Subject:      ancient tobacco in New and Old world
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/05/22
Message-ID:   <5m1vn6$b9k$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,sci.agriculture,sci.

Greetings, all.

Recently there's been some interest expressed here in the theories that
tobacco was in the Old World before Columbus. So I looked into this
matter, and here's what I've been able to find out so far.

I think most readers of these groups will be surprised to learn that the
idea that tobacco was in the Old World before Columbus seems actually now
to be GENERALLY ACCEPTED by the botanists! (Although not for the reasons
that you might think...) You see, botanists think tobacco was in the New
World early because... it was native (in a manner of speaking) to the Old
World! Specifically, to Australia.

So botanists now believe that tobacco was present in Australia before
Columbus because it was "native" to Australia. Also, tobacco is believed
to have been present on some Polynesian islands before Columbus. The case
for Indonesia and New Guinea is probable, although less certain.

I'm basing this on

      TOBACCOS, by S. Feinhandler et al., in ECONOMIC BOTANY 33:213-226,

This article has a detailed discussion of the age of tobacco in the Old

At the same time, botanists still think that tobacco was native to America
-- but it got to Australia millions of years ago! How did it get to
Australia? On this there's less consensus, but many think that a
landbridge between S. America and Australia existed and is responsible.

Here are some quotes from that article:

"Thomas Goodspeed (1954) argued that one sub-genus of tobacco,
_Petunioides_, had spread from South America to Australia long before any
possible residence of human beings in the Pacific. ... Thus, various
species of tobacco were already growing wild when people first arrived in
New Guinea and Australia and probably the Melanesian islands. Goodspeed's
evidence is convincing, and his theory eventually became accepted a
standard in botany. (pp. 213-4)"

"We know that tobacco was native to Australia and some parts of Melanesia
and Polynesia when Europeans and Malays reached them." (p. 219)

The authors of that article believe that tobacco arrived to Australia from
South America by a landbridge that existed millions of years ago.

"The land bridge lasted until about 40 million years ago." (p. 218)

"...tobacco is only one of perhaps twenty genera of plants which crossed
from S. America to Australia, or nearby, during what appears to be the
same epoch..." (ibid.)

Nevertheless, the authors indicate that Australia-South America ancient
landbridge theory was/is still considered somewhat controversial. (The
article, of course, was written quite a few years ago, and I'm not sure
what is the present view of this theory.)


So far, I have not mentioned transoceanic travel in ancient times and how
this may have affected the distribution of tobacco around the world. It
seems entirely reasonable to me that if tobacco was present in Indonesia
early on it would have probably spread to India and other parts of the Old
World before Columbus.

The antiquity of tobacco in the Old World was advocated early in
this century by, among others, Leo Wiener who even claimed to find
some linguistic connections between the words for tobacco in America
and the Middle East. A lot of his research is outdated by now.

For a more recent bibliography and a defense of the thesis that tobacco
was known widely in the Old World before Columbus, see

      Jaweed Ashraf, INDICA 22/2:91-101, 1985

This journal is published in Bombay, India. Unfortunately U. of Toronto
libraries stopped subscribing to this publication years ago, and don't
have a copy of this article. Perhaps someone else can check it out?

So it seems quite possible to me that tobacco was known in the Middle East
and in Europe before Columbus.

Below, you will find some interesting bits of tobacco trivia that I picked
up from the article in ECONOMIC BOTANY.

Rodrigo de Jerez, the first European to set foot on Cuban soil, was also
the first man to be arrested and imprisoned for smoking by the Spanish
Inquisition (Curtis M. M., THE STORY OF SNUFF AND SNUFF BOXES, 1935). When
he was released several years later, Rodrigo found that smoking was
permitted. (p. 220) (The dates of his arrest and release are not entirely

1558 -- First tobacco grown in the Royal Garden in Lisbon. This is "a
leading candidate for the earliest date for the diffusion of cultivated
tobacco by Iberians." (p. 221)

Australian tribes never smoke but only chew tobacco. It is likely that
they domesticated tobacco independently.

Best wishes,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
 ----- my webpage is for now at: [22] -----

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