An object does not magically appear out of nowhere. It takes years, centuries and even thousands of years of fine tuning before an object assumes its final form, whether invented or the result of chance, and there is always room for future improvement. The idea itself of the object may change in unpredictable ways over time as contexts, purpose, materials, production and channels for its circulation vary. The object’s evolution, together with that of so many others, becomes an important aspect of History.
We are familiar with the history of the briar pipe, but what is interesting is its forerunner in clay, which was fashioned in a continent that had just been discovered and which was brought back to Europe by merchants and adventurers. However, the concept of the pipe itself reaches much further back in time, when groups of people gathered round a fire of sacred herbs and inhaled the intoxicating smoke, when they first started to use small pipes to draw in the smoke more easily, and later, but still long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, when they realized that the leaves of certain wild plants had some rather interesting properties.
These plants were originally from the Americas, today classified as Nicotiana belonging to the Solanaceae family, specifically from Central America and Southern Mexico. But they were also to be found in the Caribbean, Cuba and the Bahamas, where the Genoese explorer first landed in 1492 convinced he had found India.
The members of the expedition came across so many strange sights, in particular “certain large dried leaves” offered by the natives as precious gifts. Two sailors that were sent to investigate for a few days observed “ many people, men and women, who were going to their villages, with a firebrand in their hand, and herbs to drink the smoke thereof, as they are accustomed”. This is recorded by Columbus in his journal, who was baffled by this curious local custom. Then one of the sailors decided to try this “firebrand”.
From what is later reported we get a better idea of the phenomenon: “They wrapped dried herbs in a dried leaf, which formed a kind of tube…they lit it at one end, sucking in and inhaling the smoke at the other end… These tubes … they called tabaccos”.
So the “tabaccos" referred to the tubes, not the plant, which was already called “petun” by the natives. The term may have been onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of lips when smoking and then taken up by Europeans in scientific discourse. In any case, the word “tobacco” stuck and became synonymous of the plant itself. On the other hand, although the petunia is related to the tobacco plant and has wonderful flowers, its leaves have no particular properties.
The use of “tubes”, and pipes that Europeans came across in other parts of the Americas suggests that it was similar to the more familiar modern concept of tobacco smoking, but there is no certainty here. The phenomenon of “smoking” has always existed in various forms, especially in the past, and attempting to explore this further has led to contradictory theories based on archaeological excavations, ancient texts, and the customs of populations that in modern times lived or still live in remote parts of the world.
In the beginning there was fire, of course. Prometheus’ gift was at the heart of the community and its rituals. The smoke that rose up and faded away held sacred properties, and if certain herbs or vegetable substances were burned so much the better for communication with another world, the people, priests or shaman achieving a state of total abandonment more easily. As for the myth of Prometheus, the story goes that his brother, Epimetheus, attracted by the smoke rising up from the fire that Prometheus was about to steal from the gods took a straw stalk and started to inhale it. In the 5th century BCE Herodotus described the Scythians inhaling cannabis smoke, most likely during funerary rites. They would throw cannabis seeds onto heated stones and inhale the smoke “so delighted that they shout for joy”. Ancient populations, such as the Mayans, were familiar with smoking (probably tobacco) and at Palenque (Mexico) there is a bas-relief in a 6th century BCE temple depicting a priest in ceremonial attire smoking through a tube with smoke billowing out through the end.
In ancient times such customs were recorded throughout the world and above all played a social, magical, religious and also therapeutic role. In Europe, as well as in Africa and Asia, various plants were burnt and then inhaled, such as hemp, coltsfoot, lavender, henbane, oregano, thyme, mint, verbena and incense. Moreover, Roman “pipes” have been discovered in various parts of Europe (although there is some debate about dating here) and a fresco at Herculaneum depicts women smoking “pipes” . Here we should ask what purpose these objects really served, in what context, and what types of herbs were used. It is highly unlikely that tobacco was used, as it has never been found on archaeological sites, nor in written records. Moreover, it seems rather strange that such an important and widespread custom seems to have been forgotten in Europe until the 16th century and that the tobacco plant, if it really did exist before Columbus’ discovery, became extinct. On the other hand, evidence of pollen from the tobacco plant has been found on sites in Yucatan, suggesting that it existed as early as 15,000 years ago in the Americas.
If it is true that tobacco and the devices for smoking it are closely related, the origins of the pipe should be sought in the Americas, without forgetting, however, that the development of the pipe as we know it today also occurred in other parts of the world.