Mississippi River, provides solid evidence of tobacco cultivation thousands of years ago, a University of Washington study has found.
More than two-thirds of the 500 species of mesquite found in North America were smoked during the late Pleistocene period 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, said study co-author Jason Sainsbury, a UW evolutionary biologist. Nicotine is a byproduct of nicotine production, Sainsbury noted.
The study, published online Wednesday in PLOS ONE, concludes that tobacco, while widespread in North America during this epoch, was not an invention. One in seven Americans continues to be addicted to it today, and cigarettes are responsible for an estimated 3.2 million deaths worldwide annually.
The UW research identified a “strangely strung” network of plants in Alaska and Montana that reproduced rapidly and flourished on arid soils on the Great Plains. The most abundant variety of tobacco in the chain is known as Chung’s molasses because of its distinctive mix of acid-resistance and nicotine content.
The social and cultural role of tobacco has become central to discussions about how the tobacco industry exploited indigenous populations and knowingly or unknowingly participated in tobacco cultivation. For example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was one of only a few authors to put the National Park Service’s role in the tobacco industry in context in 2011.
The UW team concentrated on North American plants that appeared in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, and only in Washington state and Alaska. This helped contain the spreading tobacco warrens of ancient American sites known as sightholes.
“Evidence of tobacco cultivation in America, and the Northwest, contradicts the prevailing view that North America and much of the world was a dust bowl,” co-author Dan Jaffe said in a statement. Jaffe is a UW and Cornell University geographer.