History of Tobacco Nicotiana tabacum L. Plant

History of Tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum Plant in Blooming
History of Tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum Plant in Blooming

The history of tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum L. is a great chapter in the world agriculture history.

Even more so, it is also an important chapter in the history of the human race, because the generalization of tobacco cultivation and its global spread followed the shocking fact of the discovery of the two American continents that contributed to the affirmation of the cause of what the earth is round and not square.

The tobacco plant, before demonization in the 20th century, played a very important role, first in the cultures of indigenous Americans and then throughout the world.

Still today, the industrial scale cultivation of Nicotiana tabacum L. and its varieties contributes greatly to the economy of many tobacco producing countries, as well as the applications of the individual plant-derived products.

The Origin of Tobacco

Narrating the history of tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum, in this tribute, a word will often be repeated in different versions: the word possibly.

And this will be because many aspects related to the history of tobacco remain unclear – wrapped in a veil of smoke.

Starting the narration, it could initially be said that while the use of the word possibly, it is probably with certainty excluded for the plant’s birthplace, the same is not true for its ancestors. The reason is that while the primordial cradle of tobacco is localized, the ancestors of the plant remain more or less, unknown.

Geographical Center

The birthplace of the Nicotiana tabacum plant is identified in those areas of South America located between Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.

From there, it appears that Tobacco began its journey in space and time, influencing – and there is no doubt about it – on human societies with such intensity, as few representatives of the plant kingdom.

The Generators

The ancestors of the Tobacco are believed to come from the Andean highlands. It is most likely Nicotiana sylvestris and Nicotiana tomentosiformis or Nicotiana otophora. Nicotiana tabacum is the result of natural hybridization between the first two or between the first and the third.

History of Tobacco

The Age of Tobacco

Archaeologists consider the likely age of the Nicotiana tabacum plant to be 6000 to 10,000 years old. That is, they compare and link the genetic evolution of Nicotiana tabacum, with the evolution of human societies in tobacco areas of origin, and the domesticated and improvising intervention of the latter in the plant.

However, according to some geneticists, DNA research shows that plant polyploidy has developed long before man discovers it. The Nicotiana tabacum plant is a bit older than that suggested by archaeological research.

How much older? 2 to 6 million years – which makes tobacco more likely to interfere with the genetic evolution of humans, rather than the opposite.

Archaeologists support their appreciation, in the choice of humans to develop in South America those genus plants that have a higher content of nicotine alkaloid, as is the case with the diploid species of Nicotiana rustica (2.47%) and Nicotiana tabacum 1.23%).

The geneticists, on the other hand, argue that the man did what he knows to do better: he benefited from the plant, spreading the tobacco out of its natural distribution zone.

History of Tobacco

History of Tobacco - Stirpium Adversaria Nova by Pierre Pena and Mathias de l'Obel (1571)
History of Tobacco - Stirpium Adversaria Nova by Pierre Pena and Mathias de l'Obel (1571)

Initial Spread of Nicotiana tabacum

More than half of the species belonging to the genus Nicotiana, and originating in South America, evolved and developed in two main areas:

  • In the area of central Andean lowlands with the adjacent foothills
  • In the lowlands humid environments of Mojos and Bolivian Pantanal

Their distribution to the rest of the American continent was probably due to the contribution of the man of the hunter-gatherer era, mainly from the south to the north.

Instead, the Nicotiana tabacum plant spread to the east of its original cradle where it was acclimated. In particular, this tobacco plant has spread to the lowlands of Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Paraguayan Pantanal, and in the humid forests of the Amazon basin.

History of Tobacco

The Nicotiana tabacum Plant and the North

Irrespective of ancestral origin and age, it seems that Tobacco, possibly 6000 years ago, has begun to be exploited by native South American people.

With the gradual domestication, selection and cultivation, the two species mentioned above were developed, i.e. Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. These species, in addition to their high nicotine content, were even more productive, having much larger leaves than the other Nicotiana species.

From South America, the Nicotiana tabacum plant passed to Central America and the Caribbean to reach about 1500 to 500 BC in the southeastern and southwestern United States.

Somewhere there stops its further initial spread, and only sporadically appears to the west of the North American continent.

The reason for its non-distributing in these areas is likely to be the existence of hunter-gatherer societies rather than agricultural populations, as well as the undeniable fact of the presence and exploitation by those social groups of wild tobacco species such as Nicotiana quadrivalvis, Nicotiana attenuata , and Nicotiana obtusifolia.

History of Tobacco

The 'Early Days' statue, created by Frank Happersberger, at Pioneer Monument in San Francisco, California. © Photo, Beyond My Ken
The 'Early Days' statue, created by Frank Happersberger, at Pioneer Monument in San Francisco, California. © Photo, Beyond My Ken

First Smoke Signs

The use of Tobacco by indigenous peoples of both American continents was widespread. In many of the Amerindians communities as well as the cultures they developed, Tobacco had metaphysical qualities and was used in both religious and public ceremonies.

Besides, the Tobacco plant was or was shown to be an effective medicine almost against any disease.

Getting Nicotine

Several techniques have been developed for nicotine uptake by users. The variation is amazing, included chewing, swallowing, licking, snuffing, and smoking.

Archaeological Finds

he lack of sufficient archaeological findings and / or evidence in the discovered archaeological finds does not allow safe conclusions to be drawn as to when the nicotine uptake by  Tobacco users occurred through smoking. Much more, it leaves little room for identification as to the exact species of Tobacco.

This is fully understood both in the case of the Mississippi Valley archaeological finds in North America and those in the Chaco Basin in the South.

In the Mississippi Valley, at various neolithic mounds found pipes made of porphyry and other rocks, elaborately decorated with carved animal representations. Many of them are about 5000 years old but do not contribute any information as to the species of Tobacco plants that their owners have smoked.

In the wider area of the Chaco Basin, shared between Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay, in various archeological sites were found several forms of pipes, including simple and double-barrelled ones. In these pipes, which are made of clay, bones, stone or other materials, have actually detected nicotine traces. Unfortunately, the content of the archaeological material in the alkaloid is so small that it does not allow accurate identification of the Nicotiana species smoked by those ancient smokers.

Was Nicotiana tabacum?

… Possibly.

History of Tobacco

History of Tobacco - Tobacco in the Florentine Codex (1540–1585)
History of Tobacco - Tobacco in the Florentine Codex (1540–1585)

The Indigenous, the Columbus, and the Nicotiana tabacum Plant

Guanahani Island is located in the Bahamas. Without it being known today, it is known that this is the first part of the New World where Christopher Columbus set foot in October 1492.

The Islanders & the Europeans

The island was not deserted. Its original inhabitants were Lucayan or, more correctly, Lukku-Cairi, name that in their own language means ‘island people’, ‘islanders’. The Lukku-Cairi were members of Taino Arawak’s largest group of indigenous Amerindians.

The indigenous Lukku-Cairi had the bearing to Christopher Columbus and his retinue by a way that would not fit in any civilized nation of the time: they greeted them with great courtesy and a spirit of hospitality.

In this atmosphere, Christopher Columbus and his escorts received by indigenous various gifts. One of them was Tobacco.

The Historical Dimension of the Meeting

That meeting became immortalized for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, because the first non-indigenous American contact with Nicotiana tabacum is recorded.
  • Secondly, because that meeting was a milestone for the travel trip of the great explorer Christopher Columbus, which first came into contact with the subjects of the Chinese Emperor.
  • Thirdly, because it first revealed the harmful effects of Tobacco: Lukku-Cairi, like the rest of the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, until 1520, were either sold as slaves or exterminated – but in any case, there was not one of this genus of Taino Arawak, at the next idyllic tourist destination, which to this day are the Bahamas.

Modern Mythmakers

Myth, in the pre-scientific period, represents an important form of knowledge. After that period, it is nothing more than a fairy tale.

Part of the cross-eyed bibliography still considers indigenous Amerindians attitudes, such as Lukku-Cairi, to foreigners as an example of religious piety: for all these writers, Columbus and his lads, were treated by the native as ‘divine envoys’.

Part of the cross-eyed bibliography, can not understand that natural courtesy is, unfortunately sometimes, yet another characteristic of the human race.

Η Ιστορία του Φυτού του Καπνού

The Niña and Pinta Columbus Replica Ships
The Niña and Pinta Columbus Replica Ships

The Global Spread of the Tobacco Plant

Since the 16th century, thanks to the cosmogonic event of Columbus’ arrival in China, the Nicotiana tabacum plant begins its planetary journey.


 In North Africa, and specifically in Egypt, it is introduced by the newly established Ottoman Empire, around 1530 to 1550.

In West Africa, it reaches between 1550 and 1560, mainly through the prominent Portuguese merchants and secondarily by their Spanish colleagues. From there it is spreading very fast in the eastern and southern regions of the continent.

In 1650, diligent European settlers cultivate Tobacco in South Africa and use it instead of currency in their trade.


Nicotiana tabacum arrives in Japan at the beginning of the 16th century, initially through wreckage and then as a normal imported product from the ports of Nagasaki and Kagoshima.

The ships belong to proficient Portuguese and Dutch merchants who did not allow themselves and their ships to be wrecked. From Japan as well as from the Philippines, Tobacco passes it in 1530 to Imperial China.

Between 1592 and 1598, the invading Japanese troops along with the clanging of weapons brought Tobacco to the Korean Peninsula. In 1600, through the port of Goa, other fearless Portuguese merchants import Tobacco into India.

Metaphysical Intermezzo

The first non – native American smoker, the Spanish sailor and crew member of Santa Maria – one of the three ships of Columbus’s first cruises – Rodrigo de Jerez, falls victim in 1493 in the first anti – smoking campaign.

He has been made a prisoner for seven years from the holy (?) Inquisition, with the rational reasoning that ‘only the devil could smoke out of his mouth’.

In addition to a sailor and a convict, Rodrigo de Jerez was with Luis de Torres, and ambassador of Christopher Columbus, when the latter was seeking Chinese Emperor Hongzhi (弘治) in the Chinese island of Cuba.


Ramón Pané, a Spanish-born missionary, either had the welfare of not smoking publicly or had never been a smoker, was lucky not to have the fate of his countryman’s sailor.

On the contrary, not only he was not imprisoned, but was credited in the history of Tobacco plant as the one who first introduced it to Europe between 1496 and 1498. A few years later, in 1558, Frenchman Franciscan priest and cosmographer André Thevet would bring with him from Brazil Tobacco seeds for the purpose of plant cultivation.

The first attempts in Spain and Portugal would be successful if they had not completely failed in the meantime.

Any history of Tobacco plant in Europe would probably be unsuccessful if there was no mention of another person who left his stamp, as well as his name, on the plant: talking of course about Jean Nicot.

Jean Nicot was the French ambassador to the Portuguese Crown, and who sent Tobacco samples to the French palace in 1560 helped spread the reputation of the plant and its use.

This was also contributed by the adorable Queen of France, Catherine de Médicis, who used Tobacco to cure herself from the chronic migraines she suffered-and not the remorse for the massacre of the Protestants she ordered , which took place on 22 August 1572 in Paris, a day that has since been called by her greatly excited professional colleagues, ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day‘.


Excited heavy criminals and professional seamen of the First Fleet of the British Empire, introduced in 1788 Nicotiana tabacum in Australia.

In New Zealand, the Tobacco plant comes along with the first non-criminals European smokers and settlers, somewhere in the late 17th century.

History of Tobacco

History of Tobacco - Colombo Comic by Tulio Altan
History of Tobacco - Colombo Comic by Tulio Altan

First Botanical Records of the Tobacco Plant

The first botanical description and illustration of Nicotiana tabacum is presented in 1571 in Stirpium adversaria nova.

Mathias de l’Obel and his student and friend Pierre Pena co-sign it.

It was possible that the representation of Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum in the Florentine Codex, in the 11th book, was preceded. However, this work of 1540-1585 was only iconographic and does not include the botanical description of tobacco plants.

In 1753, with the Tobacco, the great systematic Charles Linnaeus deals with the name Nicotiana in the genus and describing the species Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum.

History of Tobacco

The Beginnings of Tobacco Cultivation after Christopher Columbus's Arrival in China

The spread and demand of Tobacco in the Old World, either as a medicine or as a drug, has led to the creation of organized plantations in the New World, which have inaugurated another branch of plant production, that of Tobacco growing.

Industrious owners of Tobacco plantations, with the help of the Authorities, have met the needs for working hands, offering the unskilled native workforce of New World the choice of choosing between extermination and slavery.

And because, at some point in time, the lack of working hands became more than obvious because of the unwise torque of indigenous peoples to extermination, the necessary workforce from West Africa was introduced, inaugurating another innovative and flourishing economic sector, that of Slave Trade.


The first systematic cultivation of Nicotiana tabacum Tobacco took place in 1531 on the plantations that were created in Santo Domingo on the Hispaniola island.

Soon the Tobacco growing was spread to Cuba and Puerto Rico to then spread throughout the Caribbean.

North America

 The most important Tobacco-producing center was the later state of Virginia. The first to create Tobacco plantations there were the English colonists.

Obviously by making a small show of British humor, these colonists did not plant Nicotiana tabacum but Nicotiana rustica – the Tobacco species that was cultivated by the native Amerindians of Virginia. Nicotiana rustica, however, did not meet the tastes of consumers of the time, being of inferior quality, and as a result, growers were brutally hit by the Tobacco overproduction crisis of 1638.

Thanks to John Rolfe, who had purchased Nicotiana tabacum seeds in 1612, the Virginia region soon recovered and became one of the world’s largest tobacco-producing centers, giving also new impetus to the hard-tested Slave Trade.

Central & South America

Almost simultaneously with the creation of plantations in the Caribbean by Spanish settlers, Tobacco cultivation spread to the adjacent central and southern continental areas.

Tobacco plantations originally appeared in Venezuela and Colombia, and later in the other mainland countries, following the rhythm of demand for Tobacco products. Largest producer country of the Nicotiana tabacum plant was Brazil. In Brazil, Tobacco cultivation took place primarily in its northeastern states, such as Bahia, Pernambuco and Maranhão.

The exportable quantities were so large, that they made the product one of the most profitable, competing with cotton, sugar and rum. But this has not only positive but also negative aspects.

The dynamics of expanding Tobacco growing with the simultaneous commitment of productive land was such that, so in some areas, as I.e. Salvador da Bahia in 1639, its cultivation was banned in order to avoid a lack of basic agricultural commodities absolutely necessary to meet the nutritional needs of the population.

Something similar to what would happen a few centuries later, when in colonized Africa, large areas of productive land would be used to produce flowers instead of meeting the dietary needs of starving indigenous peoples.

History of Tobacco

History of Tobacco - The Chinese Hongzhi Emperor (Zhu Youcheng)
History of Tobacco - The Chinese Hongzhi Emperor (Zhu Youcheng)

Instead of an Epilogue in the History of the Tobacco Plant Nicotiana tabacum L.

The history of Tobacco plant, its origin, its cultivation and its use, is wide and multifaceted. The botanical, agricultural, anthropological, ethnobotanical, social and economic aspects of both cultivation and the plant, the editorial team of Kalliergeiaaspires to cover them in subsequent tributes, and as much as possible.

Until then, lights up a cigarette and meditates in thick clouds of smoke.

History of Tobacco

History of Tobacco - Tobago Island Fort King George
History of Tobacco - Tobago Island Fort King George


The References of this laconic article that deserves the misleading title The History of Tobacco Nicotiana tabacum L. Plant instead of the honestly The Partial History of Tobacco Nicotiana tabacum L. Plant are unknowingly presented by Inti-Illimani with the song Tinku.

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History of Tobacco


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