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].
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).
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).
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.
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