Washington State University researchers have identified traces of Mexican marigold in ceramic containers from South America that once held tobacco — a first for scientists studying the history of the plant in the Americas.

Mario Zimmermann, a postdoctoral researcher with WSU who helped lead the study, said the Maya vessels that carried the tobacco and marigold were more than 1,000 years old and would have been unusual for a person to possess in the ancient Americas. He said the marigold was probably included in tobacco preparation for its aromatic qualities.

“We’re not 100 percent sure, but pretty certain that it’s not a psychoactive plant itself,” Zimmerman said. “However, it’s a very strong aromatic, you walk through fields of those herbs in the open and you can smell them before you even see them.”

Zimmerman said the tobacco plant originated in South America and diffused throughout Central and North America long before the first European settlers set foot on the continent. He said this research, often done in collaboration with Native American communities, is part of a larger project looking into the history of the plant and its uses among these groups.

When researchers investigate historic practices involving tobacco and other psychoactive drugs that have been used by humans for hundreds or thousands of years, Zimmerman said certain changes can be found in how they were consumed. He said European contact in particular had a dramatic effect on the social context surrounding tobacco that has transmitted into modern times.

“Nowadays, we have a huge problem with recreational tobacco consumption and we have hundreds of thousands of deaths (related to tobacco use) on a global scale because of it,” he said. “However, if you look into the past, if you look into the archaeological record into Mesoamerica (and) into pre-contact cultures in what is now the U.S. and Canada, it looks as if it wasn’t a drug that was consumed recreationally.”

Zimmerman said Native American communities have a cultural investment in understanding traditional practices surrounding tobacco and additives like marigold, but these practices can also help people understand such drugs and how they are used in a new light. He said understanding these substances and their ceremonial and traditional applications can help people understand them in a context beyond their use as a recreational drug and may even aid in cessation efforts.

Zimmerman noted many traditional communities in both Central and South America still use for medicinal purposes.

“As it is with opioids, and the big crisis we have in the U.S. with opioids right now, there is a very thin line between a drug and a medicine,” he said. “Many of those substances can be helpful, if administered (and) if consumed to a certain degree or to a certain level — once we surpass that threshold, we get problems and big problems.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@dnews.com.

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