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TROY professor helps uncover earliest use of tobacco in U.S.

June 15, 2018

A Troy University professor has uncovered evidence of the earliest use of tobacco in North America north of Mexico, a discovery that may change our understanding of the early life and culture of Native Americans.

Dr. Stephen Carmody, an assistant professor of anthropology, along with Dr. Jon Russ of Rhodes College and Dr. Jera Davis of New South Associates Inc., recently discovered evidence that native people were using tobacco more than a millennium earlier than previously believed.

“This new discovery changes how we think about the past,” said Carmody, who has studied ritual plant use for years. “Tobacco is one of the most, if not the most, important plants to native peoples. We’ve now dated its use in our area 1,500 years earlier than the earliest dates we had.”

The discovery came from tests that found traces of nicotine in a pipe (or “medicine tube”) found decades ago at a now-submerged site along the Flint River in northern Alabama, a tributary of the Tennessee River.

While smoking pipes have been found at much older sites, until now the earliest evidence for tobacco use came from a smoking tube dated between 500 and 300 B.C.

Medicine tube discovered at the Flint River site.

Medicine tube found at the Flint River site.

The new discovery dates to the hunter-gatherer societies of the Late Archaic period, 1685-1530 B.C.

Because Native Americans used tobacco for ritualistic and religious purposes, it played a fundamental role in society.

“Ritual and religion were an important part of everyday life in ancient communities,” according to the official report submitted by Carmody and his colleagues to the Journal of Archaeological Science. “While some have hypothesized that tobacco arrived in eastern North America between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, our results suggest that it was already well-established in the region by that time.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians helped financially support the research project, along with Dr. Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a Rhodes College Faculty Development Grant.

Russell Townsend, Tribal Historic Preservation officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said the discovery challenges previous assumptions about regional history.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office is proud and honored to be working with Dr. Carmody and his esteemed colleagues. The analysis of residue from these archaeological pipes has helped to inform our Tribe about prehistoric tobacco use and the use of medicinal additives,” Townsend said. “Also, the very early date derived from this new sample forces us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the origins of agriculture in the Southeast. The ramifications of this work are very exciting, and we look forward to continuing our research efforts with Dr. Carmody and his associates.”

The article is “Evidence of tobacco from a Late Archaic smoking tube recovered from the Flint River site in southeastern North America” by S. Carmody, J. Davis, S. Tadi, J.S. Sharp, R.K. Hunt, J. Russ (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.05.013). It appears in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, volume 20, (August, 2018), published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier’s Newsroom at newsroom@elsevier.com.

About Journal of Archaeological Science

The Journal of Archaeological Science is aimed at archaeologists and scientists with particular interests in advancing the development and application of scientific techniques and methodologies to all areas of archaeology. This established monthly journal publishes focus articles, original research papers and major review articles, of wide archaeological significance. The journal provides an international forum for archaeologists and scientists from widely different scientific backgrounds who share a common interest in developing and applying scientific methods to inform major debates through improving the quality and reliability of scientific information derived from archaeological research.