Thus, Columbus did not bring tobacco with him: it had already existed in America. Not everywhere, but almost. From region to region, from tribe to tribe it can be said that alone or combined with other substances, tobacco leaves had already been used in a variety of ways. It could be chewed, sniffed, brewed and drunk, or else applied as a poultice to different parts of the body. When smoked, tobacco was rolled up into rudimental cigars, or else put into more or less refined smoking instruments.
It is believed that the oldest tobacco smoking instrument was a simple tube, similar to the one depicted on a bas-relief in Palenque, which may have been a logical development of the “cigar” observed by the first Spanish expeditions. A variation of the tube was Y-shaped, to be inserted in the smoker’s nostrils, or else T-shaped, which enabled two people to smoke simultaneously, although some people believe that the Y-shaped instrument was designed rather for sniffing: once the tube was filled with tobacco, one person inserted the two ends in his nostrils while the other blew into the other end.
North American archaeological excavations have yielded other objects in various shapes and sizes that feature the essential components (stem and bowl) of what we call today a “pipe”. However, we could apply this term to the tubes mentioned above if we consider that “tube” is the meaning of the Latin word pipa, from which the Italian, Spanish, French, German and English names have been derived
Tobacco was mainly used in public, whether during magic or religious rites, or for medicinal purposes. Each tribe performed its own ceremonial rites and each faith healer his own initiation rituals. For example, tribes who lived in the North American Great Plains used the magic plant and its smoke to diagnose and treat ailments, and the calumet played not only an essential role in making settlements or important decisions, and placating the Spirits, but also in safeguarding the smoker. There were quarries that were reputed sacred in which members of enemy tribes reached a truce and worked peacefully side by side to extract pieces of "catlinite": a sedimentary, metamorphic rock used by the natives to make pipe bowls, preferred because it is soft, malleable and fire-resistant, but also because of its reddish colour recalling the natives’ own complexions.
These people were warriors, always on the move following the immense herds of bison, and as such this nomadic life limited the number of items that could be brought along, as well as the fact that the objects needed to be sturdy, made of stone, bone and wood.
In other areas, in the southeastern region of North America the prevailing environmental conditions were favourable for sedentary farming. These communities were more complex, practicing crafts including working with clay. Clay is highly malleable, and thus would have been ideal to produce the tubes or pipes as we know them. Tribes may have initially produced simple, straight tubes such as the one featured in Palenque, and then through some error during the firing of the clay deformed tubes may have resulted, which by some happy chance led to better smoking, and thus models were gradually refined. This is only an idea, but not so absurd as it seems and is also confirmed by some finds. It is true that already at the time of Columbus’ expedition the natives smoked tobacco in clay pipes with bowls. These would have been easier to produce compared to those made of stone or bone, and smaller, more suitable for private use. Some of the Europeans present thought of taking back home these objects, together with a good supply of dried tobacco leaves.
Columbus also brought them back to Europe from his first expedition, but in 1493 the dried tobacco leaves were only one of the many souvenirs from the Western Indies. Indeed, despite the fact that the Portuguese imported tobacco seeds from Brazil in the sixteenth century, and Romano Pane, the Spanish missionary, sent some to Charles V in1518, followed by Hernán Cortés back from Mexico later on, hardly anyone was aware of this discovery. The fact that tobacco was such an important plant was not at all evident and would only be recognized as such one hundred years later, through events relating to two queens.
So tobacco crept silently into Europe. The first to report on the strange use of the plant in the faraway Indies in 1497 was Romano Pane himself, a friar sent by Pope Alessandro VI to accompany Columbus on his second expedition. Others would later follow, and meanwhile the seeds that entered the two Iberian kingdoms grew into plants housed in some private gardens, their flowers admired and supposedly healing properties hailed. From the end of the fifteenth century, especially in Spanish and Portuguese ports smokers started to be seen. They were mainly sailors, merchants and adventurers back from the Americas. However, this habit, which was still uncommon as the plant itself was rare, was more a source of curiosity and bewilderment than temptation. Worse still, during the 15th-century Inquisition in Spain, in 1498 Rodrigo de Jerez, a member of Columbus’ first expedition was peacefully smoking in the streets of Barcelona when he was suddenly apprehended and later sentenced to ten years in prison for sorcery. How could one not consider diabolical a being spewing out smoke from his mouth and nostrils?
Amongst the various tobacco growers was Damiao de Góis, a Portuguese diplomat and intellectual. A curious and shrewd man, he started to experiment with the medicinal properties so much extolled in the Americas. In 1560 a fortuitous meeting with a French diplomat in Lisbon, Jean Nicot, during which de Góis illustrated this new plant’s wonderful properties, prompted the latter to procure some seeds and plant them in the embassy gardens. The Queen of France, Catherine de Medici suffered from severe migraines, and Nicot decided to help her. He sent her some powdered tobacco leaves inviting her to try them, and she did. At this point on the scene arrived André Thévet, a French monk, who had brought tobacco seeds back from Brasil a few years earlier and by 1556 had already grown tobacco in his garden in Angoulême. Although he claimed to be the first to grow tobacco, it was Nicot who set off a chain of events by recommending tobacco to the French queen, while Thévet limited himself to admiring the tobacco flowers and writing about the flora and fauna in the Americas.
The Queen of France felt better after sniffing it, and from then on the tobacco plant generated much enthusiasm. The miracle plant featured in every naturalist or medical journal, its botanical characteristics studied and reputed all-embracing therapeutic qualities extolled. This fervour lasted as late as the mid-seventeenth century. Meanwhile, the Indian herb became widespread and was even to be found in the Vatican gardens. The name varied according to place and circumstance, until finally the name as we know it became the most common. The plant was classified as Nicotiana in honour of Jean Nicot. The beneficial value of the plant induced people to use it even if they did not require any treatment, and thus snuff started to spread throughout France. Smoking the leaves as an alternative was still a much rarer habit, and it was only thanks to another series of events, again connected to a queen, that the pipe was finally introduced.