The Story of the Sacred Pibe

June 28, 2020

American researchers have used ground-breaking technologies to make discoveries about Native American smoking habits . They have, for the first time, found traces of a non-tobacco plant in a pipe. This is helping them to better understand how and what pre-contact Native Americans smoked.

A multidisciplinary team from Washington University made the discoveries while investigating a 1430-year-old pipe. This artifact was used by people who once inhabited what is now Washington State. According to one of the lead researchers, Korey Brownstein, “Smoking often played a religious or ceremonial role for Native American tribes and our research shows these specific plants were important to these communities in the past.”

Smoking was seen as having medicinal and even spiritual properties by various cultures, before and after the arrival of Europeans. Today smoking is seen as a health risk, but it is still something of great cultural significance to tribes such as the Nez Perce and Colville, who still live in the North-Western USA.

Tobacco and Human Culture

The researchers wrote in the Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences “that there is increasing recognition of the deep-time co-evolutionary relationship between humans and certain psychoactive and medicinal plants.” However, little is known about how Native Americans used these plants before contact with Europeans.

The experts were interested in understanding how Native Americans smoked prior to the widespread availability of commercially grown tobacco introduced by European traders. As the researchers wrote in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences , “the spread of domesticated trade tobacco seems to have overtaken and obscured ancient indigenous tobacco practices.”

The team used a new technology known as metabolomics-based analysis. This can provide more data than the traditional biomarker method and potentially detect thousands of plant residues. This method was really helpful when it came to the analysis of the pipe. Professor David Gang is quoted by as stating that “Not only does it tell you, yes, you found the plant you’re interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being smoked.”

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