A 3.85-million-year-old rock mummy uncovered in Switzerland bears direct genetic evidence of the tobacco leaf tobacco and confirms the origins of human use of the plant, a researcher said Monday.
The study adds to growing evidence that tobacco may have been widespread in Eurasia about 12,000 years ago. The findings also strengthen the contention that tobacco may be one of the most important crops ever to have been domesticated.
Present-day cigarette smokers might wince at the idea that a once-commonly smoked plant was so much older than they are, but scientists may soon start baking artisanal foods of the plant, they added.
The study was detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
L.U.P., or tobacco stem cell, formed from the tobacco leaf’s mulch, called the suckers, and grew into leaves, Tia Li, a researcher with the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told Live Science. She and her team then selected a sample from L.U.P. to create a tobacco chewing stick. This “baking stick” was the oldest tobacco chewing stick ever found in the world, she said.
Tobacco has been found in many archaeological sites around the world. The oldest hominin fossil found so far – one of the roughly 10,000 fossils that have been found so far – is a 56,000-year-old hominin fossil known as the “Treponodus,” said Zachary Mantzio, a PhD candidate in archaeology at Harvard University.
The other fossils discovered so far all date from between 20,000 and 13,000 years ago, when humans first entered Europe, he said. But “there are these other signatures that tell us that tobacco was already becoming a cultural part of our societies,” Mantzio said. “Even though it’s not something that has been found in fossils yet, we are seeing that it was already an important cultural source that was shaped by humans.”
Tobacco has no shortage of cultural artifacts to show us.
The teeming signs of human craftsmanship include pigs dressed in fine tunics that hold a smoking stick; corn that is fermented to grind into a tea; spit-encrusted kamut coffins built from pottery and carved wooden motifs; a frankfurter blanket; a beautifully woven L.U.P. wrapping rod; and a tusk from a tobacco stogie-smoking animal, Wei de Li, a research associate at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told Live Science.
The authors said a drinking stick like the one found in L.U.P. could have been something to quench the thirst of man. But it’s likely that the site belonged to a time when human beings were specialized enough to use just one, Li said. She and her colleagues reported the L.U.P. rock mummy in 2015 and led a study of the smoking stick last year.
The smoking stick and L.U.P. characteristics are consistent with the genetics of tobacco leaves, said Helga Serlet, an associate professor of cancer and a program manager at the MRC Molecular Cancer Centre. “It was highly domesticated,” Serlet said. “It’s growing among people who are pretty good hunters. They want to know the tobacco plant, how it grows, how to store it, how to smoke it and how to eat it.”
Scientists don’t yet understand how crops, like tobacco, might be good or bad for someone’s health, Mantzio said. Smoking and the impacts of smoke on health are still mysterious, he said. The longer tobacco has been cultivated, the more benefits it has given people.
“All the stress reduces as soon as you start using tobacco,” Mantzio said. He said there is a tight tie between smoking and violent behavior, and eating fast food. “Then there’s a huge transition where people who were exposed in one environment start consuming different foods,” he said. “It’s really the variation in eating and activities that is connected to cigarette smoking.”