Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization

by Iain Gately

“Ambitious . . . informative and perceptive . . . Gately has done a great deal of research . . . and has assembled a lot of useful information in a straight-forward narrative fashion that vaguely resembles a Victorian novel sans dialogue. He is an amusing writer, which is a blessing.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date February 18, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3960-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

Iain Gately’s Tobacco tells the epic story of an unusual plant and its unique relationship with the history of humanity, from its obscure ancient beginnings, through its rise to global prominence, to its current embattled state. In a lively narrative, Gately makes the case for the tobacco trade being the driving force behind the growth of the American colonies, the foundation of the Dutch trading empire, the underpinning cause of the African slave trade, and the financial basis for our victory in the American Revolution. Informed and erudite, Tobacco is a vivid and provocative look into the complex history of this precious plant.


“A rich, complex history . . . Deeply engaging and witty.” –Carmela Ciuraru, The Los Angeles Times

“Ambitious . . . informative and perceptive . . . Gately has done a great deal of research . . . and has assembled a lot of useful information in a straight-forward narrative fashion that vaguely resembles a Victorian novel sans dialogue. He is an amusing writer, which is a blessing.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Breezy, readable . . . [Gately] documents the resourcefulness with which human beings of every class, religion, race, and continent have pursued the lethal leaf. . . . Amid the tragedy of tobacco is an age-old love story. Gately compiles its coos and sighs, along with the exquisite cigarettes after.” –John Leland, The New York Times Book Review

“It’s a cultural history of the weed, from American Indian prehistory up to the present. And ‘seduction” is the operative word.” –David Bowman, Salon

“From ancient, South American meter-long cigars . . . to modern Chinese teenagers lighting up because it “looks cool,” a fast-paced, comprehensive look at tobacco and its consumers . .

. A smart, engaging history of the uses of, attitudes toward, and wars of the world’s most mysterious plant.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Here it is–everything you ever wanted to know about tobacco, from Amerindian prehistory right up to the Clinton/Lewinsky cigar tryst. . . . With irreverent wit and uncommon grace, Gately shares his enthusiasms with any reader brave enough to buy a book with the demon weed on its cover.” –Publishers Weekly

“Tobacco’s . . . roller-coaster journey is the subject of Gately’s excellent biography of the smoker’s bewitching mistress. . . . [He] presents this eventful tale with lucid, if partisan, eloquence.” –Peter Ingham, The Times (London)

“Like a great detective writer, Iain Gately traces the origins . . . of tobacco, the deadly but fascinating weed, in a robust narrative style. . . . No Nicotina Rustica leaf is left unturned in the quest. . . . As enjoyable and seductive as a fine Silk Cut. I was hooked.” –Zenga Longmore, The Spectator (London)

“A pacy journey through a sweep of history, full of energetic comparisons, telling anecdotes and springy prose . . . with zesty brio, buoying the reader with delightful tidbits.” –Robbie Hudson, The Sunday Times (London)


To Breathe is to Inhale

The discovery of tobacco and smoking – the
social, ritual and medical roles of tobacco in
South, Central and North America – tobacco
pipes and their official functions

Why smoke? I drifted into the habit in the year between my eighteenth and nineteenth birthdays. I lived in Hong Kong at the time where smoking was so commonplace as to appear a natural act, not a habit. The first time I thought about it at all was on a train through south-east China, travelling in a third class carriage with a non-smoking friend. A middle-aged Chinese offered us both cigarettes – eager to break the ice and to practise his English. My travelling companion, Philip, declined, which amazed the Chinese.
“Not want now?” he inquired, with a look of concern for Philip’s sanity.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
“Your friend not want cigarette.”
“He never smokes.”
‘mean: not smoke now?” The Chinese was becoming defensive. Communicating with Westerners was more complex than he’d imagined.
“Not smoke ever.

“Not smoke on train?”
“Not smoke.”
“Not smoke yet today? Here! Have first one!”
Meeting someone who could not conceive that people existed who did not smoke made me curious as to why tobacco has such a hold on mankind – why people who have never seen a cigarette advert or watched a Grand Prix and whose lifestyle choices are limited to survival imperatives prefer tobacco to food – prefer stimulation ahead of nourishment.
Why has smoking been so readily accepted into so many different cultures, where it has been the subject of creation myths and demonologies? What is the secret of its strange compulsion, which causes experiment to lead to slavery? And why, ultimately, a generation after the practice has been revealed as a killer, does it persist, and even multiply?
Tobacco and mankind have been associated since prehistory, and in a manner, while not unique, unlike most human-vegetable relationships. Tobacco is raised to be burned. It is bred to stimulate our lungs, not feed our stomachs. An investigation of the answers to the question “Why smoke?” must begin by looking at a prior question: “Why tobacco?” Why are we such an excellent match for each other? And why is smoking the usual way of celebrating our friendship? Mankind smokes other plants, including cannabis and opium poppies, but none with such frequency or such ubiquity as tobacco. Tea, for instance, which resembles tobacco in the sense that it is consumed for stimulation, not nourishment, is rarely smoked.
Although the tobacco plant is prettier than the tea bush, there is nothing in its appearance that singles it out for smoking. Tobacco’s genus, Nicotiana, contains sixty-four species, two of which are involved in the affair with mankind, Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. Most tobacco presently consumed by humans is Nicotiana tabacum, a tall, annual, broad leafed plant. Nicotiana rustica is similar in appearance, but shorter and with fleshier leaves. They are attractive plants to look at – when confronted by a tobacco plant even botanists’ prose becomes voluptuous. Here, for example, is Nicotiana tabacum’s debut in Gerard’s Herball in 1636:

Tobacco, or henbane of Peru, hath very great stalks of the bigness of a child’s arm, growing in fertile and well dunged ground seven or eight feet high, dividing itself into sundry branches of great length, whereon are placed in comely order very fair, long leaves, broad, smooth and sharp pointed; soft and of a light green colour; so fastened about the stalk that they seem to embrace it. The flowers grow at the top of the stalks, in shape like a bell flower, somewhat long and cornered, hollow within, of a light carnation colour, tending to whiteness towards the brim … the root is great, thick and of a woody substance, with some thready strings annexed thereto.

Both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum are native only to the Americas, where mankind came across them about 18,000 years ago. The humans who first populated the American continent did not know tobacco and did not smoke. They were of Asiatic origin and after crossing the Bering Strait land bridge, they dispersed southwards through the continent. In those areas where the fauna and terrain most closely resembled that which they had left behind, they continued a nomadic existence. To the south, however, they cultivated vegetables, built cities, framed laws and gained empires through conquest. Both nomads and settlers shared an ancestral knowledge of herbs, which they augmented with the new plants they encountered. Tobacco was one of these. The discovery itself was unremarkable in a list of finds that included such everyday consumables as potatoes, tomatoes, rubber, chocolate and maize.
Plant geneticists have established that tobacco’s “centre of origin”, i.e. the meeting place between a species’ genetic origin and the area in which it was first cultivated, is located in the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes. Estimates for its first date of cultivation range from 5000–3000 BC. Tobacco use then spread northwards and by the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492 it had reached every corner of the American continent, including offshore islands such as Cuba.
Quite how humans became interested in tobacco is unknown. Our ancestors were certainly open minded about diet and probably adopted an “eat it then find out” approach. It is, however, certain that early Americans invented a new method of consumption for their herbal friend: smoking. That lungs had a dual function – could be used for stimulation in addition to respiration – is one of the American continent’s most significant contributions to civilization. Human lungs have a giant area of absorbent tissue, every inch of which is serviced by at least a thousand thread-like blood vessels, which carry oxygen, poisons and inspiration from the heart to the brain. Their osmotic capacity is over fifty times that of the human palate or colon. Smoking is the quickest way into the blood stream short of a hypodermic needle.
Anthropologists have speculated as to how the discovery was made that smoke could be a source of pleasure as well as an irritant and have postulated several proto-smokers along Promethean lines. A typical mise-en-sc”ne of this cultural landmark involves an ancestor striding through the ashes of a forest he has just burned down when he trips and falls headfirst into a smouldering bush of Nicotiana rustica. Although injured, he is soothed by the burning herb and adopts the habit of inhaling upon recovery.
It is more likely that the practice of smoking evolved from snuffing, i.e. inhaling powdered tobacco through the nose. Snuffing tubes are among the most ancient tobacco-related artefacts discovered in the Americas and the practice coexisted with smoking in South and Central America. Snuffing as a human habit was unique to the Americas, whose inhabitants seem to have considered the nose as a more versatile object than a bifurcated passage for air. They snuffed through their noses, smoked through their noses and even drank through their noses. It is tempting to imagine that the ever resourceful Americans, having conquered the nasal passages, perceived their lungs as the next challenge.
Smoking was only one of many tobacco habits in South America. Beginning at tobacco’s centre of origin around the Andes and tracing its progress north, the most striking features of early tobacco use are the variety of reasons employed to justify its consumption, and the diversity of ways in which it was taken. Tobacco was sniffed, chewed, eaten, drunk, smeared over bodies, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked. It was blown into warriors’ faces before battle, over fields before planting and over women prior to sex, it was offered to the gods, and accepted as their gift, and not least it served as a simple narcotic for daily use by men and women. Tobacco’s popularity is in part explained by its biphasic nature as a drug. A small quantity of tobacco has a mild effect on its user, whereas in large doses it produces hallucinations, trances and sometimes death.
Many of the external applications of tobacco such as fumigation of crops and virgins were justified on practical grounds. Tobacco is a powerful insecticide, and blowing smoke over seed corn or fruit trees was an effective method of pest control. Some South American tribes also applied tobacco juice directly to their skin to kill lice and other parasites. These real qualities were embellished with mythical properties, so that tobacco came to be associated with cleansing and fertility, hence its application to maidens on their wedding night. As a result of its use in the planting season, tobacco became linked with initiation, and was adopted by many tribes as a symbol of the rites of passage between puberty and adulthood. For example, the Tucano of the north-west Amazon would give tobacco snuff to adolescent boys before they were “presented formally to the sacred trumpets as newly initiated men”. It is fascinating to note that even in ancient civilizations tobacco was considered to be something that youth should aspire to use – it was part of being grown-up, and children yearned for the day when they would be treated as adults and be allowed to smoke.
Perhaps the most important use of tobacco in South American societies was as a medicine. Its mild analgesic and antiseptic properties rendered it ideal for treatment of minor ailments such as toothache, when its leaves would be packed around the affected tooth, or wounds, when leaves or tobacco juice would be applied to the area. It was further believed to be an effective remedy for snake bites and, by extension, a charm to ward off snakes. In addition to healing such straightforward ailments, tobacco was employed to cure serious illnesses, and to comprehend its perceived virtues as a cure for fever, or cancer, it is necessary to examine the South American Indian conception of disease. They believed that diseases were caused by supernatural forces, in one of two manners. These were either: (1) intrusion – a form of possession, whereby an evil spirit or object had entered the body of the sufferer, making them ill; or (2) soul loss, whereby “the sufferer’s soul was believed to be drawn away, and/or to have wandered off into reaches of the supernatural world, often into the land of the dead”. In order to be capable of curing diseases defined in these terms, South American witch doctors, or shamans, underwent a rigorous spiritual training to enable them to undertake “vision quests’, in the course of which they might identify the cause of the disease, and either eject the evil intruder, or retrieve the wandering soul, and thus restore the sufferer to health.
Tobacco played a central role in the spiritual training of shamans. In the right doses, tobacco is a dangerously powerful drug and a fatal poison. Shamans used tobacco, often in conjunction with other narcotics, to achieve a state of near death, in the belief that “he who overcomes death by healing himself is capable of curing and revitalizing others’. Shamans undergoing initiation training were required to take enough tobacco to bring them to the edge of the grave.
The spiritual journeys undertaken by initiate shamans were perceived as real quests, during the course of which the neophyte would encounter terrible hazards. The priest shaman of the Warao, for example, endured a series of perils similar to those set out in computer games. After clearing an abyss “filled with hungry jaguars, snapping alligators, and frenzied sharks, all eager to devour him” the tobacco intoxicated neophyte had to

pass places where demons armed with spears are waiting to kill him, where slippery spots threaten to unbalance, and where giant raptors claw him. Finally, he must pass through a hole in an enormous tree with rapidly opening and closing doors. These symplegades are the actual threshold between life and death. Jumping through the clashing doors, he beholds the bones of those who went before him but failed to clear the gateway. Not finding his own bones among them he returns from the other-world restored to new life.

A tobacco shaman used the weed in almost every aspect of his art. Tobacco smoke was employed as a diagnostic tool to examine sick patients, and formed a part of many ceremonies over which these doctor-priests officiated. Ritual smoke blowing, by which a shaman might bestow a blessing or protection against enemies both real and invisible, was intended to symbolize a transformation, in which the tobacco smoke represented a guiding spirit, and thus is reminiscent of Christian ritual, whereby wine and bread are transubstantiated by a priest into the body and blood of Christ himself. Shamans therefore were early proponents of passive smoking, which they believed to be a force for good for non-smokers.
Turning to the methods by which tobacco was consumed in South America, the astonishing diversity of tobacco habits reflects not only the multitudinous purposes it served, but also the different climatic conditions in which the weed was employed. For instance, it was hard to smoke in the thin, dry air of the Andes, so snuffing tended to prevail. Similarly, in the swamplands of the Amazon, where fires could not be kindled readily, tobacco was taken as a drink. Different methods of tobacco consumption often existed side by side – one form for everyday use, another for magic or ritual.
Probably the oldest way of taking the weed, and the most straightforward, was chewing it. Cured tobacco leaves were mixed with salt or ashes, formed into pellets or rolls, then tucked into the user’s cheek, or under a lip. The juices thus released then dissolved in saliva and slid down the masticator’s throat. Tobacco chewing could be recreational, or magical. The next method of consumption, in terms of complexity and pedigree, was drinking tobacco, in a sort of tea. Tobacco leaves were boiled or steeped in water and the resulting brew drunk via the nose or mouth. This was a popular method of consumption among shamans, as the strength of the brew could be adjusted to deliver the massive doses they preferred. The provenance of the tobacco used in making tea was a matter of great importance. For instance, Acawaio men would travel to a special stream to collect ‘mountain Spirit” tobacco, which was steeped in the water of the stream to enhance its potency. Drinking tobacco also presented the opportunity of mixing other narcotics into the brew. Novice shamans would sometimes add a dash of the fluids they collected from a dead shaman, and a qualified shaman’s tea was often loaded with other hallucinogenic plant extracts. Tobacco was drunk in sufficient quantities at shamanic initiation ceremonies to induce vomiting, paralysis and, occasionally, death. Even everyday tobacco drinkers attributed mystic powers to their brew. Hunters of the Mashco tribe drank to communicate with the game animals that they wished to kill. Hunters in some tribes would apply tobacco juice as eye drops in order to help them see in the dark. In several cases this privilege was extended to their hunting dogs.
Tobacco tea was also ‘drunk” via the anus where it was introduced in the form of a clyster, using a hollow length of cane or bone, or with a bulb made out of animal skin and a bone or reed nozzle. An early example of such a device, dating from AD 500, has been discovered in the tomb of a Colombian shaman. Tobacco enemas were used for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. The Aguarana tribe, for example, employed enemas to protect apprentice shamans from were-jaguars during initiation ceremonies. A further variant of tobacco drinking, tobacco licking, was popular among some South American civilizations. This form of consumption involved boiling down tobacco tea into a syrup or a jelly known as ambil. Sometimes alkaline salts were added, and the syrup thickened with manioc starch. Ambil was used by dipping a stick or finger into the jelly and rubbing it over the gums. It was often carried in a little pot on a string around its devotee’s neck.
Far more widespread than tobacco licking, and uniquely American, was tobacco sniffing. Snuff was prepared by drying, toasting then pulverizing cured tobacco leaves, and the resultant powder was blended then stored in calabashes or bottle gourds. Other plants were often snuffed in conjunction with tobacco, especially coca. In the days before paper currency, insufflators (snuffing machines) were created in a variety of shapes. The most simple of these consisted of a hollow reed or bone, which was inserted into a single nostril. An equally common design was Y-shaped, which enabled the snuffer to accelerate the charge by blowing down one tube, with the other up one nostril, or to take both barrels at once. Some tribes blew snuff up one another’s noses using elongated insufflators to speed up the snuff’s narcotic effect. Snuffing was the preferred method of tobacco consumption of the Incas, whose remarkable civilization, governed by semi-divine rulers along communist lines, and distinguished by an impressive road-building programme, was exterminated by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.
The most common form of tobacco consumption in South America was smoking, usually using cigars or a simple form of cigarette consisting of cured strips of tobacco wrapped in musa leaves or corn husks. The act of smoking was not merely a method of tobacco consumption, but an integral part of ritual. Shamans used tobacco smoke for healing and blessing, and also as a form of food to nourish their guiding spirits. Shamans believed that they entered into a contract with the spirit world upon initiation, whereby they undertook to provide sustenance to the spirits in the form of tobacco, in return for receiving healing and other powers. Spirits that had taken up residence within the shaman’s body were nourished by the tobacco he himself used, whereas those living in crystals or other sacred objects had smoke blown over them. For example, the shaman of the Campa tribe owned a sacred rock which he would smoke over and “feed” daily with tobacco juice.
The preferred implement for smoking tobacco was the cigar, which could be of prodigious size, especially those prepared by shamans, where examples of a metre or more in length are not uncommon. These were made from rolls of cured tobacco, often wrapped around a stick or the rib of a banana leaf. Some tribes developed special cigar supports, resembling giant tuning forks, which could be held in the hand, or whose sharp end could be stuck in the ground to support these monsters. Shamans’ cigars occasionally were sprinkled with carana granules which affected the vocal cords and masked the voice of the smoker, giving it a harsh, deep inflection which was considered appropriate for ritual discourse between mankind and the spiritual powers.
Cigars for hedonistic or everyday use came in an immense variety of shapes and sizes. They were the common currency of the tobacco habit in South America and, in addition to providing pleasure to their users, served simple social roles. Smoking was acknowledged to alleviate hunger – a useful attribute for subsistence level societies. Cigars were offered as tokens of welcome and friendship. They were smoked for relaxation and as self-administered medicine. They were employed to keep evil spirits and thunderstorms at bay. Such was their ubiquity in South American society that it is impossible to isolate a single or prime reason for smoking. The question “Why smoke?” could have been answered effectively and truthfully with “Because we are humans.”
Following tobacco’s historical progress from its centre of origin northwards into Central America, methods of consumption became less diverse, with smoking gaining at the expense of other tobacco habits. The earliest historical record of tobacco use in Central America resides among the artefacts of the Mayans, a sophisticated metropolitan civilization that flourished between about 2000 BC and AD 900. The Mayans farmed tobacco and considered its consumption to be not only a form of pleasure, but also a ritual of immense significance. At least two of their principal gods were habitual smokers.
The Mayans celebrated tobacco’s place in their culture. Numerous extant artefacts testify to their official and recreational dedication to the weed. Its ritual importance derived from its symbolic role as a medium of transporting the blood offerings which were central to Mayan theology and culture towards heaven. The Mayans believed mankind had been created from the blood of God, and so humanity’s purpose on Earth was to give blood back as frequently as possible, whether other people’s or their own. In addition to tearing out the still-beating hearts of sacrificial victims, the Mayans obtained blood by pulling thorn studded ropes through their own tongues or by flaying their penises. The blood thus shed to nourish and communicate with their gods was then soaked up in paper or strips of cloth and burned. The smoke it released was a vehicle which conveyed the Mayans’ offerings to their deities. When not indulging in devout self-mutilation, the Mayans would pray by smoking, which represented communication with the divine, an association it had enjoyed to the south. Mayans also smoked tobacco with no greater purpose in mind than hedonism. Whilst smoking had a solemn ritual function, it was also an exercise in pleasure.
The figure below shows a Mayan noble enjoying a cigar, seated on a jaguar skin. This prince of the royal blood reaches forward towards a vision serpent whose head can be seen emerging from the shell at his feet. The image is carved into a section of conch shell and the object is not known to fulfil a specific ritual function, which suggests it was a personal treasure and depicts a private moment. This early evidence of the use of tobacco for relaxation and contemplation demonstrates its importance in pre-Columbian America as a leisure activity. The Mayans were the world’s first historians of smoking and their elegant depictions of smokers, both mythical and real, speak of their devotion to tobacco. Their civilization flourished in isolation for nearly three millennia until it fell apart in the early tenth century AD. By the time Europeans came across their ruins in the jungles of Central America the great cities of the Mayans had been deserted for 500 years.

A Mayan noble meditates

Subsequent to the Mayans, another great tobacco-using American civilization, the Aztecs, flourished in what is now Mexico. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, smoked for health, ritual and pleasure. They were imperialists, expanding their domains through conquest, and had inherited the Mayans’ fascination with feathers, tobacco and blood. They were also herbalists, using tobacco to cure a number of diseases. Some of these ancient prescriptions survive in a codex transcribed by their Spanish conquerors. They are veritable witches’ brews with perhaps more magical than active ingredients. For instance, the Aztec cure for gout involved a tobacco tea foot bath, using tobacco leaves that had first been left in a ditch where ants could walk on them, followed by ‘serpentine rabbits’ ground into a powder, a small white or red stone, a yellow flint and “the flesh and excrement of a fox, which you must burn to a crisp”. Tobacco also played less positive roles among the Aztecs. It was considered a necessary accompaniment to the ceremonies at which thousands of captives were slain in sacrifice to the god Tezcatlipoca. This association of the weed with blood and war had travelled with it from South America, where warriors were smoked over before battle, and were said to be driven into a ‘demoniac fury” by this form of passive smoking.
Archaeological evidence, in the form of a primitive pipe, indicates that tobacco had reached the northern part of the American continent prior to 2500 BC. Its prehistorical use appears to have been near universal, from the swamps and deserts in the south, through the forests and across the great plains to the limits of tree growth in the north. With the exception of the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada, wherever there were men, tobacco was consumed. Some tribes who practised no other form of agriculture planted and cared for tobacco. The Tlingit Indians, an Alaskan tribe of hunter-gatherers, took a break from hunting and gathering to cultivate tobacco. Similarly some of the plains tribes, including the Blackfoot and the Crow, to whom growing vegetables was anathema, planted and nourished the weed.
Smoking was a defining habit of the diverse tribes and civilizations that occupied pre-Columbian North America. Every one of its cultures, living and vanished, used tobacco. In some cases, the only mementoes civilizations have left to posterity have been their smoking apparatus. Not only was tobacco use common to all the inhabitants of North America, but they seem to have been unanimous in their selection of the pipe for its enjoyment. This focus resulted in an accumulation of mythology around tobacco pipes, so that they came to serve distinct social and ritual functions from the tobacco that they burned. The pre-eminence of pipes also led to smoking becoming an activity restricted by sex. Pipes were for men, and by the time of the Europeans’ arrival in North America, tobacco use in many tribes was a male preserve.
The best archaeological record of ancient North American tobacco use is found in the relics of the mound-building cultures who inhabited an area stretching from the lower Mississippi valley to New York. Three successive civilizations, named the Adena, Hopewell and Mississippi, constructed immense, zoomorphic burial mounds in which the possessions of the dead were stored with their bodies for use in the afterlife. This and other aspects of their culture, including pipe decoration with animal species native to Central but not North America, their pottery design and consumption of maize, suggest links to the Mayans.
These Mayans in exile commenced mound building in the lower Mississippi valley around 1500 BC. Over the next millennium or so they spread north into the Ohio River valley and their civilization entered what is known as its Adena period. They continued to expand north, reaching Manhattan Island in about 300 AD, where they farmed corn and tobacco on a large scale. At this stage their culture is called the Hopewell, and had achieved a considerable degree of complexity. The Adena/Hopewell were sophisticated craftsmen, who made objects for aesthetic as well as utilitarian purposes. They excelled in copper work and stone carving, and their creative expression was at its most acute when making tobacco pipes. Many thousands of these beautiful artefacts have been discovered in burial mounds. Collectively, they represent the greatest repository of early North American artistry. Pipes were treasured possessions and were buried beside their owners. When a man died, his pipe went with him.
Tobacco pipe design evolved through three stages among the Adena/Hopewell culture, during which decoration became more intricate, while design grew more functional. Early pipes were large, heavy objects carved from a single piece of stone. Their bowls arose from the middle of an arched stone base, one end of which the smoker would hold while they inhaled from the other. These pipes were too cumbersome to be easily portable and it appears that their smoking was a collective, sedentary and ritual occupation. However, as craftsmanship evolved, both the form and function of the tobacco pipe changed. Pipes became smaller, and were decorated with exquisite carvings of animals and men. These pipes were for personal use: when an individual wished to communicate with his totem, or the spirit world, he would smoke his tobacco pipe, which had been shaped to represent his totemic animal or a recognized messenger with the spirits. Smoking appears to have been a form of profound meditation – a device to raise the smoker above the distractions of a world of flesh. As a smoker inhaled he literally drank the substance of the eternal, and the smoke he exhaled in turn represented his questions or desires transubstantiated into a form acceptable to the spirits. As soon as he lit his pipe, the smoker would exhale once in the four cardinal directions – north, south, east then west – in order to orientate his prayers towards their intended recipients.

Pipe dreams

Birds were the most common animals carved on Adena/Hopewell pipe bowls because of their ability to travel through the air, which was conceived of as a separate world. Ducks and other waterfowl were particularly popular because they were able to travel through all of the worlds: air, water and land. For similar reasons beavers were frequently carved on bowls, as were representations of the prince of Mayan mythology, the frog, which being a creature of both land and water, was likewise a spirit messenger. Human heads were sometimes depicted, as ever, carved to face the smoker. These pipes may have been used when smokers wished to communicate with a particular member of the deceased.
From about AD 700 onwards, the Adena/Hopewell culture entered an epoch of retreat and decline during which it is known as the Mississippian period. The Mississippians continued to smoke and to bury pipes in mounds but a regression in design had occurred. Pipes had become impracticably large – too heavy for personal use, and were collectively employed in ‘meditation groups’, instead of solacing solitary smokers. The usual subjects carved on their bowls were human figures, as if the Mississippians were trying ever harder to communicate with their ancestors and their race’s past glories. Their history ended in 1731 when the tribe’s remnants were annihilated by the French.
A more complete record remains of the tobacco habits of the plains tribes of North America, who survived longer after the coming of the white man. Although illiterate, their oral legends were chronicled by their white replacements who, smokers themselves, were particularly sympathetic to those concerning tobacco. As a consequence, records exist of not just how but why these early Americans smoked. Many of these justifications were identical to those employed in South and Central America. Clearly, the weed had been accompanied on its journey north by the existing reasons for its use. These included its familiar role as a medicine, although the number of diseases it was believed to cure had diminished. However, it was still used to fight toothache and to heal snake bites, and was also recommended for cleaning the lungs.
Tobacco’s integration into the cultures of various North American tribes stretches back to their creation myths, where the weed was usually represented as a divine and precious gift. Some myths depicted tobacco, or its spirit, as a beautiful celestial maiden. This attribution of femininity was later adopted by the white man to help make sense of his fondness for tobacco. Tobacco had also accumulated some new ritual functions, reflecting its importance in the relatively drug impoverished north of the continent. Amongst many tribes, smoking was never practised as an end in itself but always for some definite purpose forming part of the day’s routine, or as a rite prescribed by tribal custom. Whenever important decisions concerning the family, the tribe or intertribal relations were required, a meeting of braves would be convened. The matters at hand would be discussed while a pipe was passed around. In this manner, the tobacco pipe served a similar function to the Speaker’s Mace in Britain’s parliament – it was a ritual prop, the means of transforming argument into debate.
Tobacco pipes form a significant part of the cultural legacy of native Americans. Enormous quantities of time and energy were dedicated to their manufacture and decoration. Amongst the plains tribesmen, pipes were often the only possession that they had not strictly necessary to the procurement or storage of sustenance – the only non-utensil. The plains tribesman committed as much passion to the manufacture of his pipe as any Renaissance craftsman to the creation of a chalice. The fine carving of their pipe bowls gives evidence of the reverence with which the ritual and paraphernalia of smoking were held. An astonishing legend surrounded the source of stone used in the pipe bowls of many different and widely separated tribes: that somewhere in America’s heart a special pipe mine existed, provided by their common god for every man to use, and at which all inter-tribal hostilities had to be suspended. So deep were the taboos surrounding this fabled pipe mine that it was not until 1840 that the first white man set eyes on it.
On occasions, tribes used natural instead of artificial means to create their pipes. For instance, in the northern Californian area of Klamath, where smoking was a “cult”, the faddish Karok Indians invented an eco-friendly method of making pipe stems from arrow-wood by enlisting the aid of the salmon weevil, a parasitic grub that infected their principal foodstuff. Arrow-wood possesses a spongy pith which would be soaked in salmon oil, before introducing a weevil to one end of the stem, which was left to eat its way out to the other, feeding on the delicious fish oils which constituted its usual diet. The result was a hollow tube which was attached to a stone pipe bowl. In contrast to this complex interaction with insect istars, the Pueblo Indians, who inhabited the area around Santa Fe, smoked their tobacco through simple pottery tubes, fired from the same adobe clay with which they clad their houses.
Tobacco pipes per se had several important public roles of their own in Indian societies: “the mythology surrounding the pipe was no less cosmic than that of tobacco itself”. Not only the weed, but its chariots had formal duties. Pipes were used to seal oaths, to declare war, and to provide a safe conduct. The Omaha Indians who inhabited most of Oklahoma had a pair of war pipes and a pair of peace pipes. The former were plain, the latter highly ornamented with feathers and hair tufts, whose arrangement “was charged with significance, and the peace pipe of any particular tribe was as easily recognizable to other tribes as was the banner or the coat of arms of a feudal Lord ” the pipe often served as a pass or safe-conduct for a messenger through hostile territory”. The use of “peace pipes’ extended tobacco’s South American associations with friendship, so that sharing a pipe was a symbol of amity across the continent, and a prelude to all interactions between strangers.
Many tribes did not conceive of their pipes as weapons requiring specific ammunition. They were exuberantly fond of fumigating their lungs. They seem to have possessed two separate habits – tobacco and smoking. A surprising diversity of flora was burned in their pipes. These other plants were used as flavour enhancers for tobacco, for mystical reasons, and, in times of shortage, as tobacco substitutes. Some tribes could not function without smoking, as their social rituals had been constructed around it. Few tribes could meet in peace unless a pipe was present. Commerce would have been impossible without tobacco as it was the only widely traded material on the continent. Even if a tribe had run out of tobacco, it still had to smoke. In some tobacco smoking tribes the rituals surrounding the practice, when taken in sum, amounted to a smoking religion.
Isolated from the rest of their species for almost 18,000 years, the peoples of the Americas had matched or exceeded their overseas counterparts against many measures of cultural achievements. They had alphabets, pyramids and calendars. Their botanical knowledge and agricultural skills provided them with the resources to feed the great cities that they established. The modern world is awash with daily reminders of these peoples’ ingenuity, discoveries and art. In addition to terrestrial locations, some of the universe’s visible constellations still bear their names. And their most popular gift to the rest of humanity has since become its most common habit. Did the first American smoker ever dream of the places and times in which he would be imitated, of the men and women who would one day share his pleasure?