Origin of smoking
Humans first came into contact with tobacco plants about 18, 000 years ago when migrant Asiatic people first crossed the Bering Strait and spread across the continents known today as the Americas, where tobacco is native. The 18, 000-year-old evolution of humans’ relationship with tobacco has seen wide dissemination both of the plant’s cultivation and of the practice of smoking, a kind of physiological stimulation long sought-after, but only relatively recently reviled—and only very recently understood at a chemical level.
In fact, aside from its social aspect, tobacco has been celebrated for its medicinal and ritualistic characteristics throughout most of its history. Even to the present day, smoking—particularly that of the ubiquitous cigarette—remains pervasive in many cultures, “so commonplace as to appear a natural act” instead of, say, a bad habit (Gately 2001). But landmark scientific research begun in the 1940s detected a possible correlation between the rise in cigarette smoking and the rise in cases of lung cancer. Their conclusions would have a profound impact on the culture and politics of tobacco manufacture and advertising—and while some of the smoking public has heeded their warnings, others have been more reluctant. Lung cancer may be a troubling reality, but what of that “perfect type of perfect pleasure, ” as Oscar Wilde put it? (Parker-Pope 2001).
There are 64 species of the genus Nicotiana but only two, rustica and tabacum, are used by the modern tobacco industry. The widespread cultivation of these species began as far back as 5000 B.C., and their genetic origin is the Andes Mountains near Peru or Ecuador. Over the course of the next several millennia, tobacco worked its way across the Western Hemisphere, having “reached every corner of the American continent, including offshore islands such as Cuba” by the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus (Gately 2001).
Tobacco was likely first either chewed (what Iain Gately calls the “eat it and then find out approach”) dried, toasted, or powered for inhalation through the nose in the process called snuffing. But tobacco seems to have also been used in several practical utilitarian applications, whether juice applied to the skin to kill lice, the smoke used as an insecticide in harvests, or medicinally, as a mild analgesic or antiseptic. Among many native groups, tobacco also had mythical and ritualistic uses (and is still used in spiritual and ceremonial applications by indigenous people to the present day). As a rite-of-passage present to young men, as a maidens on wedding nights, and as a central crop in cultivation, tobacco was associated with initiation, fertility, and cleansing. Smoke from tobacco was used by shaman in healing and was also blown over warriors before battle and women before sex.
In all its forms, tobacco was integral in the spiritual training and journeys of shamans. Above all else, however, indigenous people learned to smoke tobacco. Whether in pipes or as predecessors to modern cigars or cigarettes, tobacco was used simply as a daily narcotic by both men and women (Gately 2001).
New World, Meet the Old World...and Its Dried Leaves
As with early encounters with the peculiar almond-shaped cocoa beans, European explorers were initially confused by the gift of dried tobacco leaves and so discarded them. But when Columbus sailed from San Salvador to Cuba, his second stop in the New World, two of his crew are said to have more closely observed the indigenous smoking custom, even to go so far as to try it...“thus becoming the first Europeans to smoke tobacco” (Gately 2001).
Saint Bartolomé’s 1514 transcription and third-person modification of the Columbus log (the only extant version) included an ecclesiastical sense of wonder at the New World custom, but went on to suggest that the smoke “dulls their flesh and as it were intoxicates and so they say that they do not feel weariness.” No mention was made of the aroma or taste of the product, but it is said that those first two members of the crew became habitual smokers during their time in the Caribbean (ibid).
It did not take long for tobacco to be condemned once smoking met Christianity. Hispaniola’s military governor wrote of the indigenous peoples’ evil customs with emphasis on “one that is especially harmful: the ingestion of a certain kind of smoke they call tobacco, in order to produce a state of stupor.” Alas, having described the pipe and process of smoking, he concludes that the practice results in a slumber of inebriation, so the harmful affect appears to be spiritual, as the productive soul is deadened by the product’s intoxicating quality.
Indeed, European Christians soon observed tobacco in native ritual that looked absolutely satanic, “an active tool of the Antichrist, ” as well as in individual instances by shamans who seemed to use it as a medium for communication with the devil himself (Gately 2001). Even Motecuhzoma’s seemingly innocuous after-dinner tobacco use failed to impress the likes of Hernán Cortés, though the lavish arrangements of the Emperor’s lone dining experience, a decadent feast that included endless vessels of his favorite frothy chocolate beverage, has been well documented.
As the New World peoples fell to conquest, technology, and disease, tobacco soon began to entertain a mixed reception as the custom gradually caught on. Early European practitioners took such a devotion to smoking that observers couldn’t help but notice its power, or what is now referred to as its addictive properties. Columbus is quoted having said, “it was not within their power to refrain” from smoking, having become accustomed to it (Parker-Pope 2001).
Aside from the Spaniards, other European explorers were coming into contact with native people and their practices throughout the Americas, particular on the North American eastern seaboard, and not all of them were as quick to condemn tobacco. Indeed, with a little positive marketing from influential people, tobacco would easily be separated from its negative New World associations and become a major player in the rising global empires of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Global Spread of Tobacco
Tobacco got a boost in Europe for it reputed medicinal properties, as touted by Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal from whom the genus Nicotiana takes its name. Nicot had heard stories of tobacco’s...