Around 12,300 years ago, a family set up camp in a marshy, verdant landscape in what is today northwestern Utah. They’d walked some 60 miles to get there, likely lured by the promise of now-extinct big game like mammoths and camels—and with a plentiful supply of duck to keep them fed between hunts. They built a fire and carved up a few birds using sharp, flaked stones. After finishing their meal, they did what many people today still do: they enjoyed some tobacco.
This is one plausible scenario behind the handful of 12,300-year-old tobacco seeds that archeologists recently recovered from an ancient hearth, and that they described October 11 in Nature Human Behaviour. The finding pushes back the date of the first known use of tobacco by 9,000 years and also indicates that humans developed a liking for the intoxicant plant shortly after arriving in the Americas—currently estimated at 13,000 to 16,000 years ago. Perhaps just as importantly, though, the seeds’ discovery offers a rare, intimate peak into the habits of ancient people—and shows just how little those habits have changed in the intervening millennia.
“To see them, fireside, using tobacco—we can pretty readily imagine what they were getting out of it,” says Daron Duke, a principal at the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Henderson, Nev, and lead author of the study. “It’s very human to imbibe.”
Tobacco is one on a long list of natural products—including coffee, tea, alcohol, opiates and many psychedelic plants and fungi—that humans have sought throughout the ages as means to deliberately alter mental states in some way. When people first arrived in the Americas at least, though, they did not have access to their former intoxicants of choice from Asia, and likely quickly went about investigating the local flora for attractive properties that extended beyond just food. Once they discovered tobacco, Duke says, it “probably figured in as part of their lives as they settled the continent.”
Previously, the earliest evidence of tobacco’s use dated back to about 3,300 years ago, from residue found in smoking pipes in the southeastern U.S. However, ancient clues of this type are exceedingly difficult to come by, Duke points out.
Duke has spent the past 20 years combing the chalky white expanse of Great Salt Lake desert, relying on a mix of wind-whipped erosion and luck to uncover evidence of ancient humans at a site archeologists refer to as Wishbone. In 2015, he and his colleagues came across their most extraordinary find yet: a small black smudge with a few stray bird bones sticking out. It was a “dead ringer,” Duke says, for an ancient hearth. Duck bones and tools discovered around the hearth indicated that it was likely used for a few nights by a small group of people.
The hearth itself would go on to set records for the earliest such open-air feature discovered to date in the western desert. The contents, though, were even more surprising. After bagging up the sediment from the hearth and bringing it back to the lab, the researchers used a method called manual flotation—essentially, submerging the mixture in water—to separate the organic from the nonorganic material. From that material, they identified the charred remnants of four tobacco seeds. Radiocarbon dating of willow wood charcoal also recovered from the hearth revealed that the entire contents, including the seeds, were approximately 12,300 years old.
Duke and his colleagues do not know in what manner the tobacco was used, but they believe it could have been smoked or put behind the lip and sucked. Tobacco would not have been used for making the fire itself, as it did not grow in the marshy area where the hearth was built. The seeds probably were not remnants of the ducks’ last meal, either; the researchers found the contents of the birds’ stomachs at the site, and an analysis revealed that they mostly contained pondweed, ducks’ preferred food. Additionally, the team also recovered a few other types of seeds at the hearth that have been linked before to ancient human consumption, implying the people who built the hearth probably brought stashes of important plants along with them. Taken together, Duke says, “it’s a very cultural-looking profile of seeds.”
In many ways, it’s not that surprising that people were using tobacco thousands of years before its domestication, says Leilani Lucas, an anthropologist at the College of Southern Nevada, who was not involved in the work. “When you add the intoxicant properties and cultural significance of its use, it becomes even more fascinating, but again, not surprising as domestication of plants might have partly been driven by cultural preferences for plants that taste good or have interesting effects on the body and mind.”
The finding is important, though, in that it provides definitive evidence of early use.
“The work and the research presented in this paper are convincing and compelling, and exciting because it forces us to rethink old narratives,” says Stephen Carmody, an anthropologist at Troy University in Alabama. “Tobacco was one of the most important plants used by indigenous communities in the past and still has great significance today.” A better understanding of its use in the past only confirms that, he says.
“Indigenous people were the ultimate botanists,” Duke adds. “They knew how to figure things out.”