The practice of smoking tobacco originated in South America. The narcotic effect of inhaling the plant’s burning fumes was first used in rituals, but when the Spanish conquistadors exported it to Europe it quickly became a habit.
Humans started smoking tobacco in Mayan and Aztec civilizations in South America at least 5000 years ago. The plant was originally chewed or inhaled as a powder, but they soon found that the narcotic effect of the drug is most powerful when smoked.
Tobacco was used as a health remedy and in religious rituals in Mayan and Aztec culture. Spanish colonists quickly took up the practice and the culture of smoking spread to Europe and around the world.
The Burning Bush
No one knows when humans began to smoke tobacco. Anthropologists have suggested that it first happened by accident with an ancestor falling, hurt, beside a burning bush.
The smoke of the Nicotiana rustica plant filtered into the nostrils of the injured man, which he found to be pleasantly soothing. And, just like that, a habit was born.
There is, of course, no evidence for this story.
A Herbal Remedy
The best evidence we have for when humans started using tobacco comes from a genetic investigation of the plant. This has revealed that tobacco was first cultivated by humans in the Andes between 5000 and 7000 years ago.
The therapeutic qualities of tobacco saw the plant used as an antiseptic and as a painkiller. The early Aztec healers also believed that tobacco smoke could drive out evil spirits.
The high nicotine content of tobacco meant that it has mind-altering properties. Smoking tobacco was used in ritual shaman practice as a way of entering a trance and communicating with the spirit world.
In Mayan culture, tobacco itself was regarded as a divine plant and it had an important role in fertility rites and coming of age rituals. The Aztecs believed that tobacco was an incarnation of the goddess Cihuacoahuatl, whose body was made of the plant.
One of the first depictions of smoking can be seen on a carving from the Mayan temple of Palenque in Mexico. It shows a priest in an elaborate headdress with a smoking-tube in his mouth, from which smoke billows out.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492 he was greeted by the indigenous people with a gift of dried leaves. This was unceremoniously thrown overboard, and it was not until the crew later spotted the people of Cuba smoking the leaves that they realized the significance of tobacco.
Rodrigo de Jerez, one of Columbus’s crew, is credited with being the first European smoker. He took the habit back to his hometown but was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for the Devilish practice of exhaling smoke.
The French Ambassador, Jean Nicot, came across the practice of smoking in Lisbon. He sent some tobacco seeds back to Paris in 1560 and the habit of smoking began to spread across Europe.
Sir Walter Ralegh was one of the first Englishmen to take up the habit and brought tobacco back to England from Virginia in 1586. When his servant discovered him smoking, he threw his ale over him, believing him to be on fire, or so the story goes.
The Englishman John Rolfe settled in Jamestown in the colony of Virginia in 1610 and began to grow tobacco. Despite a Spanish prohibition in trading the plant, Rolfe managed to obtain some tobacco seeds of the prized Nicotiana tabacum variety, which was quick to grow and pleasant to smoke.
When his first crop was exported to England in 1612 it quickly became popular and demand soared. Rolfe developed the first of many commercial tobacco plantations in North America.
To increase production, these tobacco plantations used enslaved labor to grow and process the crop. This helped to fuel the growth of the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people.
A tainted reputation
The perceived health benefits and the highly addictive nature of nicotine meant that smoking became increasingly more popular. It shifted from being a strange, imported novelty to being a part of everyday life for millions of people.
However, although tobacco was initially revered as a god and admired for its health-giving properties, the reality was very different. Those first smokers have left a legacy of racial inequality, cancer, and heart disease.