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The pipe of peace.

Tobacco has been considered an insubstantial food and an insidious poison, a powerful stimulant and a dreadful pollutant, a sacred herb and a criminal trade, a refined pleasure and an intolerable torment. Tobacco and its use has always been inherently ambiguous, not just now in developed societies but even in the oldest myths on its origin. Is smoking tobacco a habit, a pleasure, a weakness, a ritual, or a little of each?

For the Toba and Pilaga of the Chaco, tobacco was said to grow from the ashes of a maneating jaguar-woman who was killed and burned by her own children after she tried to eat them. For the Terena, other inhabitants of the Chaco, but residents of the left bank of the River Paraguay since the mid-nineteenth century, tobacco first grew on the grave where a man had buried his wife, a witch who also wanted to eat him. For the Bororo of the Mato Grosso, tobacco was first found in the belly of a fish; the find established a link between humans and a supernatural creator who punished those inhaling the smoke instead of exhaling it by turning them into half-blind otters. For the Cariri (or Kiriri) of the chapadas of northeastern Brazil, it was a gift from the Great Celestial Father, destined to take his place among human beings, whom he ordered to make offerings to it.

Jean Nicot (1530-1600) knew none of this when he arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, as ambassador of Henry II of France in the mid-sixteenth century. He made many friends there, but one led to his name being immortalized. His archivist friend, Damian de Goes, mentioned the wonderful curative properties attributed by Portuguese sailors to a plant that had just arrived from Brazil. The plant was burned and the smoke inhaled in one of several ways. An astute courtier, Nicot took the trouble to send the plant to the queen mother, Caterina de' Medici, to cure her migraine. Apparently the sneezing induced by taking snuff (ground tobacco inhaled through the nose) was successful. It was soon a great success, and the plant was known in many European countries as herba nicotiana (Nicot's herb). This name entered the pharmacopoeia and Linnaeus took the name Nicotiana for the genus containing the tobacco plants.

Tobacco is not a single species but a group of species of the genus Nicotiana (Solanaceae) that are grown on all five continents. Only two are now widely cultivated for smoking after drying or inhaling as powder, N. rusticum, wild tobacco, still cultivated in eastern Europe and, surprisingly, in the Balearic Islands, and N. tabacum, true tobacco. This species is from a South American woody savannah region, an area of the Chaco on the frontier between Argentina and Bolivia.

The first discoverers soon realized how important the Indians considered tobacco, one of the first presents they received. On October 15, 1492, three days after arriving in the New World, Christopher Columbus wrote in his log:

"When in an arm of the sea that separates these two islands..., I found a man on his own crossing from one island to another. He was carrying a piece of bread as big as a man's hand, a gourd full of water..., and some dry leaves that they must greatly appreciate, because they were offered to me in San Salvador as a present."

He soon learned their use, as after landing in Cuba he saw that the leaves were rolled very tightly to form a sort of stick that was lit at one end, and the smoke inhaled at the other. The sticks were called tobaccos, and so the name given by the discoverers, now internationally used, did not originally correspond to the plant but to cigars.

Smoking was not, however, restricted to the Arawak, Carib, and other Indian peoples of South America. A Mayan bas-relief in a sixth century temple at Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) shows a person smoking, the oldest known image of a person smoking tobacco. Wild tobacco was known and cultivated by most of the peoples of the plains and eastern region of North America, as far as the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. For these America Indian peoples, tobacco was of great symbolic and religious importance, especially the pipe of peace, whose ritual value was far greater than the impression given by westerns. The pipe's bowl represented all the planet Earth, the engraved zoomorphic figures portrayed all the animals living on it, the wooden mouthpiece represented all that grows on it, and the 12 spotted eagle feathers at the junction of the bowl and the mouthpiece symbolized all creatures that fly. Smoking the pipe was a prayer of communion with all nature and an invocation of the Great Spirit.

This clearly had nothing in common with the fashion for tobacco among Europeans after the sixteenth century. Despite prohibitions, campaigns to eradicate tobacco consumption, and even persecution with harsh penalties, smoking still persists. Like other drugs whose consumption is socially accepted (in this case, nicotine, an alkaloid like quinine, morphine, and cocaine), tobacco has an ambiguous relationship with societies and governments. Governments release health warnings and ban tobacco advertisements, but at the same time tobacco is a major source of revenue for most governments. The large tobacco companies print government health warnings on every packet, but at the same time they get publicity by sponsoring sporting events. The very act of offering or accepting a cigarette--for many years and especially among men the easiest gesture of sociability--may now be viewed negatively. The question of smokers' rights has become a source of conflict. Lighting a cigarette may start an argument rather than a conversation.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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