Nicotiana sp.




       Seeds are the most commonly identified part of the tobacco plant recovered from archaeological sites. Generally, archaeological tobacco seeds are recovered in relatively small numbers per sample and occur most frequently in domestic contexts (Wagner 1991). Tobacco seeds recovered from Eastern open-air, mesic sites are usually charred. Jones (1936) has identified equivocally archaeological tobacco fruits from a dry rockshelter.


       Nicotiana sp. seeds are minute, ranging between 0.4-1.3 mm in diameter (Goodspeed 1954:89), and bear undulating cellular-reticulate surface patterning (Figure 1). Seed shape varies greatly and includes globose to subglobose (Martin and Barkley 1961: 196), reniform, elliptical, and angularly several-sided forms (Goodspeed 1954:89). Seeds of the genus Nicotiana are generally distinctive within the Solanaceae due to characteristic 'waviness' of surface pattern lines and their relatively small size (Haberman 1984:281).

       The surface pattern is formed by thin, raised lines which resemble the inscriptive icing used on birthday cakes. Generally, the lines in the region around the hilum protrude more, and are more distinct than those directly opposite the hilum, where the seed often looks stretched. The basic unit of surface 'decoration' is shaped like a puzzle-piece. These areas appear interlocking, and tend to be quite variable in shape.

       Paleoethnobotanists tend to classify seeds from Eastern sites as Nicotiana rustica L. on the basis of size and distribution of tobacco species at contact (Haberman 1984; Wagner 1991). Measurements of archaeological tobacco seeds correspond well with modern N. rustica (Wagner 1991). According to Setchell (1921), N. rustica is the only species reported to be in the eastern United States during early historic times. However, since no extensive examination of variability in tobacco seed size or surface patterning within and between species has been done, species level identifications of archaeological tobacco are tentative.

       Haberman's (1984) scanning electron micrographic study, although quite preliminary, suggests that seed surface patterns are diagnostic of species. He reports that N. rustica "appears to have characteristically straighter lines adjacent to the hilum area" (p. 281) as compared with other species. Since the time of this publication, some paleoethnobotanists have observed that archaeobotanical tobacco seeds do not accord well with Haberman's micrographs of Nicotiana rustica.

       The archaeological tobacco seeds encountered are generally reniform in shape with surface patterning similar to seeds from the Travis I site. Haberman (1984) suggests that the Travis I seeds are most like N. bigellovii var. quadrivalvis [synonymous with N. quadrivalvis Pursh].

Archaeological Distribution

       Nicotianasp. seeds dating to the Middle Woodland period (100 B.C.-A.D. 300) have been reported from four sites near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippian rivers. Smiling Dan (Asch and Asch 1985), Meridian Hills, Naples-Abbott, and Burkemper 2 (Wagner 1991) provide the earliest archaeological evidence of tobacco in the Eastern Woodlands.

       Tobacco has also been identified from 14 Middle and Late Woodland period components and 17 Late Woodland to Emergent Mississippian contexts. Reports of archaeological tobacco tend to be concentrated in sites located in the Ohio, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri river drainages. This aggregation probably reflects the intensity of flotation conducted in these areas, rather than the prehistoric distribution of the taxon (Wagner 1991).

The Modern Plants and their Distributions

       Both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum L. are annuals with a singular flower-bearing stem and tens of large, ovate leaves. A single ripe fruit, or capsule, from either species may contain thousands of seeds (Wagner 1991). Mature N. rustica typically ranges between 2 and 4 feet tall and has greenish yellow flowers. Pink-flowered N. tabacum plants may achieve heights from 4 to 8 feet, depending on the variety (Buchanan 1994). Another difference between these taxa is nicotine content. Dried leaves of N. rustica plants can contain up to 9% nicotine, whereas N. tabacum nicotine levels tend to range between 1% to 3% (Buchanan 1994: 35).
Nicotiana tabacum, our modern crop species, is currently grown world-wide. Nicotiana rustica, which is native to South America (Heiser 1992), is reported to occur rarely--evidently as an escape--in disturbed areas from Florida to New Mexico, to Massachusetts, New York, Southern Ontario, and Minnesota (Gray 1950: 1260). However, Radford et al. (1968:935) describe the alleged occurrence of N. rustica in North and South Carolina as "attributed indirectly to [the] area" but state that no specimens from the Carolinas have been seen. Gleason and Cronquist (1991:406) assess the taxon's distribution in the Northeast as "rare or extinct". Steyermark's Flora of Missouri (1981) reports N. rustica from a single county in Missouri, the accession dating to 1910. Figure 2 presents historic distributions of eleven tobacco species in North America as proposed by Setchell (1921).


       Tobacco was one of most important cultivated ceremonial and medicinal plants among native North American peoples (Swanton 1946). According to Haberman (1984), Indians used at least nine species and varieties of the genus Nicotiana. Tobacco was a valued commodity in historic times and was traded by Indians and Europeans. N. rustica was grown and exported by colonists in the East, until it was replaced by the smoother tasting N. tabacum  in the mid 1600's (Heiser 1992).

       Morphological studies of tobacco seeds as well as other lines of inquiry suggest that more than one type of tobacco occurred prehistorically in the Eastern Woodlands. Ethnohistoric and archaeological evidence of extensive Native American trade networks support the proposition that more than one type of tobacco could be found at Eastern sites. The indeterminate taxonomic status of archaeobotanical tobacco should spark suspicion of identifications of Nicotiana rustica in the literature and inspire further systematic study.


Asch, D. L. and N. B. Asch

    1985   Prehistoric Plant Cultivation in West-Central Illinois. In Prehistoric Food Production in
            North America, edited by R. Ford, pp. 149-203. Anthropological Papers No. 75. Museum
            of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Buchanan, R.

    1994   A Short History of Tobacco: the Most Provocative Herb. The Herb Companion,
            October/November, pp. 34-38.

Gray, A.

    1950   Gray's Manual of Botany.  8th edition. Van Nostrand, New York.

Gleason, A., and A. Cronquist

    1991   Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. New
            York Botanical Garden, New York.

Goodspeed, T. H.

    1954   The genus Nicotiana: origins, relationships, and evolution of its species in the light of their
            distribution, morphology, and cytogenetics. Chronica Botanica Co.,
Waltham, Mass.

Haberman, T. W.

    1984   Evidence For Aboriginal Tobaccos in Eastern North AmericaAmerican Antiquity 49:269-

Heiser, C. B., Jr.

    1992   On Possible Sources of the Tobacco of Prehistoric Eastern North AmericaCurrent
            Anthropology 33:54-56.

Jones, V. H.

    1935   The Vegetal Remains from Newt Kash Hollow Shelter. In Rock Shelters in Menifee
            County Kentucky, edited by W. S. Webb and W. D. Funkhouser,  pp. 147-167. Reports in
            Archaeology and Anthropology, Volume III, No. 4. University of Kentucky, Lexington.
Martin, A. C., and W. D. Barkley
    1961   Seed Identification Manual. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Radford, A. E., H. E. Ahles, and C. R. Bell

    1968   Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press,
            Chapel Hill.

Setchell, W. A.

    1921   Aboriginal Tobaccos. American Anthropologist 23:397-415.

Steyermark, J. A.

    1981   Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Wagner, G. E.

    1991   Tobacco in Prehistoric Eastern North America. Paper presented at the 56th Annual
            Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans.
Winter, J. C.
    2000   Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer. University of
            Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Written by: Katherine M. Roberts

Figure 1. Photograph of carbonized tobacco seed from sub-mound 51 (11-S-34-2) at Cahokia, zone D2.
Figure 1. Photograph of carbonized tobacco seed from sub-mound 51 (11-S-34-2) at Cahokia, zone D2.

Figure 2. Early historic distributions of tobacco species (from Setchell 1921:415). The numeral 2 represents Nicotiana rustica.
Figure 2. Early historic distributions of tobacco species (from Setchell 1921:415). The numeral 2 represents Nicotiana rustica.