COMMON NAMES: Mapucho, Andumucua (Tarascan), Aztec Tobacco, Ch’aque Khuri (Quechua), C’jama Saire (Aymara), K’ta Tobaco (Quechua), K’uru (Aymara), Makucho (Huichol), Noholki’k’uuts (Mayan, ‘south tobacco’), Nohol Xi K’uts (modern Mayan, ‘southern tabacco’), Panacea (Latin, ‘cure-all’), Picietl (Nahuatl), Piciyetl (‘little tobacco), Qonta Saire (Aymara), San Pedro, Sayre (Quechua), Sero (Susu), Tabaco Blanco (Spanish, ‘white tobacco’), Tabaco Rupestris (Spanish, ‘rural tobacco’), Tabaquillo (Spanish, ‘little tobacco’), Teneshil (modern Nahuatl), Tobaco Cimarron (Spanish, ‘wild tobacco’), Turkomani Tambaku (Afghani), Um-weh (Paez), Yellow Henbane, Turkish Tobacco
Nicotiana (tobacco) is a genus of 21 to 67 species of perennial herbs and shrubs, including many subspecies, strains, and cultivars. Nicotiana rustica is an annual herbaceous plant that grows up to 80 centimeters tall. The leaves are smaller and more round than those of Nicotiana tabacum. The flowers are yellow, and shorter and smaller than those of its relatives. The plant flowers in June and July. The fruits are round capsules containing tiny red-brown seeds. Various species are used as ornamentals, insecticides, and for smoking (Ratsch 1998, 377).
Nicotiana plants are native to North and South America, and are found quite commonly in the Andes (45 species), and Polynesia and Australia (21 species). The two commercially important species are Nicotiana tabacum, cultivated in warm areas for smoking tobacco, and Nicotiana rustica, cultivated mainly for insecticidal use. Both species are believed to be of hybrid origin. N. rustica is best propogated from seeds – one may simply scatter the seeds over loose soil, and the plants will grow. In temperate areas, seeds must be sown between March and May. The Huichol say that the plant grows best in soil fertilized with the ashes of burned trees (Ratsch 1998, 377).
TRADITIONAL USES: The genus Nicotiana gets its name from the French envoy Jean Nicot who sent Nicotiana rustica seeds from Portugal to Paris in 1560, thus promoting awareness of the plant. N. rustica was cultivated for quite some time in Mexico before Westerners showed up. The species appears to have originated through the hybridization and cultivation of various wild forms of tobacco (Schultes & Raffauf 1995).
Nicotiana rustica remains have been found in graves in the Andes dating back to the Tiahuanaco culture. The plant was originally known as Peruvian henbane in Europe, and its psychoactive properties were recognized, though it never received significant recreational popularity there (Bondeson 1972).
Egyptian mummies have been found to contain nicotine alkaloids, but it is not clear how the Egyptians obtained tobacco. One theory states that Nicotiana rustica was present in Egypt and was used regularly there in ancient times. It is also possible that the nicotine came from some species of the Datura genus (Pahl 1996 cited in Ratsch 1998, 376).
Mapucho is considered very sacred by Amazonian shamans and is employed alone (by tabaqueros) or in combination with other plants in shamanic practices. Some shamans drink the juice of tobacco leaves alone as a source of visions. Mapucho is used extensively in healing practices and is considered a medicine, not a toxin, when used properly. Indeed, tobacco is one of the most important plants in the lives of all tribes of the northwest Amazon. It plays a part in curative rituals, in important tribal ceremonies and is occasionally used as a recreational drug. In its various forms it is also employed in the ordinary medical practices of some tribes (Ratsch 1998, 378-379).
The recreational use of tobacco is usually in the form of snuffing. The Witotos and Yukunas may, on rare occasions and for special festivals, mix powdered coca with tobacco snuff. During festivals and dances, tobacco snuff is consumed in enormous amounts, often alongside Ayahuasca, amongst the Tukanoan tribes of the Colombian Vaupés. It is usually administered in snuffing tubes made of hollow bird bones or, occasionally; in long tubes made of reed-like plants. Almost all tribes in the northwest Amazon take tobacco as snuff (Voogelbreinder 2009, 245).
Tobacco is smoked only rarely, in ceremonies and curative rituals of the medicine men who blow smoke or spit tobacco juice over the patient or inhale the smoke, all with appropriate incantations and ritual. Recreational smoking amongst the Indians of the northwest Amazon is not common, and cigarettes are rarely smoked except in areas where tribal customs are breaking down due to acculturation and the availability of commercial cigarettes. The Witotos sometimes smoke cigars, but this custom may be recently acquired. During ceremonies in which Ayahuasca is taken, enormous cigars, some as long as 36 inches, are smoked, especially amongst the many tribes of the Vaupés. The Sionas of the Mocoa region, like the western Tukanoan tribes, also employ the gigantic ceremonial cigar, but occasionally make smaller cigars and smoke them for non-ritual use; they have probably learned this use from colonists who have come from the Andes. The Jivaros and Aguaruna of Ecuador smoke large cigars in a tobacco-smoking festival to celebrate the initiation of a youth into manhood (Bondeson 1972).
Nicotiana rustica is used recreationally in Africa in a number of ways. It is smoked and snuffed by the Sotho peoples, and decocted for use as an emetic by the Lissongo. North and Central native Americans often smoke tobacco, including Nicotiana rustica, ritually. The Navajo have complex rituals for the making of tobacco pipes, or ‘peace pipes’, which are used for shamanic purposes. The Karuk of California also smoke tobacco in pipes, usually in the evenings (Voogelbreinder 2009, 244-245).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Nicotiana rustica leaves are generally dried in the sun in the open air. They may then be powdered and mixed with other substances, such as Tagetes lucida, or lime. This preparation may be used to help with headaches and to make one feel intoxicated (Sahagun cited in Ratsch 1998, 377).
Preparation of tobacco snuff appears to be similar from tribe to tribe; the leaves are hung up to dry, sometimes over a low fire, then pulverized, finely sifted and mixed with about an equal amount of the ash of sundry plants. The product is a grayish green powder. The preferred source of ash for this admixture is the bark of a wild cacao tree (Theobroma subincanum). The snuff may be taken at any time during the day, but it is most frequently used towards evening when the men are taking coca. Usually it is sniffed alone, but on occasion Capsicum pepper may be added; this is said to make the snuff more “effective” (Voogelbreinder 2009, 244-245).
The mestizo ayahuasqueros of Perú mix tobacco juice with Ayahuasca, crushing the leaves and softening them with saliva, then leaving the juice overnight in a hole cut into the trunk of the lupuna tree (Trichilia tocachcana), the presumably toxic sap of which drips into the tobacco juice. Amongst the western Tukanos of Colombia and Brazil, master medicine men make their students drink a gourd of the juice to cause vomiting and eventual narcosis. The Jivaros of Ecuador drink the juice in initiations, visionary quests, war preparations, victory feasts and witchcraft; even women partake of the juice in wedding feasts and initiations (Voogelbreinder 2009, 244-245).
Chewing tobacco leaves is common practice in numerous Amazonian tribes. Waika men keep a quid of tobacco leaves in the lower lip all day. The Nonoyu mix tobacco with coca powder for chewing. Tobacco juice is taken by the Jivaros alternately with Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis) or maikoa (Brugmansia). Amongst the Coto Indians of the Rio Napo of Perú, only the shaman is allowed to take tobacco juice through the nostrils; the general male population may only drink the juice (Ratsch 1998, 379).
With Witotos, Boras, and several other tribes of the northwest Amazonas, the common use of ambil (a thick tobacco syrup) takes place during the early evenings before fresh coca is made and chewed. The thick syrup is applied to the gums with a finger or a stick and is swallowed very slowly with saliva and coca powder. The residue, formed by the slow evaporation of aqueous extracts of tobacco leaves, is also mixed with the “salts” obtained by the leaching of ashes of various plants. Amongst the Witotos, any male may make ambil, and there is no special hour or ceremony connected with its preparation (Wilbert 1972).
The application of tobacco in any other form, such as rectally by enema, is almost unknown in South America except amongst the Aguarunas, a Jivaroan tribe of Ecuador who apply it alone or mixed with Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is repeatedly taken alternating with swallows of tobacco juice to cause vomiting before use of the tobacco-ayahuasca enema. The Kulina customarily smoke all night when taking Ayahuasca (Wilbert 1972).
MEDICINAL USES: The Tukanoan peoples of the Vaupés often rub a decoction of the leaves briskly over sprains and bruises. Amongst the Witotos and Boras, fresh leaves are crushed and poulticed over boils and infected wounds. Tikuna men mix the crushed leaves with the oil from palms to rub into the hair to prevent balding. The Jivaros take tobacco juice therapeutically for indisposition, chills and snake bites. In many tribes tobacco snuff may be employed medicinally for a variety of ills, particularly to treat pulmonary ailments (Ratsch 1998, 379).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The principal active biochemicals of Nicotiana rustica are nicotine, nornicotine and anabasine. The proportion of each varies greatly among the species and varieties. As many as eight other pyridine alkaloids occur in lower concentrations. Tobacco, when smoked moderately, has short term excitant and tranquilizing effects on the central nervous system. In higher amounts, the effects can range from a brief rush followed by an increase in body temperature and heart rate, as well as brief perspiration, dizziness and nausea. Unconsciousness and fainting may also result. The heart risks of smoking tobacco are quite serious, and nicotine is also considered to be more addictive than heroin (Ratsch 1998, 379).
Nicotiana rustica has a much higher nicotine content than any other Nicotiana species and so must be used with great care. Dosages vary greatly from person to person, so dosage guidelines will not be provided. Nicotiana rustica effects can be very profound and overwhelming, even dangerous, so it is very important to be careful when working with this plant.
The colonial writer Jeronimo Medieta wrote of Nicotiana rustica that it “must be smoked with great care, for it is very dangerous, as it takes away the minds of those who partake of it and makes them behave crazy and insane.” Some reports indicate that those smoking the substance will fall over and remain unconscious for some time. N. rustica said to produce visions that shamans can utilize. Wilbert says that the effects that tobacco produces among the Warao people include the following: dreamlike and chromatic visions, multi-sensory perception, brilliant occurrences of light, intuitive knowledge and spontaneous insights, soul-escort by a psychopomp, and tunnel experiences. However, these experiences seem only to happen to initiated shamans, and normal individuals consuming the same dose will often experience very toxic effects (Wilbert 1972).
Bondeson, W.E. “Tobacco from a Tiahuanacoid Culture Period.” Etnologiska Studier, no. 32 (172AD): 177–184.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Schultes, R.E. and R.F. Raffauf. 1995. The Healing Forest: medicinal and toxic plants of the northwest Amazonia, Dioscorides Press, Portland, Or.. ISBN 0-931146-14-3
Wilbert, J. “Tobacco and Shamanistic Ecstasy Among the Warao Indians of Venezuela.” In Flesh of the Gods, edited by P.T. Furst, 55–83. New York: Praeger, 1972.