Did people smoke anything before tobacco was discovered?

In our new issue – on sale now – History Revealed meets the great explorers of the Tudor age who raced to the New World and brought back new and wondrous discoveries, including tobacco.

Did people smoke anything before tobacco was discovered? © Getty Images

For most Europeans in the early 17th century, the idea of smoking tobacco was a strange novelty. And what’s more, King James I hated it. He called it “lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse”.

Advertisement

To King James, tobacco was a newly-discovered crop from the Americas, but the ancient Mayans and Aztecs of Mexico had long since smoked it in pipes or rolled up in cigars, puffing on it, as Winston Churchill did, over a good meal with friends.

But other types of smoking are even older. In the Bronze Age – as far back as 5,000 years ago – we know the inhalation of burned plants was used in magic, ritual and medicine in such places as India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, while some archaeologists think Stone Age shamans probably inhaled hallucinogenic opiates to commune with the gods.

Advertisement

It was likely that such drug-taking was often more religious than recreational, so not really the equivalent of a 20-a-day cigarette habit, but it’s believed that every human society in history has known smoking of some sort.

This article was first published online in History Revealed, November 2014 and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner.