Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets


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The first European contact with tobacco was, apparently, when Columbus with his little caravels, after making his first landfall on the small island of San Salvador or Watling’s Island, steered again toward the southwest, meeting at sea an Indian canoe loaded, among other things, with dried leaves. The use of tobacco was, however, first observed by two messengers whom Columbus sent ashore in Cuba, or, according to other authorities, in Hispaniola (Santo Domingo). One of these men was a learned Jew who could speak Chaldean, Hebrew, and Arabic and who, Columbus felt sure, would therefore be able to speak with any deputy official of the Grand Khan of Cathay (China) whom he might encounter. They met many men carrying firebrands and packages of dried herbs rolled up in a dried leaf. Lighting one end of this, they sucked the smoke out of the other end, giving the information that it comforted the limbs, intoxicated them, made them sleepy, and lessened their weariness, and that the objects were called tabacos. Thus was the cigar first discovered in what still remains its principal stronghold, Cuba. . . . Mexico and Central America and some parts of northern South America were the regions in which the cigarette was the favored form of smoking tobacco, crushed tobacco leaves being rolled in a wrapper of corn husk or bark cloth. The cornhusk cigarette is at present the popular smoke of millions of Mexican Indians, and the cigarette, in fact as well as in popular belief, is the hallmark of the Mexican. Few cigars or pipes are smoked in Mexico today. . . . The use of snuff is common among many tribes of central and northern South America, particularly in the lowland regions of Colombia and Venezuela, and was probably also in vogue in the West Indies at the time of Columbus. The tribes of this region make a snuff in which pulverized seeds of an Acacia or Mimosa, manioc flour, and pulverized lime from a mollusk shell form the basic ingredients, thou gh tobacco is apparently used in some localities. The mixture is blown or snuffed up the nostrils and produces a mild intoxication, presumably giving increased strength and courage. This snuff is most commonly known as niopo or iopo.

The ingredients are generally pulverized with a mortar and pestle. In Venezuela, where the custom seems to have reached its greatest development, the snuff is kept in a hollow jaguar bone which is permanently closed at the lower end with pitch or gum into which some object, such as a piece of glass, crystal, or shell is fixed as a decoration, and the other end kept closed by means of a stopper, generally of cloth. The snuff holder is generally further decorated with toucan feathers and incised designs. The snuff is taken by means of a special and ornate apparatus of a Y shape made of two hollow bird bones branching at the top, but meeting at the bottom, and wound with pitched cord. At the top, two hollow balls of wood or seeds are attached to the ends of the bones. The two balls are placed against the nostrils, and the lower end of the bifurcated tube placed in the snuff holder. A vigorous sniff then brings some of the powder up into the nose. . . . Tobacco in the form of snuff was also used both by the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico at the time of the Conquest. . . . In the western part of the Amazonian forests, near the foot of the Andes, smoking is unknown, but tobacco is licked or, at times, chewed instead. This is, doubtless, due to the influence of the coca-chewing habit of the Andean highlands, many of these tobacco-licking tribes also chewing the coca leaf. Among these tribes a decoction is generally made by boiling down the tobacco leaves with water until a strong, thick residue of a tarry consistency and color is produced. Small quantities of this concentrated solution are placed on the tongue from time to time, and the desired narcotic effect thus secured.

The Arhuaco Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, for instance, carry with them constantly a tiny hollow gourd containing a little of this thick dark decoction. When two men meet on the trail or a visit is made, the gourds are exchanged, and each man dips his finger into the other’s gourd and touches the tobacco to his lips, or, more frequently, merely goes through the motions of so doing.1

1Mason, J.A.n/an/an/an/a, "The Use of Tobacco in Mexico and South America," , 16: 3–14, passim.


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Chicago: "Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets," Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . "Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets." Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets, Vol. 16, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets' in Field Mus. Nat. Hist., Anth. Leaflets. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from