4,400-year-old human skeleton unearthed in India has traces of the first smoking habit

A 4,400-year-old skeleton unearthed in the Western Ghats in India bears evidence of nicotine use, scientists said Thursday, unveiling the first time traces of tobacco have been found outside of domestic use. Scientists said…

4,400-year-old human skeleton unearthed in India has traces of the first smoking habit

A 4,400-year-old skeleton unearthed in the Western Ghats in India bears evidence of nicotine use, scientists said Thursday, unveiling the first time traces of tobacco have been found outside of domestic use.

Scientists said it took them 10 years to uncover evidence of cigarette burning and tobacco use in a previously unknown site in the hills of Udayagiri, 750 miles northwest of Mumbai. They describe the traces as evidence that humans had smoked tobacco at least 12,000 years ago.

The researchers said the finding raises a question about when smoking stopped being widespread and why it hasn’t been widely explored until now.

“There are going to be a lot of big questions because we have no idea what makes this an exception in the 18,000 years we have discovered so far. I think we have found a new frontier here,” said T.C. Raman, an archaeologist and geneticist at the University of Leicester in England, who discovered the tobacco.

The wooden skeleton was found with a cigarette on its left hand, and the smoker’s fingers were decomposing and covered with evidence of the sticky resin that usually forms on tobacco. At the age of 10, the ancient person lived in what was then part of the “smoking belt,” a 200-mile strip of land known for its tobacco plants.

David Boehm, a tobacco historian and tobacco plant breeder from the University of Hawaii, said that instead of the typical matchstick-shaped tobacco leaves, these plants looked like magnolia leaves, which are about one inch thick. Boehm said the findings expand knowledge about traditional smoking practices and help researchers solve mysteries about ancient societies.

“It’s a big deal that these findings are part of the same analysis,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that most archaeologists would be paying that much attention if there weren’t some scientific interest there.”

Based on DNA testing and X-ray technology, the researchers said they found collagen strands that could have been applied to the tobacco. The researchers said they believe the tobacco was smoked in a closed chamber because of a lack of oxygen. They said they were not surprised to find nicotine.

The researcher said there were similar eucalyptus plants that were often used for ceremonial reasons in the region, as well as leaves from wild orchids and rosetrees. The researchers said they were especially interested in the Udayagiri site because evidence of smoking there included the remains of smoke-spewing pipes and cigarette lighters.

To make the discovery, scientists analyzed the inner charred remains of the skeletal remains. Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, they analyzed the minerals of the charred skin and tobacco cigarette, which was made of some 40 to 50 polypropylene pellets, the standard resin of cigarette butts.

The findings, published Thursday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrate why the team decided to excavate the site after being asked to find evidence of smoking that didn’t include tobacco leaves.

“The collagen is very critical. It’s what makes it smoking,” said Josh Andrews, lead author of the study and a paleoanthropologist at the University of Leicester.

Sarah-Jane Gurnett, an archaeologist at University College London who was not involved in the study, said that while archaeological findings have shed light on the origins of cigarette smoking, scientists still don’t understand why.

“How did smoking become culturally dominant and why was it used by a small group of farmers during the Neolithic era,” she said. “If you’re going to find evidence of an abnormal behavior, your first choice of behavior to find would be smoking.”

Raman said he would like to test if tobacco might have persisted in southeastern India in the Upper Cretaceous period, when humans were migrating. Since they were moving through the area, how did tobacco spread out of the smoking belt?

Gurnett also said that research has to show whether or not it can help understand that “how did we not know about it?” She said she would like to see more data on the spread of ash, smoke-spewing tobacco fans and the different lengths of smoke in and around the ancient human remains.

Boehm said the smoking-related cravings are probably not a normal part of evolutionary history and that the nicotine in the remains could suggest that prehistoric humans were “mature and intellectually active.”

“It’s not typical to find this much nicotine,” he said. “People liked to smoke so much.”

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