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Ancestral Puebloans chewed tobacco, study finds

FARMINGTON – Researchers have discovered that ancestral Puebloans chewed small wads of fiber filled with tobacco, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Field Archaeology.

The authors also suggest that the tobacco may have been used for personal pleasure, which is a departure from the traditional views of tobacco use by prehistoric Native Americans.

Most archaeologists believe tobacco was used primarily in ritual or ceremonial settings.

However, Karen Adams – an archaeobotanist who is a research associate at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colo. – said there was no evidence that this chewed tobacco was being used in ritual or ceremonial contexts.

Instead, this tobacco was found inside quids – small, compressed wads of fiber – discarded primarily in middens, or trash heaps, at Antelope Cave in northwestern Arizona. Teeth marks on the quids and human saliva in the fibers indicate that they were chewed or sucked on, but not eaten.

Adams began analyzing the quids after archaeologist Keith Johnson – who currently works for California State University at Chico and was part of the excavation – noticed that there was previously unidentified plant material inside the yucca fiber. The quids were found during University of California at Los Angeles excavations performed between 1956 and 1960, and date to a time when the Virgin Anasazi inhabited the site prior to 1000 A.D. Johnson had been a student at UCLA during the time of the excavations.

A wild tobacco plant grows near Antelope Cave in northwestern Arizona. (Courtesy of Karen Adams/The Daily Times)

A wild tobacco plant grows near Antelope Cave in northwestern Arizona. (Courtesy of Karen Adams/The Daily Times)

Johnson said in an email that the Virgin Anasazi were the western-most group of the ancestral Puebloans, inhabiting an area that included parts of southern Nevada.

Adams analyzed 30 of the 345 quids for contents. About 90 percent of the quids contained wild tobacco, which grows naturally near the Antelope Cave area and probably was not cultivated.

This is not the first report of tobacco in quids. In 1960, a team of archaeologists reported finding tobacco in yucca quids.

“The deal is, they didn’t tell us how they knew that,” Adams said.

This recent study provides a criteria for analyzing the contents of quids.

Because the tobacco was found scattered throughout middens, or trash heaps, Adams said the people probably used quids on a daily basis.

While the team suggested personal pleasure as a reason to chew tobacco-filled quids, Adams said there are also other possibilities, including appetite suppression or treating intestinal parasites.

The study is not only unique in suggesting a personal use of tobacco, it is also one of the first studies that used DNA analysis of plant remains in the Southwestern United States.

Due to challenges identifying fibers in the quids using only anatomy, Adams and Johnson recruited Terrence Murphy, a biologist at University of California at Davis, to perform DNA analysis.

“These quids could just as easily been made of agave leaves or bear grass leaves,” Adams said.

The DNA analysis confirmed that the quids were made using yucca fibers.

Adams said that while quids are common at Southwestern archaeological sites, not much analysis has been done on the contents, and many are just placed on museum shelves.

“It’s just not a glitzy artifact,” Adams said.

She said there is a lot more work that could be done analyzing quids.

“I suspect there could be other things in the quids besides tobacco,” she said.

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