Tobacco Use - A Cross-Cultural ComparisonTobacco in the South American Indian Tradition is used for purification, connection with the divine, and recreation. It plays a major role in many shamanistic traditions, and is an integral part of many of their cultures. “Tobacco-producing plants are exclusively of the genus Nicotiana, and Nicotianas belong to one of the largest genera of the nightshade family (Solanaceae)” (Wilbert 1987, 1). The three subgenera of tobacco growing naturally or cultivated in South America are Nicotiana rustica, Nicotiana tabacum, and Nicotiana petunioides. Although most Nicotianas in South America are only native to the Andean and southern areas of the continent, it is cultivated or traded for by most native tribes in the Americas. The method of use varies widely from culture to culture. It ranges from smudging (using the smoke as an insecticide or for purification), to smoking, chewing, drinking the juice, enemas, and snuffs. The reasons and mythologies surrounding its use differ even more. Some see tobacco only as a social drug, and use it for very little else than to feed their addiction. What I am particularly interested in examining though, is the use of tobacco for spiritual reasons. Why do some tribes in the area view tobacco as nothing more then a social narcotic and others view it as connecting them with the spiritual world? To investigate this, I will look at two cultures in particular, the Tucano and the Yanomamo. In the Tucano tradition, tobacco is used in a very spiritual sense, being considered food for the soul, also a method to directly contact the spirits. However, in the tradition of the Yanomamo, tobacco is used almost exclusively as a recreational narcotic, also to feed their addictions. I will look at what niche tobacco fills for each culture and propose a few ideas as to why tobacco is used as a spiritual medium for the Tucano and not the Yanomamo.

The Tucano and Yanomamo tribes are relatively close in geographic location. The Yanomamo are on the border of Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela. The Tucano live on the border of Brazil and Columbia to the west of the Yanomamo. Although they are in relatively close proximity to each other and do come in contact occasionally, their use of tobacco is very different. The Yanomamo have a very different viewpoint than the Tucano, which is characterized by their addiction to it instead of for spiritual uses. It would be assumed that their uses of tobacco would overlap in many cultural areas, but in fact, there are few similarities.

In examining these two cultures, I would like to look at what aspects of their culture make them more inclined to use tobacco for either purely recreational or spiritual reasons. To do this I would like to investigate several factors. First, is the way both tribes view the spiritual and natural world around them, and then extrapolate these views to their different uses of tobacco. One such example would be the way that they view spiritual entities, and how they contact them. Also I wold like to explore their use of hallucinogens. In the Tucano tribes they use yagé also called ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew (a water based extraction) made from the forest liana Banisteriopsis caapi and several other admixture plants containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine. In the Yanomamo culture their main hallucinogen is ebene, a snuff made from the seeds of the Anadenanthera sp. or the inner bark of Virola sp. which both contain N,N-dimethyltryptamine and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine with the former also containing bufotenine. While using the context of viewing tobacco as not only a narcotic, but also a plant with hallucinogenic potential, I will compare tobacco to these other hallucinogens. How they view the use of these hallucinogens recreationally and spiritually, will correlate to many views of tobacco as well. Finally I would like to briefly look at what is called the Jaguar Complex. This is the way these tribes view the jaguar in their spiritual, cosmological, and various other beliefs. By examining this, I believe I can show an additional aspect as to why these tribes view tobacco differently.

To start with, lets examine the method of ingestion used by both of these cultures. “The Yanomamo chew rather then smoke the tobacco, although the chewing is perhaps better described as sucking” (Chagnon 1992, 83). “Throughout the far-flung subdivisions of the Yanomamo of the Guiana Highlands chewing is the primary form of tobacco consumption. Both sexes, adults as well as children, chew tobacco, ‘and practically no adult would be without his or her wad of rolled tobacco leaves,’ which they carry between the teeth and lower lip” (Wilbert 1987, 25). Their method of preparing the tobacco is explained below:

The method of preparing tobacco is somewhat complex. It is harvested by selecting individual leaves at the peak of maturity. The leaves are then tied together by their stems, fifteen or twenty at a time, and hung over the hearth to cure in the heat and smoke of the fire. The dry leaves are stored in large balls, which are wrapped in other leaves to keep out insects and moisture. As needed several leaves of the cured tobacco are removed from the ball, dipped in a calabash of water to moisten them, and kneaded in the ashes of the campfire until the entire leaf is coated with a muddy looking layer of ash. (The ashes of certain woods are preferred over others.) The ashy leaf is then rolled into a short, fat cigar like wad which is often bound with fine fibers to hold it in shape. With conspicuous pleasure, the large wad is placed between the lower lip and teeth, and the user reclined in his or her hammock with a blissful sigh to suck on the gritty, greenish and very large wad. The Yanomamo are quite sociable with their tobacco. When someone removes a wad and lays it down for a second, another might snatch it up and suck on it until the owner wants it back. The borrower may be a child, a buddy, a wife, a stranger, or, if willing, an anthropologist (Chagnon 1992, 85).

Although it is rarer some branches of the Yanomamo also do occasionally create and use tobacco snuff. Other then these uses, there is very little evidence that the Yanomamo use tobacco for anything but to feed their addiction to it. Chagnon (1992, 83) asserts “Men, women, and children as young as ten are all addicted. Their word for ‘being poor,’ hori, means literally to be without tobacco.”

The Tucano either smoke or snuff tobacco with smoking being the primary method of ingestion. The Tucano are famed for their “giant” ritual cigars and use intricately carved cigar holders that look like large tuning forks. They also sit upon a ceremonial bench while smoking. “Besides offering comfort and rest, the stool provides the smoking man who occupies it a self- and world-centered space for meditative communication with the metaphysical powers. Thus, tobacco, cigar holder, and ceremonial bench function as complementary means of conveyance to the otherworld” (Wilbert 1987, 93). Wilbert goes on to talk about preparation and ritual:

The men place the plucked leaves, including stems, into a hot pot and reduce them, under constant stirring, to a dark mash [that is very concentrated]. This is formed into small, round cakes which, when sun- and smoke-dried, become hard. Someone intent on smoking a cigar crumbles up parts of this tobacco and rolls them into a piece of Couratari paper or Musa leaf. Men smoke for recreational but primarily for ritual purposes, and shamans blow tobacco smoke from cigars in curing. In either case, the lighted cigar is smoked by a group of men who pass it around in a cigar holder. The local chief taking the first puff, a cigar of sixtey to ninety centimeters sufficed for the entire community at a sitting. Women are excluded from this ritual smoking of purportedly very potent cigars. Both sexes however, enjoy industrial cigarettes. Smaller cigars held in the prongs of a cigar holder are also smoked by individual men, who enjoy them while lying in their hammocks (Wilbert 1987, 93-95).

There are several other ways the Tucano use tobacco. It is very common to use the smoke for purification, also tobacco smoke is also is inhaled to heighten the hallucinatory effects of ayahuasca. Sorcerers use tobacco and ritual cigars for magic against their enemies. As for the healer, tobacco is “the foundation of shamanism which is, in effect, the power to cross between cosmic layers” (Hugh-Jones 1979, 231).

The shaman’s cigar is said to be his ‘eye’ which he sees the mystical causes of illness: the rising smoke is associated with his travel to the Thunders, the Sun and other inhabitants of the upper cosmos. The special power of the shamans is due to their ability to let the soul leave the body, and thus tobacco is associated with both the independent existence of the soul and the ‘direct line’ to the ancestral forces. Ordinary men are not as powerful as shamans in this respect, but they are all capable of minor shamanic acts and of soul-change during ritual. Thus, tobacco is associated with the shamanic ability of men as opposed to women (Hugh-Jones 1979, 231).

In this fundamental view of how a shaman uses tobacco, there underlies an externality of their spiritual beliefs. The Tucano believe that their ancestors live on a different plane of existence that tobacco and yagé transports them to. On the other hand, the Yanomamo believe that when they die, they go to live life again on another plane. From what I have found, it seems that they do not view ancestors or departed souls as able to be contacted. Instead, the focus of their shamanism and spiritual beliefs revolve around hekura, tiny spirits that come down from the mountains or skies and enter a shaman’s body. Inside his body, symbolic villages, forests, and mountains exist where the hekura live (Chagnon 1992, 140). The shaman uses ebene to contact these spirits, sings them songs, and entices them to enter him. Once a shaman has a hekura living within him, he can use its power to heal people or to harm them. So the Yanomamo spirituality is based highly on the internal aspects. Keeping the hekura happy inside them is very important to the shaman, and ebene is the main tool for them to go inside and contact the hekura.

Symbolically this makes a lot of sense. The Tucano inhale tobacco and exhale it, symbolic of allowing it to carry their soul outside of themselves. The Yanomamo instead, take ebene by putting the powder in a long hollow tube and has another man forcibly blow it into his nostrils and sinus cavity. This internal/external dichotomy is one interesting theory as to why these differences in spiritual use of tobacco exist. Even among their hallucinogens, ebene, at even high doses does not cause the disassociative effects of spirit travel. This is due to the rapid metabolization of N,N-dimethyltryptamine and high levels of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine. On the other hand, ayahuasca used by the Tucano can be very disassociative. In fact, Banisteriopsis caapi, the main ingredient, is called “vine of the soul” due to the frequent occurrence of “soul travel” at higher doses. The vine contains a beta-carboline monamine oxidase inhibitor that renders N,N-dimethyltryptamine orally active and delays its metabolization. This results in the ability to have extended experiences and increase the dosage of absorbed N,N-dimethyltryptamine. N,N-dimethyltryptamine is a very visual hallucinogen, when dosage is increased it tends to cause disassociation and the feeling of being in another place or actually feeling as if the soul has left the body. The problem is that this chemical is metabolized very quickly in the bloodstream without a monamine oxidase inhibitor. 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine on the other hand, is much more potent and much less visual or disassociative. So it would makes sense that ayahuasca would be a much more external experience then ebene. This is another example of the external spirituality of the Tucano and the internal spirituality of the Yanomamo.

So where does tobacco fit into this? There is specific evidence in much of the anthropological literature that tobacco is used much like some of the traditional hallucinogens. Also, just looking at what species of tobacco are used, the concentrations of nicotine and other psychoactive chemicals are much higher in magnitude, especially in Nicotiana rustica. In addition, tobacco has been shown to contain beta carbolines, (Janiger and Dobkin de Rios 1976, 149) which ironically enough, are the same that are found in Banisteriopsis caapi used in ayahuasca. “Harmine [a beta carboline] in relatively small doses passes the blood-brain barrier and causes changes in the neural transmission in the visual system” (Janiger and Dobkin de Rios 1976, 149). Also according to Janiger and Dobkin de Rios (1976, 149-150):

“Another potent agent in tobacco smoke, nicotine has, of course been subject to scientific investigation for many years, although it’s effects on the central nervous system are only just beginning to be explored. Nicotine may affect the concentration of biogenic amines, particularly serotonin, in the brain, which may predispose to changes in consciousness… It has further been shown that Vitamin B6 metabolism is altered through smoking, with a subsequent depletion of the vitamin, which in turn may contribute to mental changes.”

What is also important to look at, is the recreational aspect of these hallucinogens and frequency of their use. Ayahuasca does not lend itself to extremely frequent use. It tends to be reserved for ritual and ceremony. Although it could be used as frequently as everyday in a week, usually on average there is a decent amount of time between ceremonies or rituals using ayahuasca. This is because of the massive purge that the experience induces within the participant. With each use of ayahuasca, vomiting and diarrhea ensues shortly afterwards. Although this is welcomed to clean their systems of parasites, it is not something that is desirable for every day use. Due to this, tobacco can substitute as a frequently used hallucinogen. In addition, it can also substitute for wanting to use a narcotic on a frequent basis. The Yanomamo use ebene. Although ebene does cause vomiting, it is not as intense, prolonged, or as frequent as ayahuasca, and therefore is easier to use on an every day basis. In fact the Yanomamo use it very frequently. Chagnon reports “In the villages I lived in during the earlier years of my fieldwork, the men took ebene almost every day” (1992, 140). In addition, ebene is used by some purely as a narcotic, and they do not seek its spiritual aspects (Chagnon 1992, 140). The use of ebene and tobacco can be seen as fulfilling similar niches in both cultures. Although in the past, the Tucano did have access to Virola sp. for ebene, it is much too rare for frequent use now (Jackson 1983:199).

Another aspect I would like to examine, is the jaguar complex. The Tucano and Yanomamo have very different views of the jaguar. For the Tucano, it is a mystical creature not always to be trusted, but always admired for its skill and cunning. The jaguar is viewed as the closest forest counterpart to man (Hugh-Jones 1979, 84). For the shaman though, the jaguar is viewed entirely different. The shaman is an intermediary between this world and the other world, and between human and non human beings (Jackson 1983, 196). According to Jackson (1983, 196-197):

“People are always wary of a shaman, even those not suspected of being evil… In the Vaupés, such a role is dangerous because of ritual power and knowledge are always dangerous. Thus a renegade shaman can forsake all feelings of responsibility to human society and become destructive; when this happens shamans actually turns into a predatory animal spirit. In most, if not all, Tucanoan languages the word for shaman is synonymous with the word for a class of predatory animals including the jaguar (yai).”

The shaman-jaguar transformation is also important for good shamans as well as for many other spiritual components of shamanic work. “If one concept cutting across geographic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries among South American Indians can be singled out, it is that of the qualitative identity between jaguars and shamans and accordingly to their interchangeability of form” (Wilbert 1987, 193). “A closer affinity between jaguar and shaman is hardly conceivable, and tobacco, like other mind-altering drugs, is an important agent of the jaguar shaman transformation complex of South America” (Wilbert 1987, 194). Along with Banisteriopsis caapi, which induces visions filled with jaguars and anacondas, tobacco is used to transform the shaman into a were-jaguar to seek out food, healing plants, or perform sorcery on enemies.

Similarly, on a plane of natural modeling, jaguars relate to shamans in their sensitivity to plant intoxicants. They have been known to chew the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi, and Reichel-Dolmatoff suspects the Tucano to have witnessed jaguars undergoing drug-induced convulsions. Although there is no evidence to document the eating of tobacco plants by jaguars, they do eat vegetable matter in order to regurgitate compact balls of shredded hair that accumulates in their stomachs. Balls of hair play an important role in South American shamanism as magic objects and pathogenic projectiles, and like magical darts which sorcerers produce from their bodies, hair balls brought up by felines from their stomachs may have served as additional evidence for the qualitative equivalence between the shaman and the jaguar (Wilbert 1987, 195).

Further more, there are many physiological and psychological tobacco-related characteristics that would lead a shaman to believe tobacco was helping him transform himself into a jaguar.

In many societies they exercise their power in the form of aggressive were-jaguars, a shape shifting condition they accomplish with the aid of tobacco ingestion. To activate their aggressiveness, nicotine first provokes a number of physical changes, which include night vision like that of the nocturnal jaguar, a deep raspy voice, a furred tongue, and a fusty body odor. Second, cholinergic preganglionic fibers of the sympathetic nervous system stimulate the adrenal medulla to discharge the arousal hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, mobilizing the shaman’s body for emergency reaction. Third, the generalized arousal induced by nicotine is interpreted by the properly enculturated shaman who generally has a special relationship with the jaguar, as specific to jaguar-men to be expressed as anger, hostility, and sexual aggressiveness. Thus, nicotine-mediated physiological changes, similarly triggered epinephrine release with its concomitant emotional and psychological changes, and appropriate enculturative conditioning allow shamans to enact characteristic jaguar behavior and to experience an essential feeling of “jaguarness” that confirms their shamanic status and role” (Wilbert 1994, 69).

For the Tucano, this jaguar complex is a very important aspect of their shamanism and tobacco use. On the other hand, the Yanomamo create a defined distinction between culture and nature. They fear the jaguar, and do not want to become it, whereas the Tucano shamans do. They see humans as having culture and animals lacking it. In fact, among many of their myths, they view the jaguar consistently as a “stupid brute, constantly being outwitted by Man and subjected to scathing, ridiculous, and offensive treatment” (Chagnon 1992, 125). In other words, the Yanomamo want to conquer the jaguar, while the Tucano shamans want to become the jaguar. The highly concentrated tobacco the Tucano smoke, inevitably leads to higher levels of intoxication then the cured leaf rolls that the Yanomamo chew/suck. The idea that higher levels of tobacco intoxication lead to a state where the user feels very animal or feline like directly conflicts the Yanomamo distinction between culture and nature. It would only make sense then that the Yanomamo would avoid the higher intoxication levels that are integral in tobacco shamanism. In fact, contact with other cultures that do view tobacco as a part of the shaman-jaguar transformation complex, would likely reinforce their state of not using tobacco for spiritual use.

This superficial examination of these two cultures use of tobacco cannot hope to come to a definitive conclusion on the actual motivations of these cultures. What I have presented here, I hope introduces some interesting theories as to the reasoning behind these cultures uses of tobacco. Looking back, there were three main theories I have presented for the reasons the Tucano use tobacco spiritually and the Yanomamo do not. The first was inherent in the cultures view of the spiritual world, and how they access it. The Yanomamo have an internal spirituality of calling the hekura into themselves and communicating with them inside of their bodies. They are less concerned with communicating to the other planes of existence. The focus is based more on what is here and now, and on internal aspects. The Tucano on the other hand, have a very external spirituality. Their focus in spirituality is contacting spirits on other planes of existence and the ability of their soul to leave their bodies. Soul travel is an important aspect to the Tucano, especially in their use of hallucinogens. This aspect of internal verse external spirituality flows well into the next topic I examined; the use of hallucinogens.

The main hallucinogen used by the Yanomamo is ebene, a fine powder snuff that is blown forcibly into another man’s nostrils and sinus cavity. The altered state that is brought on by the snuff is used in calling the hekura into their bodies or using hekura that have already been called to perform acts of healing or other tasks. The Tucano use yagé also called ayahuasca as a hallucinogen, but also tobacco, which I have made the argument, can also be seen as a hallucinogen. Both yagé and tobacco are used to contact spirits outside of themselves. This emphasizes the internal/external theory as well.

Another aspect of hallucinogen and narcotic use is recreation and frequency of use. Ebene and tobacco fill similar niches in this respect. Each culture seems to have two roles of hallucinogenic and narcotic use. The first is a major hallucinogen used for spiritual purposes. The second role is a frequently used narcotic/hallucinogen for recreation or for spiritual purposes (or both). For the Yanomamo, ebene serves as both roles, a spiritual tool and recreational frequently used narcotic. For the Tucano, ayahuasca is their main hallucinogen used in spiritual matters. Ayahuasca can not be used on an everyday basis, because it creates an overwhelming body purge of vomiting and diarrhea. Therefore, their use of concentrated tobacco fills a similar role as ebene. It is used both recreationally and as a frequently used hallucinogen/narcotic.

The last aspect I discussed as a supporting theory, is the jaguar complex. The two very different views of the jaguar among the Yanomamo and the Tucano have an interesting possible effect upon their views of tobacco. There is supporting evidence that higher levels of tobacco intoxication create physiological and psychological effects very similar to animalistic behavior and perception, particularly feline. The fact that the shaman in the Tucano culture is closely tied to the jaguar, and even is believed to be able to transform into a jaguar, supports the idea that tobacco would be used in this manner. For the Yanomamo, the jaguar represents something to conquer and outwit. They have a firm distinction between culture and nature, and to a point separate themselves from nature. This is particularly evident in how they view the jaguar. Although there is admiration, the desire to keep jaguars and people separate in location, body, and spirit, is evident. The fact that high levels of tobacco intoxication leads to an altered state much like an animal, would deter the Yanomamo from using tobacco as a spiritual tool.

The use of mind-altering substances for spiritual development is an interesting topic among indigenous cultures. Normally, tobacco is not included in investigations of this kind. People see tobacco as a mild narcotic, but certainly not in the same class as hallucinogens. Evidence to the contrary, along with situations where tobacco is used as such, is beginning to change views on tobacco use. Viewing tobacco as a hallucinogen creates a need for us to reassess our views of it as a spiritual tool. When we take that into effect plus the cultural beliefs and situations, the motives for the ways tobacco is used in the Tucano and Yanomamo traditions becomes clearer.



Chagnon, Napoleon, 1983. Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Elferink, Jan G.R., 1983. The Narcotic and Hallucinogenic Use of Tobacco in Pre-Columbian Central America. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7:111-122.

Hugh-Jones, Christine, 1979. From the Milk River: Spatial and Temporal Processes in Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, Jean E., 1983 The Fish People: Linguistic Exogamy and Tukanoan Identity in Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.