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Earliest evidence for human use of tobacco in the Pleistocene Americas

Abstract

Current archaeological research on cultigens emphasizes the protracted and intimate human interactions with wild species that defined paths to domestication and, with certain plants, profoundly impacted humanity. Tobacco arguably has had more impact on global patterns in history than any other psychoactive substance, but how deep its cultural ties extend has been widely debated. Excavations at the Wishbone site, directed at the hearth-side activities of the early inhabitants of North America’s desert west, have uncovered evidence for human tobacco use approximately 12,300 years ago, 9,000 years earlier than previously documented. Here we detail the preservation context of the site, discuss its cultural affiliation and suggest ways that the tobacco may have been used. The find has implications for our understanding of deep-time human use of intoxicants and its sociocultural intersection with food crop domestication.

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Fig. 1: Nicotiana seeds and measurements from the Wishbone site.
Fig. 2: Location of the Wishbone site and important physiographic features.
Fig. 3: Position of hearth (circled) relative to selected artefacts at the Wishbone site.
Fig. 4: Plan view map of the excavated area at the Wishbone site (Locus 1).
Fig. 5: Plan view of the Wishbone site hearth (Feature 1).

Data availability

The data analysed in this study are currently being processed by Far Western Anthropological Research Group for curation at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, under accession number UMNH.A.2016.18, by the end of 2021. The Natural History Museum of Utah serves as the repository for all archaeological collections from military lands managed by Hill AFB, including archaeological artefacts and related field notes, files, databases and reporting.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the United States Air Force for support of this work, especially J. Hirschi, A. Kitterman and M. Shane. We also appreciate the assistance and field support of US Army Dugway Proving Ground archaeologists J. DeGraffenried and N. Nelson. S. Carmody, S. Fitzpatrick, L. Lucas, A. McCarthy, K. McDonough, K. McGuire, S. Rafferty, R. Rosencrance, J. Rosenthal, A. Salywon, M. Slaughter and S. Tushingham provided valued feedback. Laboratory analysis of charcoal was performed by K. Puseman (Paleoscapes Archaeobotanical Services Team). Laboratory analysis of fauna was performed by T. Carpenter (Archaeometrics) and R. Byerly (Far Western Anthropological Research Group). Numerous others deserve acknowledgement for fieldwork; T. Dann of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians added valuable indigenous perspective in this capacity. Artwork was provided by T. Norton, A. Nagy, K. Montgomery and C. Karthauser of Far Western Anthropological Research Group. The study was funded through two Research Subaward Agreements (nos PG16-24845-02 and PG16-24878-01) to Far Western Anthropological Research Group by CIRE, University of Montana, under contract no. W9128F-14-2-0002 with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, representing Hill AFB. We appreciate the efforts of CIRE’s J. Wills, R. Hauer, A. Blank and K. Dixon to facilitate contracting. Hill AFB approved the Far Western Anthropological Research Group study design. The US Air Force publication authorization case number for the current manuscript is 75ABW-2019-0014. The funders had no role in the collection or analysis of data.

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D.D. directed the project and wrote the main text with assistance from E.W., K.R.A. and S.K.R. E.W. supervised the archaeobotanical laboratory and assisted D.D. with the Methods. K.R.A. provided specialized knowledge of Nicotiana morphology and human use. A.A.-I. initially identified and photographed the Nicotiana seeds in the laboratory. D.D. and S.K.R. directed the excavations. D.C.Y. conducted the geomorphological investigations and directed the palaeoenvironmental control sampling with D.D.

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Correspondence to Daron Duke.

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Duke, D., Wohlgemuth, E., Adams, K.R. et al. Earliest evidence for human use of tobacco in the Pleistocene Americas. Nat Hum Behav 6, 183–192 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01202-9

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