March 3, 2007

Who were the first people in the world to start smoking?


Who were the first people in the world to start smoking? Also, did the
American Indians introduce smoking to the white man or vice versa?

–Submitted by Bob A.

Picture this: A Mayan teen about 6,000 B.C. sneaking out one night with
some of his juvenile delinquent pals to light up behind the Sun Temple at
Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, his father catches him and gives him the
thrashing of his life.

It probably never happened, but could it have …?

According to every reference I can find, tobacco in its original form is
native only to the Americas, dating back to at least 6,000 B.C. As a
result, experts believe that the Mayan civilization likely was the first to
make its use an integral part of its society.

That’s not to say others didn’t try to get their nicotine fix. Small
amounts of the addictive stuff can be found in such Old World plants as
belladonna, and traces of nicotine byproducts have been found in human
remains and pipes in the Near East and Africa.

But if you’re looking for your first hard-core smokers and chewers (perhaps
even enemas — ugh!), you’ll likely find them among the Mayans of Central
America, possibly as early as 1000 B.C. By the time of Christ, tobacco was
“nearly everywhere” in the Americas, according to “The American Heritage
Book of Indians

Two classes of smokers began to emerge. On one hand, you had your tribal
elders in the Court of Montezuma, who mixed tobacco with the resin of other
leaves to smoke pipes with great pomp and circumstance after dinner. Then,
you had your blue-collar Indians toking away on crude stogies.

As tobacco use spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, its powerful
effect on the human body made it a natural for incorporating into religious
and political ceremonies. In North America, for example, some tribes
believed that man was given tobacco by the Great Spirit so
he could reveal himself in its smoke.

If you’re looking for the first advertisement (“I’d walk a mile for a
Llama”?), you’ll possibly find it in Uaxactun, Guatemala, where a pre-11th
century piece of pottery pictures a Mayan smoking a roll of tobacco tied
with a string. In Mayan, smoking apparently was known as “zik’ar.” (So,
would a small Mayan smoke be a zik’arette?)

All of which is a long-winded way to answer your second question: While
Europeans are often blamed for introducing smallpox and other deadly
epidemics to Native Americans, Indians unwittingly got some measure of
revenge by hooking white men on tobacco — almost as soon as they arrived.

At first, though, Columbus didn’t know what to do with the stuff. When he
stepped off the boat on Oct. 12, 1492, “the natives brought fruit, wooden
spears and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance,” he
wrote in his journal. His men apparently ate the fruit and pitched the

But in November, two of the sailors — Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres
— reported finding the Arawak Indians wrapping dried tobacco leaves in
palm or maize “in the manner of a musket formed of paper.” After lighting
one end, they started “drinking” the smoke through the other, they

De Jerez tried it himself, eventually becoming what some consider the first
chain smoker in the Old World. But if you think today’s anti-smoking
advocates are harsh, consider poor de Jerez: When he started puffing around
his friends back in Spain, the smoke coming out of his nose and mouth so
frightened them, he was reportedly jailed for three or seven years,
depending on the account.

One final nail in the coffin, so to speak: In 1498, Columbus visited an
island near Trinidad in the Caribbean and christened it after the native
smoking pipe. Its name? Tobago, from which our word “tobacco” is likely

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