Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Tobacco – Shamans and Smokers

Nicotiana tabacum L.

The Indians, to pass the time, smoke the tobacco to get drunk and to see those ghosts and things that they see and from which they received contentment (...). And since the devil is a deceiver, and has knowledge of the virtues of the plants, he taught them the virtue of this one so that through it they see those imaginations and ghosts in front of them: and he deceives them.

Monardes, N. 1580. Primera y segvnda y tercera partes dela Historia Medicinal: delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que siruen en Medicina

Since prehistory, tobacco has been chewed, smoked or taken as snuff, infusions or enemas. Residues have been extracted from smoking pipes and from human teeth and hair recovered in archaeological research. Considered a sacred plant, tobacco was part of ritual and religious ceremonies and offerings, often mixed with other species such as thorn apple or ayahuasca to enhance its hallucinogenic effects. Nowadays it is still used by shamans and healers, who smoke large amounts of tobacco after long periods of fasting, which causes them to hallucinate, reducing the heart rate and sometimes leading to a catatonic state.

The Nicotiana genus, in the Solanaceae family, includes 75 species. These are mostly native to America, and just two are cultivated: N. rustica L. and N. tabacum, both resulting from natural hybridisation between wild species. These were the two first species of tobacco exploited by man, and recent studies show that both originated in the Andes, from where they spread to the rest of the American continent.

At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, tobacco was the most widely used psychoactive plant used in the Americas. Brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus, it was initially considered a medicinal plant and was used variously as an aphrodisiac, in treatment of pain, to alleviate intestinal colic and to heal wounds. Tobacco began to be cultivated in Europe during the XVI century, and in 1620 the first medicinal tobacco factory was established in Seville, Spain. Between the end of the XVI century and the beginning of the following century, tobacco was introduced to Asia and the Middle East and spread very quickly.

Tobacco contains nicotine, one of the most toxic plant-based substance. Nicotine stimulates the nervous system and the production of adrenaline, while blocking the transmission of nerve signals, so that feelings of hunger, heat or pain are inhibited. Isolated for the first time in the 19th century, numerous medical studies have in the recent decades shown its harmful effect on health. Considered to be highly addictive, the consumption of tobacco is related to a number of health issues including cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Tobacco leaves have antifungal and antimicrobial properties, having been used as an insecticide in agriculture since the XVIII century. The oil extracted from the seeds lacks nicotine and has applications in the paint and varnish industry and as feed for livestock.