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Four charred tobacco seeds found in an old fireplace in Utah indicate that early Americans may have been using the plant 12,300 years ago.
This discovery makes the first known use of tobacco back about 9,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Researchers believe that hunters and gatherers in the Salt Lake Desert may have sucked or smoked wads of the plant.
So far, the first evidence of tobacco use was a 3,300-year-old pipe discovered in Alabama.
Archaeologists discovered the millimeter-wide seeds at Wishbone, an ancient desert camp in what is now northern Utah.
There, they found the remains of an ancient hearth that was surrounded by artifacts of bone and stone. These included duck bones, stone tools, and the tip of a spear that carried the blood remains of a mammoth or an early form of an elephant.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the scientists say their findings suggest that Native American hunters and gatherers may have consumed tobacco while cooking or making tools.
The Americas are the home of the tobacco plant, which contains nicotine, which has an addictive, mind-altering effect.
Tobacco was cultivated and spread widely throughout the world after the arrival of Europeans to the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century.
“The big surprise was the tobacco seeds,” Daron Duke, of the Far West Anthropology Research Group, told New Scientist. “They are incredibly small and rare to preserve.”
“This suggests that people learned about the toxic properties of tobacco relatively early in their time here rather than only discovering them with domestication and cultivation thousands of years later,” he added.
Today, the Great Salt Lake Desert is a large dry lake. But 12,300 years ago, the camp was located in a vast swampy area.