The oldest smoking evidence has been discovered in the Spanish countryside

ATLANTA — The oldest evidence of smoking tobacco, an activity that persisted for as long as 12,000 years, has been discovered by researchers using radiocarbon dating on cremated teeth at the Stone Age historical…

The oldest smoking evidence has been discovered in the Spanish countryside

ATLANTA — The oldest evidence of smoking tobacco, an activity that persisted for as long as 12,000 years, has been discovered by researchers using radiocarbon dating on cremated teeth at the Stone Age historical site of Caracol in southern Spain.

The findings show that fire, not wind, was the main dispersal mechanism for the ancient tobacco to spread to the rest of Europe and, eventually, around the world.

The date is consistent with archaeological evidence for the use of tobacco in Europe throughout the last half of the Iron Age and the start of the Bronze Age.

“The ancient Romans used tobacco as a medicine and herb, which could be a reason why it became the first smokeable tobacco product,” said co-author and archaeologist Julia Daes, who is based at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. “However, because smoking is generally done in moderation, the use of tobacco within the Roman Republic was comparatively low, as per Roman legend.”

According to Daes, smoking was common in the ancient world, and the use of modern smoking was among the earliest activities of human society.

“It’s been a long held assumption that smoke from tobacco use was more anthropogenic, from burning wood or paper products at smoky fires,” she said. “We used the ancient chemistry of nuclear dating to show that it was local smoke spread by fires around the Stone Age Caracol site.”

Daes’ colleagues Martin Otto of the University of Southern California and Andrew Tyler of the Florida Institute of Technology used isotope dating of the charcoal particles that remained on the teeth after cremation to analyze the individual’s diet and smoking history.

The analysis showed that in the early centuries of the last Ice Age, one individual in a family who had been smoking tobacco for more than a decade had 25 times more charcoal in his or her teeth than others in the region who were consuming fewer calories or smoking tobacco at lower frequency.

That’s consistent with earlier studies showing that early humans often drank less but likely ate more energy-dense, nutritionally-dense foods — one factor that might explain why they burned wood as well as dung for fuel.

The approach was new and Daes said it would be valuable for archaeologists to further evaluate the potential use of the more modern fire as a potential dispersal pathway.

“But considering the erratic nature of fire and the historical practice of personal fire in ancient societies, it’s unlikely that fires played a major role in dispersal of nicotine in the late Iron Age,” she said.

How most people consumed tobacco was different, however.

“Users typically used tobacco in loose pipes and gassers that spread the tobacco across open earth, like isters or cigarettes,” Daes said. “The drying and smoking of the wood also meant that the wood was harvested and fired at ever-decreasing rates, making later smoking less frequent.”

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