When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. Tobacco and Shamanism in South America is one of my sources.
The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.
If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.
Johannes Wilbert summarizes methods of tobacco use in South America, European perception of tobacco use in South America, and likely actual use, from historical documents and modern ethnography.
“Tobacco-producing plants are derived from the genus Nicotiana of the nightshade family. Other well-known nightshades in the service of mankind include food plants like potato, tomato, pepper, and eggplant; hallucinogens like thorn apple, mandrake, henbane, and belladona; and several garden ornamentals like petunia, which derives its name from the Tupían designation petún for tobacco, the most notorious nightshade of them all.”
“But from pre-Contact times to roughly 1700 of the historic era, tobacco seems primarily to have served magico-religious and more or less related medicinal ends (Cooper 1949:526-27). As a result, the plant had a major impact on tribal value systems until, under the influence of the advancing frontier, the ideological tenets of tobacco beliefs began to shift increasingly from the religious to the profane.”
“Prehistoric evidence for tobacco use in South America may go back some fifteen hundred years in the case of an assemblage of shaman’s paraphernalia from Niño Korin, sixteen hundred years in a Nasca burial (Wassén 1972:7-114; Bruhn et al. 1976:45) or even as far as three thousand years, in the case of tubular pipes from Marajó Island (Meggers and Evans 1957:197, fig. 58) and the lower Amazon (Hilbert 1968 pl. 12). But ritual tobacco is certainly much older on the continent than these dates suggest.” The parent species of Nicotiana rustica and N. Tabacum have have been cultivated as far back as 8,000 years ago, and may be the first cultivated plant of the Americas. (Furst 1976:27).
Wild and Cultivated Nicotianas
Tobacco most likely originated in South America, but even before Europeans began spreading it across the world it had traveled throughout the Americas and even to Australia and Africa, though these species may not have had a high nicotine content.
The genus Nicotiana Linnaeus is of South American origin. Tobacco-producing plants are of the genus Nicotiana, which belong to “one of the largest genera of the nightshade family. (Solanaceae).”
The genetic and distributional data points to South America as the origin of tobacco, spreading to North America, Australia, and the South Pacific. They seem to have originated in the Andean region. Wild nicotiana spread to Australia and the Pacific via the Antarctic. A lone African species (Namibia) may have spread in early geologic times.
Tobacco use (and other psychotropic plants) in South America almost exclusively limited to horticultural peoples. “In the Tropical Forest tobacco was the principal and nearly universal intoxicant used (Steward 1949:678).”
Not all Nicotiana species produce nicotine in large amounts, or even at all. The two species that have achieved widest dissemination as intoxicants are Nicotiana rustica and N. Tabacum. The African species of Nicotiana doesn’t seem to have been used as tobacco.
P. 5: DRAWING: Nicotiana rustica var brasilia.
Nicotiana rustica was probably the first of the two principal tobacco cultigens; “in its disperal, N. Rustica rivaled even maize.”
P. 7: DRAWING: Nicotiana tabacum Linnaeus.
“…pests are removed by hand and flower buds frequently nipped. To protect their tobacco plants from a particular ground worm, Barama River Caribs soak the soil around the roots at intervals with fish poison, which kills the vermin (Gillin 1936:66). Many plants, however, are lost to a variety of worms, beetles, and butterfly larvae, and tobacco gardens need considerable care. The first leaves can be harvested after two or three months by removing a few at a time to avoid destroying the plant.”
Methods of Tobacco Use in South America
In ritualistic use, tobacco was consumed in quantities large enough to cause hallucinations. The most common method of use was some form of smoking. Among some cultures, tobacco use replaced coca use.
The first to mention ‘tobaco’: Oviedo y Valdés (1851-55, 2:298-99) about the Caquetio of northern Venezuela
They venerate and dread the devil very much, and the boratios say they can see him and have seen him many times. They paint his figure on their jewels and on wood in relief and on all the things and places which they esteem the most. These boratios are their priests and in every important town there is a boratio to whom everyone goes to ask what is going to happen, whether it will rain, or whether the year will be dry or abundant, or whether they should go to war against their enemies or refrain from doing so, or whether the Christians are well-disposed or will kill them, or finally, they ask all they wish to know. And the boratio says he will reply, after having a consultation with the devil. And in order to have the consultation he shuts himself into a cabin alone, and there he makes use of some [things] which they call tabacos, smoked with such herbs as deprive them of sense; and one day, or two or three, passes and still the boratio is shut up and does not come out. And as soon as he comes out he says this is what the devil tells him, answering the questions which have been asked, according to the desires of those whom he wishes to satisfy. And for this work they give a gold jewel or other things to the boratio. For those matters which are not of such importance the Indians have another method. There is in the country an herb which they call tabaco, which is a kind of plant, the stalk of which is as tall as the chest of a man….and they sow this herb and they keep the seed which it produces to sow the next year and they cure it carefully for the purpose of securing predictions. When they cut the leaves they put them together and having hung them up they dry them in the smoke in bunches and they keep them there, and the product is much esteemed by the Indians…. To find out whether to fish or plant or to know if he should hunt or if his wife loves him each one is his own prophet, since, having twisted the leaves of this herb in a roll to the size of an ear of corn, they light it at one end, and they hold it in their mouth while it burns, and blow forth [smoke], and when it is half burnt, they throw down what is rolled up [i.e., the cigar]. If the burned part of the tobacco stays fixed in the form of a curved sickle, it is a sign that the thing which they desire will be given; if the burned portion is straight, it is a sign that the contrary of what is desired will happen, and what they hope to be good will be bad. And they believe this so firmly that no one nor any reason can be enough to cause them to believe anything else. [Dickson and O’Neil 1958-69, 1:14]
The Nicoya of Nicaragua reported the ceremonial use of cigars during a festival at which cups of cooked cacao were passed.
Some shamans would “thoroughly intoxicate” themselves with tobacco smoke; some would fall to the ground and remain “stupefied for the greater part of the day or night.” And, on returning to their senses, reported visions and visits to the gods.
In 1555, the Franciscan Friar André Thevet reported, on the coast of Brazil, the Tupinamba Indians called it Petun. They used it ‘ordinarily.’ Women do not use it: it makes them light in the head. “The first use thereof is not without danger, before that one is accustomed therto, for this smoke causeth sweates and weakenesse, even to fall into a Syncope, the which I have tried in my selfe.”
Jean de Léry, 1578, described “ritual tobacco blowing” among the “Carib” Indians. Their chiefs would use a 4-5 foot cane and blow smoke on the men dancing about them, saying “Receive all the spirit of fortitude whereby you may overcome your enemies” (Brooks 1937—52, 1:283). Includes a pretty good picture.
Some historians try to explain the hallucinations by saying that it wasn’t really tobacco, or that other things were mixed with it. But “as shall be amply documented, tobacco in many parts of South America is taken with results quite similar to those reported by the chroniclers from the West Indies. Clearly, the quantity of tobacco consumed on ritual occasions produces powerful effects without the aid of hallucinogens.”
Amerigo Vespucci observed tobacco chewing on “some offshore island along the coast of northern South America.” Possibly Margarita Island, the Guajira Peninsula, the Paria Peninsula, or Marajó Island in the mouth of the Amazon. However, he doesn’t actually name the substance they chewed, and the description he gives actually conforms more with coca chewing
“each had his cheeks bulging with a certain green herb which they chewed like cattle, so that they could scarcely speak. And hanging from his neck each carried two dried gourds one of which was full of the very herb he kept in his mouth; the other full of a certain white flour like powdered chalk. Frequently each put a certain small stick (which had been moistened and chewed in his mouth) into the gourd filled with flour. Each then drew it forth and put it in both sides of his cheeks, thus mixing the flour with the herb which their mouths contained. This they did frequently a little at a time. [Brooks 1937-52, 1:189]
However, near Margarita and Paria tobacco chewing was common among the Carib of the Lesser Antilles; tobacco leaves were dried over the fire, soaked in water, kneaded into rolls (which served as money). “In chewing, users added ashes to the quid or pulverized shell to the tobacco powder.”
Actually, the tobacco ‘chewing’ described here is really tobacco ‘sucking.’ Rather than masticating it, they hold it behind the lower lip or in the cheek for extended periods, letting the juice trickle down the throat. “In native South America the consumption of tobacco as a masticatory is primarily of northwesterly and westerly distribution (Stahl 1925:84, 117; Zerries 1964, map 12).
“Warao sorcerers preparing to cast a spell chew and smoke tobacco simultaneously. (Barral 1964:227)”
The Tunebo shamans chew wind-dried tobacco for “medicinal and ritual purposes. When diagnosing the cause of disease, the latter chew tobacco and coca simultaneously (Márquez V. 1979:101-02).”
“among the Aguano, Shebero, Chamicuro, Chayavita, Shipibo, and Mashco tobacco chewing is restricted to shamanic practices.”
Tobacco drinking is centered in Guiana and the Montaña of Ecuador and Peru.
In Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana, it is nearly universal; There, tobacco juice is often a simple infusion made of green leaves and water. “Rather than concocting tobacco juice from plants available around the settlement, novice shamans and newly initiated practitioners are apt to visit distant places to gather the ingredients.”
In the Ecuadoran/Peruvian region, the Montaña Indians steep, press out, and stir the leaves in water, and then frequently, rather than straining, mince the leaves into the concoction. Often this is licked, rather than drunk. “Tobacco drinking does not seem to be indulged in quite as intensively as in Guiana. An exception are the Jivaro, who, as presently discussed, have institutionalized tobacco drinking to a degree unparalleled in South America.”
Often these drinks are vomited out as well.
The Jivaro: Karsten (1926:323) “found that their principal mode of tobacco consumption is in liquid form; “the leaves are boiled in water or chewed in the mouth and mixed with saliva. The latter is believed to enhance the magical effect of the liquid.” Tobacco juice is taken prophylactically against general symptoms of indisposition, colds, or chills, and therepeutically against snakebites. It also serves magical and ceremonial purposes. Men drink tobacco in the context of initiation, vision quests, war preparations, victory feasts, and witchcraft. Women drink or sniff the fluid during elaborate initiation and nuptial rituals. Shamans drink or sniff the fluid from the hollow of their hands (Farabee 1922:119) or from special pottery cups, and initiates blow it into each other’s nose (Stirling 1938:118). Novices have their mentors squirt pathogenic “arrows” together with tobacco juice and saliva directly into their mouths (Karsten 1955a:170-77). On certain occasions such as during curing séances Jivaro men drink tobacco juice alternately with ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) and, possibly, maikua (Brugmansia sp.) (Lockwood 1979:150).”
Tobacco licking entails the use of “a syrup extract or jelly known as ambíl.” They run their finger or nail across it and then across their teeth and gums.
American Indians in the northwestern North America and the Peruvian Montaña use a funneled hollow length of bone or cane as an enema syringe. The Aguaruna of Peru, for instance, “blow the clyster by mouth through the enema tube into the body.”
Bladder or leather syringes are found in western South America and in Guiana. In the Amazon region, a rubber bulb syringe is used.
Throughout the New World, the enema syringe “appears to be used for medicinal and/or intoxicating purposes with clysters consisting of peppers and antiseptic herbs for the former, and ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), Brugmansia sp., parica (Bvirols), willka (Anadenanthera colubrina) and tobacco for the former.
Actual primary evidence of this is hard to come by. (Yeah, right. I wonder why?) “The general rarity in South America of rectal tobacco administration in the form of green tobacco or rapé suppositories (Warao) or as clysters is probably due to the fact that such a procedure frequently results in severe or fatal tobacco poisoning.”
“Rhinal absorption [snuff] of intoxicants is widespread [Anadenanthera beans, coca leaves, Virola resin, and many nicotianas] on the subcontinent and represents, apparently, a peculiarly American custom which, together with tobacco, spread to the Old World in post-Columbian times.”
In South America, tobacco is the principal source of snuff.
Among the Tucano, “although the comman man and woman may inhale tobacco powder, when snuffed by shamans, the practice is associated with male spiritual principles as opposed to corporal associations inherent in the relationship between women and pepper.”
“The Tucuna prepare a tobacco snuff mixed with cacao bark ash bark ash of pau mulato, ash of the fruit rind of envira de matamata, ash of banana peel, and a yellow lichen (but not with parica) and take it during female puberty rites.”
“Snuffing seems to be the only or the principal mode of tobacco use among the Mashco, where the men practice it from puberty on. Holzman describes how the men crouch in a circle to have five or six doses of the powder blown into their nostrils. According to the author, this takes place twice daily, after breakfast and after dinner. But for the Zapiteri subgroup of the Masco, Califano and Distel report that a man snuffs tobacco three or four times during the night at intervals of one or two hours.”
“The earliest written reference to tobacco snuffing in Peru comes from Garcilaso de la Vega (1723, pt. 1, bk. 2, ch. 25), who reports that the Inca practiced it to cure sundry diseases and “to purge the head.” Apparently, only wild varieties of native tobacco were used, and their roots pulverized (Rowe 1946:292).
“The practice of smoking tobacco is more frequent and has a wider distribution in native South America than any other mode of tobacco consumption. Passing through a predominantly pipe-smoking region of Talamancan tribes in lower Central America, one arrives at a threshold of South America, where, between the Panama Canal and Colombia, the Cuna Indians are smokers of pipe and cigar. The pipe is enjoyed by adults of both sexes, whereas cigar smoking appears to be primarily practiced by males. Women and men smoke the pipe during council meetings, and male ritual chanters and midwives do so when assisting at childbirth. Men also smoke pipe to divine.”
“Tobacco use seems to have displaced coca chewing among the Goajiro, resembling what has occurred among the Guamaca, where the young have taken up cigar smoking on festive occasions and where only the older men continue to chew coca, lime containers in hand.”
“The preceding ethnographic survey discusses tobacco use in South America from nearly three hundred societies and according to six different methods of internal (gastrointestinal and respiratory) application: chewing, drinking, licking, rectal, snuffing, smokable. Of these, smoking (cigars, cigarettes, or pipes) proves the most common, occuring in 233 cases and more often, by far, than all other cases of internal application combined. There probably is no single, definitive reason to account for this overwhelming preference, although a number of contributing factors do come to mind. For instance, included among the societies, especially those along the periphery of Amazonia, where smoking in one form or another occurs are those which adopted the custom through association with Europeans in post-Contact times. There is also the fact that smoking, pharmacologically speaking, is a most efficient method of nicotine administration. In any case, it seems that from before the period of Discovery, smoking “cigars-cigarettes prevailed over the great northern focal area of the continent and adjacent Antilles and Middle America, pipes over a roughly crescent-shaped belt peripheral thereto on the southeast, south, southwest, and west, a tobaccoless zone peripheral in turn to the pipe zone” (Cooper 1949:527-28).
‘The ingestion of tobacco in liquid form, either as an infusion or as a syrup, occurs in two focal areas of distribution, the upper Amazon and the Guianas. Drinking (sixty-four cases) and licking (sixteen cases) of tobacco products was recorded in a total of eighty Indian groups. Although some tribes of the Montaña, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the Venezuelan Andes boil tobacco leaves down to a syrup or paste, Indian tobacco concentrates are, by and large, sufficiently liquid to be drunk. Of the principal methods of tobacco use, taking the drug in liquid form through the mouth or the nose has found little acceptance outside the subcontinent.
‘Chewing and snuffing of tobacco products are methods found with almost equal frequency among South American Indians, the former occurring in fity-six and the latter in fifty-three cases. Tobacco chewing is of widespread and scattered distribution, mainly from the Gran Chaco in a belt along western Amazonia and extending beyond into the Colombian Andes, the Caribbean, and the Northwest coast of North America. This distribution pattern is taken among other criteria by Zerries as indicative of the great antiquity of this method. Also Sauer considered chewing and drinking as possibly the oldest methods of tobacco use. Although proof will be hard to find, one tends to agree with their suggestions mainly because of the naturalness of both forms of ingestion.
‘Tobacco snuffing, like the inhaling of intoxicants in general, seems to be peculiar to the New World, whence it spread to the Old World in post-Hispanic times. Like chewing, the snuffing of tobacco powder is of wide and scattered distribution, reaching from Chile to Colombia and, in rare cases, beyond into Mexico and North America. Again, this distributional evidence, coupled with the fact that snuffing of pulverized tobacco is found in close association with ecstatic and divinatory shamanistic techniques, suggests considerable antiquity of the custom.
‘Rectal tobacco application through enemas and suppositories has only occasionally been observed for South America. However, suppositories are administered by the Indians for therapeutic reasons, and in two cases ritual enemas have been reported.
‘The two principal external methods of application include percutaneous and ocular administration of the drug. Both methods will be treated more fully in the following chapters on pharmacology and tobacco ideology.
‘Percutaneous tobacco administration in the form of juice, powder, or leaves is of widespread distribution on the subcontinent and probably of great antiquity. Smoke blowing has been recorded frequently since chroniclers, like Thevet, reported it for the first time in the sixteenth century. But rarely do authors seem to have been aware of the fact that they were witnessing a distinct method of topical drug administration. Consequently, there exists a general imprecision in the recording of “smoke blowing,” which makes it difficult to determine whether it was done directly to a person or into the open air. This made tabulation of the method problematic. Nevertheless, we have come across some two hundred references to apparently purposeful percutaneous drug administration.”
Pharmacology of South American Tobacco Use
Nicotine is generally considered the main, if not only, drug in tobacco. It is a powerful chemical, with enough nicotine in the average cigar to kill two people. Topically, it can act as an analgesic.
“In honor of Jean Nicot, the consul of the king of France, who in 1560 had sent tobacco from Portugal to Paris, Hermbstädt  called the causa efficiens of nicotianas “Nicotianin” and found it present—for the first time—in tobacco smoke and rapé.”
Hermbstädt merely confirmed the findings of Vaugelin (1809) and Cerioli (1807), who were the first to isolate it (nearly contemporaneously, and independently) in a presumably impure form, since Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and Ludwig Reimann, “two students at the University of Heidelberg” were the first to isolate “nicotine in a pure form.” Reimann used the term “Nikotin”, “the now generally accepted term for the principal tobacco alkaloid.”
The correct formula for nicotine was determined by Melsens (1843), confirmed by Barral (1847) and Schloesing (1847). Schloesing also determined its molecular weight. C10H14N2.
“The alkaloid nicotine is liquid in its natural form, colorless, volatile, and strongly alkaline in reaction. When exposed to the air it assumes a brown color and the characteristic odor of tobacco.”
“The alkaloid is composed of a pyridine and a pyrrolidine ring… as such it is closely related to nornicotine (C9H12N2) (demethylated nicotine), and both forms of nicotine appear to be of the same potency.” In some plants, nornicotine is the main alkaloid. In most, it is nicotine; in a few of those, nornicotine is also present.
“Wild nicotianas were demonstrated to have a lower alkaloid content than the two cultigens Nicotiana tabacum and N. Rustica. Nicotine is the major alkaloid in these tobacco plants, and its percentage in the leaf of the former varies widely, from 0.6 percent to 9.0 percent. In the latter, it may reach 18.76 percent… Nicotine is distributed throughout the plant, with 5 percent of the total occurring in the flowers, 18 percent in the stems, 13 percent in the roots, and 64 percent in the leaves.
“From the time of the first experiments by Posselt and Reimann (1828-29), nicotine has been recognized as one of the more toxic botanical substances in nature. One or two drops, or the equivalent of 60-120 mg, of the substance placed on the tongue or the skin are said to kill a man. Thus, the quantity of nicotine contained in an ordinary cigar—if it were extracted and injected internally—would prove lethal for two full-grown humans (Mendenhall 1930:57; Larson, Haag, and Silvette 1961).”
Alkalizing is not necessary (unlike, for example, cocoa or betel). However, it does accelerate and intensify the action of the drug by increasing salivation. Nicotine is readily miscible in saliva. Also, “alkalizing the buccal environment prepares the site for optimal absorption.” (Bray and Dollery 1983:2374).
Nicotine will actually be absorbed if a smoker doesn’t inhale, but only about 5% of the smoke’s content. [CLINTON JOKE ALERT]
“Rectally administered nicotine escapes from digestive changes along the gastrointestinal tract and, as in the case of oral administartion, from hepatic reactions. With direct access to the bloodstream, rectally absorbed nicotine is known to be a cathartic, but also highly toxic and even fatal if administered as infusions of fifteen to twenty grams of tobacco and of as little as two grams.”
“Estimates are that in smoking, up to 50 percent of nicotine contained in the tobacco enters into the mainstream smoke (Pyriki in Lickint 1939; Schievelbein 1962:215) and that 65 percent to 95 percent of this is absorbed into the body.”
“With nicotine concentrations in excess of 18 percent, cigars of this tobacco species [N. Rustica] are strong enough to produce hallucinations and catatonia (Siegel, Collings, and Díaz 1977:22) and stand unrivaled in the world.”
“Considering that under traditional circumstances the use of tobacco was restricted to shamans and, furthermore, that even in modern Indian societies with secularized tobacco use, women and children are often little habituated to nicotine or not at all…”
Topical application: main purpose seems to be analgesic. Nicotine releases norepinephrine from the heart, the blood vessels, and the skin to produce a local effect. “Less than one microgram of nicotine can cause constriction of blood vessels, greatly reducing flow in skin vessels. Skin temperature has been shown to fall from 32.5C to 25.5C from smoking one cigarette. This striking cooling effect of nicotine on the skin not only provides soothing comfort to the user in the tropics, but may also become associated with the concept of heat control by the tobacco shaman.”
Ocular absorption: either by dropping tobacco juice or by blowing smoke into the eyes. The former is quite painful, and the latter is irritative (but not painful) and causes “copious lacrimation.”
“Free nicotine is highly fat soluble…. experiments have shown that the drug is absorbed by all tissues of the body.”
From the onset of smoking, it reaches the brain in seven seconds. It is removed from the body primarly via the kidney, through urination. Ten percent is excreted as unchanged nicotine.
Nicotine resembles structurally the “naturally occurring neurohumor acetylcholine.”
Nicotine releases norepinephrine (produces effects like tenseness, excitement, restlessness, wakefulness, palpitation, hyperventilation, anxiety, fear, weakness, tremor, dizziness, throbbing headache, reduction in appetite, moist skin, pallor, lacrimation, and ahieghtened blood flow to skeletal muscles), epinephrine (similar but increased basis to norepinephrine, plus elevates blood pressure, blood glucose, and lactate), serotonin (related to psilocybine and psilocine), dopamine, “and sundry other compounds.”
Tobacco use as part of shamanism appears to have followed horticulture, and tribes that relied on farming also recognized tobacco as a powerful insecticide. It is used both to rid plants of vermin and to cure humans of, for example, intestinal worms, a practice that Europeans also adopted.
“Scattered throughout the literature on tobacco use in South America are references to shamanic practices that betray a keen awareness, on the part of the Indian, of the organoleptic effect of nicotine on the human body. Psycho-physiological symptoms of nicotine action together with certain botanical characteristics of the plant itself have served to confirm and legitimize a number of core tenets of a drug-free shamanic ideology, to which ancient Americans from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego came to adhere.
‘In this context it is well to recall that by the time Paleo-Indian hunters set foot in the New World, wild Nicotiana had long since become dispersed in the Americas and beyond. But despite the fact that the South American habitat of wild nicotianas coincided largely with the distribution area of hunters in the southern half of the subcontinent, Paleo-Indian shamans relied on endogenous and ascetic techniques of mystic ecstasy rather than on drug-induced trance. The absence of sacred tobacco use remained a characteristic trait of South American hunters well into late historic times (Steward 1949:678). As Cooper (1949:557) has put it:
In South American Indian life, aboriginal stimulants and narcotics are confined almost exclusively to the horticultural peoples, and one or more such stimulants and/or narcotics are in use among practically all these peoples. Conversely, stimulants and narcotics of all kinds are, or in earlier post-Contact days were, completely lacking among the southern nonhorticultural peoples from the southern and perhaps the northern limits of the Pampa to Cape Horn, as also they are or until recent times were from a large and fairly continuous block of peoples (Gé and other non-Tupí), some horticultural, some non-horticultural, of Eastern and Southern Brazil. Of the various aboriginal South American stimulants and narcotics, alcoholic beverages and tobacco have the widest distribution, being practically coterminous with gardening.
‘Thus, the use of psychotropics, including tobacco, in South American shamanism is of relatively late standing. Tobacco shamanism, based predominantly on cultivated Nicotiana rustica and N. Tabacum, is tied to the origin of slash-and-burn farming in the rain forest of the northeren half of the subcontinent, where wild nicotianas are absent. It follows that while man was not instrumental in the dispersal of wild Nicotiana, the distribution of the cultigens involved in tobacco shamanism has been a function of the expansion of Neo-Indian farmers who originated and perpetuated them in their gardens. Considering that the origin of horticulture in lowland South America may go back some eight thousand years, tobacco shamanism, while more recent than drug-free shamanism, is still of considerable antiquity. The unprecedented diffusion throughout the New World of tobacco as a ritual intoxicant is probably due in large part to the fact that nicotine action tended to provide empirical support, in many ways, for shamanic beliefs of early Americans.”
Nicotianas have a propensity to grow in quantity on newly disturbed or enriched soil. Nicotiana rustica, among others, is grows along roads, ditches, and plowed fields. N. Tomentosa has been observed to grow in enriched soil. “The roadside distribution of tobacco coincides with the belief of Brazilian Indians that Kurumpira, a central figure of native lore, lives along the roads where he expects to find tobacco, especially in the form of gifts from passersby. The occurrence of tobacco on sites fertilized by ashes is mentioned in narratives about the origin of crop plants. In Pilagá mythology a cannibal-woman is killed by the culture hero and from her ashes the first tobacco grows. Grave sites and old abandoned house sites (which often serve as burial grounds) are places of disturbed and enriched soil, and the occurrence of tobacco in quantity on them has not gone unnoticed by the Indians. In fact, they have etiologically identified the plant with the ancestors and with ancestral deified shamans.”
Indians recognize tobacco as “a powerful insecticide…. Tobacco preparations are commonly employed on a physical level to rid seed stock and the human body of insect infestations. On a projected metaphysical level, tobacco products are used to incense people for the purpose of delivering them from pathogenic evil.”
“Nicotine is a powerful insect killer…. Beginning with a chance discovery by Turner in 1762, nicotine clysters were shown in Western medicine to be effective against intestinal worms. Since then, tobacco has been applied by mouth (Cunningham 1836) and as a cataplasm simultaneously with oral administration (Sigmond 1838) to purge patients of roundworms, tapeworms, threadworms, and pinworms. More commonly, however, Westerners applied vermifuges in the form of an enema of tobacco infusion.”
Tobacco known as an insecticide since 1690; it was used by South American shamans for this purpose at least as early as 1641, “when Tarairiú shamans were observed to fumigate maize “seeds with tobacco smoke to enhance their fertility” (Lowie 1946c:565). The practice of fumigating maize before sowing it is being continued by the Guaraní and Yupa at the present time (Cadogan 1958:93; Paolisso, pers. Comm.), and the blowing of smoke over new maize by the Tapirapeé (Wagley 1977:195) and over maize and potatoes by the Guambiana (Rowe 1954-55:150-51) to “cure” or purify them may have its origin in the same kind of farmer’s wisdom. Foods like fish and cassava are perserved in a similar way. (Rivero 1956:108-09).”
This has been extended so that Indians use tobacco smoke as a ritual of protection. Yaruro shamans blow cigar smoke over parties setting out to hunt, fish, gather, and cultivate, “to protect them from all sorts of potential danger and thereby guarantee an abundant food supply.”
“The Otomac, for example, rub their bodies with chewing tobacco to dislodge hard-to-remove ticks. The Yanoama employ tobacco juice for the same purpose against ticks and sand fleas. Tobacco is highly effective against the dreaded infestations of a wide-ranging neotropic species of botfly (Dermatobia hominis), which undergoes its larval development subcutaneously in man and other mammals. [Subcutaneously? What’s that? Under the skin!? I’m taking up smoking right now.] In fact, the Yuracare, Chacobo, Chimane, and Atsahuaca were said to cultivate tobacco especially as a medicament against this so-called macaque, or mosquito worm, and to place tobacco powder on the entry spot on the skin to stupefy the insect and to facilitate its extraction. From the Japurá River, Bates (1864, 2:407) reported that Indians removed the larvae by applying strong tobacco juice, the same way it is used by Indians of Guiana. The Cuna combat the botfly larvae by blowing smoke “from a pipe especially prepared and with a specially treated tobacco into the wound”, and Indians of Surinam extract the Muskittenwurm by the same method. Worm-infested wounds were treated by the Tupinamba with strong tobacco juice, and Indians of the Gran Chaco voided intestinal worms upon application of tobacco powder.”
Tobacco in non-habituated users can increase visual acuity at night (while possibly reducing it in the day). Prolonged use can lead to “tobacco blindness,”, or “tobacco amblyopia.”
“References to tobacco blindness are extremely rare in South American ethnographic literature… The most detailed information, however, relates to the office of dark shamanism among the Warao…. Warao shamans are in general heavily addicted to nicotine. Ideally, it is incumbent upon a local community to supply their religious practitioners with amounts of tobacco large enough to allow them to smoke incessantly and to consume even larger quantities of the drug in the course of ever-recurring rituals. This is particularly true of the hoarotu, the dark shaman, whose office is dedicated to the Lord of the Underworld, situated at the extreme western end of the universe.
‘The origin story of dark shamanism begins with an old man named Miana, “darkened vision.” Having two eyes, he was not blind (muana, “darkened eyes”) but saw best at dusk and in the twilight. Bright daylight dazzled him and caused him to look weith squinting eyes. Despite his dimmed vision, however, he walked freely along the black road of the dark underworld, where there are no flowers and no colors except for black and white and yellow. Miana frequents only one half of the world, the western part of dusk and night, which includes the region between the zenith and the setting points of the summer and winter suns.
‘Miana lived alone in his house at the zenith and begot a son whose name, like that of the Abode of Darkness in the western sector of the universe, was Hoebo. Miana’s house is a black structure and a dark and dreadful place. Filled with the stench of rotting cadavers and filthy with a blood-soaked floor, it heralds doom for all souls passing through on their dreaded journey to the Land of the Dead. Therea re houses made of lead, iron, or aluminum; chairs, tables, and musical instruments of bone; and hammocks made of coagulated human blood. Miana’s one-year-old grandson lies in one of them, and the child’s mother rocks him to keep him from crying. From Miana’s house a solitary path slippery with human blood leads straight to the Underworld, the Land of Darkness and Death in the west.
‘Miana and Hoebo smoke incessantly from long cigars which consist of curdled human blood wrapped in human skin. Hoebo’s body is emaciated and of yellowish pallor as if ill; at least that is how the black shaman sees him approaching. Like Hoebo, the master of dark shamans, the hoarotu shaman is also recognizable by the paleness of his face and chest, especially after he has consumed a larger than nomral quantity of tobacco in an effort either to “kill” or cure a person. To accomplish the former, the shaman sings a “darkened vision chant,” which invariably begins with the invocation of Miana. The singing takes place in the solitude of the forest, while the shaman chews tobacco and simultaneously smokes some six cigars twenty or thirty centimeters in length. While he is smoking and chanting, the ends of the kaidoko snare which he usually wears invisibly below the sternum in his chest slowly begin to emerge from the corners of his mouth. The snare travels toward its victim, near or far, until it arrives at its destination. Then the shaman pulls heavily at his cigar, turns it about, and, holding the fire in his closed mouth, blows into it. Out come ribbons of smoke, which convey the magic bolt of smoke to the intended sacrifice. The bolt of smoke enters below the rib cage and searches for the heart. At this moment the tobacco snare closes around the neck of the victim, who gasps for air and feels the magic arrow enter his heart.
‘Similarly, to effect a cure, the shaman smokes five or six long cigars and simultaneously chews tobacco, while chanting not a “darkened vision chant” but a benevolent song to identify the hoa pathogen in the body of his patient. In a state of nicotine trance, he divines the nature of the illness-causing hoa, and once it is identified, his kaidoko snare of tobacco smoke pries it loose from the victim. The pathogen jumps into the massaging hand of the curer, who blows it into the forest on a bolt of tobacco smoke. On occasion, the officiating shaman is unable to effect the cure and the patient is doomed. In such a case, the agonizing victim is asked for his opinion as to who may have caused his death. In order to verify the accusation, all dark shamans of the subtribal bands must stand in a line while their unsuccessful coilleague of the band of the dead person examines their faces and especially their chests. An experienced shaman can detect the culprit not only by the pallor of his skin but by its yellowish, waxy color. Especially old dark shamans are believed to be capable of killing their own people and are ostracized from the community upon public conviction. The same evidence that caused the shaman’s conviction ingratiates him in the eyes of Hoebo, his master spirit. When visiting him during the night, the shaman must present to him his (yellowish) chest, his (tremulous) hands, his (black) lips, and his (furring) tongue. These are well-known characteristics of active dark shamans and pertain to them just as do their fusty odor, which adheres to them from frequenting the stench-filled Land of the Dead, and a pronounced halitosis, which is said to be caused by smoking ritual cigars believed to be curdled human blood. Also, after excessive smoking, they are said to vomit serum and yellowish pieces of flesh of their victims, here or in the Land of the Dead. From their macabre house in the zenith, dark shamans are believed to travel to the Underworld via a black road, guided only by two beacons of white and yellow light. They travel this road when they have “sacrificed” a human for the Supreme Hoebo spirit and when they have to transport the cadaver, hanging from its knees down their back, into this world of twilight. This they do only periodically, after they have resisted the demands of the cannibalistic spirit for food on a number of occasions prior to giving in. Even experienced dark shamans dislike undertaking this journey to the Underworld and reduce their intake of tobacco sharply from episode to episode. Should they actually suffer from tobacco amblyopia they might experience an improvement of the symptoms in the interval and hesitate to precipitate a new attack of the awesome experience by excessive tobacco use prescribed for the occasion.”
“South American Indians consider tobacco a food…”; some tribes refer to their shamans as ‘tobacco eaters.’ In Mundurucú mythology cigarettes and tobacco smoke are “human food,” and “there are a good number of cases in which tobacco, food of shamans, becomes sublimated to a sacramental food of gods.”
The Sevillian physician Monardes (1580) reported:
the indians used the tobacco to relieve thirst and also to relive hunger and to be able to pass days without the necessity to eat or to drink. When they have to go for a long walk through the desert or other lonely place without water or food, they use small balls made of tobacco. They take the leaves (of tobacco) and chew them with a certain powder they prepared from burned Conchas de Almejas, and, chewing, they mix them until it is a mass, from which they prepare these little balls…. These are dried in the dark and afterwards they keep and use them in this form.
In North America, the Great Spirit (Gitche Manitou) surrendered tobacco to man. They declared that they would only smoke when offered it by man. “I did not even save a single pipeful for myself. Verily, in return we shall think of their lives whenever they worship us sacrificing tobacco and dogs,” said the Great Manitou.
“In explaining the sacrificial process of dark magic and the peculiar method of transporting the “cadaver” hanging from itsx knees down the shaman’s back, Warao informants emphasize how with every step the victim’s dangling head bounces against the heels of the striding soul-bearer. It is a sign of power and elevated status, comparable to the ankle-length rear hem of the loincloth that shamans wear in festive pomp. Both the hanging victim of the shaman and the hanging end of the shamanic loincloth have been likened by the Indians to the tail of a jaguar, the form of which animal shamans in many South American societies are believed to be able to adopt.”