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Pipe residues reveal Native American smoking habits from centuries ago. Source: DedMityay /Adobe Stock

Ancient Pipes Reveal What Natives Americans Were Smoking

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American researchers have used ground-breaking technologies to make discoveries about Native American smoking habits. They have, for the first time, found traces of a non-tobacco plant in a pipe. This is helping them to better understand how and what pre-contact Native Americans smoked.

A multidisciplinary team from Washington University made the discoveries while investigating a 1430-year-old pipe. This artifact was used by people who once inhabited what is now Washington State. According to one of the lead researchers, Korey Brownstein, “Smoking often played a religious or ceremonial role for Native American tribes and our research shows these specific plants were important to these communities in the past.”

Smoking was seen as having medicinal and even spiritual properties by various cultures, before and after the arrival of Europeans. Today smoking is seen as a health risk, but it is still something of great cultural significance to tribes such as the Nez Perce and Colville, who still live in the North-Western USA.

Smoking has held medicinal and spiritual properties in traditional Native American beliefs. (Lorelyn Medina /Adobe Stock)

Smoking has held medicinal and spiritual properties in traditional Native American beliefs. (Lorelyn Medina /Adobe Stock)

Tobacco and Human Culture

The researchers wrote in the Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences “that there is increasing recognition of the deep-time co-evolutionary relationship between humans and certain psychoactive and medicinal plants.” However, little is known about how Native Americans used these plants before contact with Europeans.

The experts were interested in understanding how Native Americans smoked prior to the widespread availability of commercially grown tobacco introduced by European traders. As the researchers wrote in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, “the spread of domesticated trade tobacco seems to have overtaken and obscured ancient indigenous tobacco practices.”

The team used a new technology known as metabolomics-based analysis. This can provide more data than the traditional biomarker method and potentially detect thousands of plant residues. This method was really helpful when it came to the analysis of the pipe. Professor David Gang is quoted by as stating that “Not only does it tell you, yes, you found the plant you're interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being smoked.”

The First Evidence of Native American Non-Tobacco Plant Smoking

This methodology allowed them not only to determine if tobacco was smoked by the Native Americans in the pipe, it also allowed them to determine the species of the plant being smoked. After testing the residues found in the pipe, they found evidence that some came from a plant popularly known as smooth sumac, which grows in Washington State. This showed that people used plants that did not contain nicotine when smoking. According to, this “marks the first time scientists have identified residue from a non-tobacco plant in an archaeological pipe.”

The scientific name for smooth sumac is Rhus glabra. It seems that the plant was smoked with tobacco. Dr. Brownstein told, “We think the Rhus glabra may have been mixed with tobacco for its medicinal qualities and to improve the flavor of smoke.” Because smoking was of such social and cultural importance, the discovery will allow investigators new insights into Native American smoking habits and society some 1400 years ago.

Smooth sumac. (Homer Edward Price/CC BY 2.0)

Smooth sumac. (Homer Edward Price/CC BY 2.0)

New Information on the Tobacco Trade

As part of the study, the researchers also examined a pipe that dates to after the time when Native Americans made contact with Europeans. The team established that this pipe contained tobacco known as Nicotina Rustica, which was widely grown by many tribes on the East Coast of what is now the United States. The researchers wrote in the Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, that this was not surprising “because Native American communities interacted widely with one another within and between ecological regions, including the trade of tobacco seeds and materials.”

This is important for two reasons; one is that it shows that Native Americans did not only use plants grown in their territory but traded with others and were part of long-distance trade networks. It also counters the view that Native Americans abandoned the use of natively grown tobacco after the introduction of commercially grown versions of the plant were introduced by traders of European heritage. This may show a greater continuity in local cultural practices after contact with white traders and settlers.

The ancient pipes analyzed in this study. A) The pre-contact pipe B) The post-contact pipe. (Brownstein et al. 2020)

The ancient pipes analyzed in this study. A) The pre-contact pipe B) The post-contact pipe. (Brownstein et al. 2020)

An Ancient Tradition Brought Back to Life

The team from Washington State University has also learned a lot about how ancient people in the area managed the plants. Indeed, they even developed seeds for the pre-contact tobacco that was smoked centuries ago. This is of great interest to local tribes such as the Nez Perce, who see smoking as a part of their heritage.

The team gave them some of the seeds and they have grown plants on their ancestral lands for the first time in many years. Brownstein is quoted by as saying that these types of project are “important because they help build trust between us and tribal communities and show that we can work together to make discoveries.”

Korey Brownstein with some of the plants. (WSU)

Korey Brownstein with some of the plants. (WSU)

It is believed that the techniques used by the experts can revolutionize the discipline of archaeo-chemistry. This technology can help experts to understand how ancient people used plants. In particular it can reveal how they used plants for medicinal, recreational, and religious purposes and what role they had in the development of their cultures.

Top image: Pipe residues reveal Native American smoking habits from centuries ago. Source: DedMityay /Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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