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Pre-Columbus Smokers.

The oldest documents that speak of the smoking of tobacco come from the Maya, people who lived in Central America. The Mayan culture, and later the Mayan Empire flourished 2000 years before our era, and survived until the tenth century of our time.
Despite the enormous efforts of the Conquista, many writen documents and tablets remained which illustrat in the specific artistic convention of the time, the ways of life and beliefs of the people.
For the Maya people, tobacco was not only used for leisure and recreation, but predominantly was a prayer-like connection with the gods. The Mayans believed that humankind was created from the blood of the gods, and in return the people must offer blood to them as often as possible, be it their own blood, or the blood of others. Apart from tearing the hearts out of their live offerings, the Mayans also injured themselves –  they would drag sharp thorns through a pierce tongue, or skinned themselves as a sacrifice, etc. In this blood they dipped a rag or piece of paper and then set it alight. The rising smoke from this was the offering and feeding of the gods. Hence, the smoking of tobacco took on a religious symbolism. On a tablet from Palenque, which is shown below, a chaplain from a Maya tribe is depicted ceremonially smoking a cigar. Take notice of his unusually ornamented head - a wreath of tobacco leaves complementing his ceremonial dress.
The smoking of tobacco also played a role in rest and relaxation, as is illustrated in the tablet above of a member of royalty contemplating his personal valuables. It is difficult to imagine a more convincing example of addiction to tobacco. 
However, for the Aztecs, tobacco played a gloomier role. The bloody sacrifices offered to god Tezcatlipoc, for which thousands were killed, always occurred in connection with the smoking of large quantities of tobacco. Many central American tribes used tobacco smoke to bring out the ‘wild fury’ in their warriors -  the readiness to fight was achieved by the generous fumigation with tobacco smoke. Even today, all the armies of the world take care to ensure that their soldiers always have a constant supply of tobacco (and vodka).
It is interesting that certain Indian tribes of South America, who were not interested in growing plants and occupied themselves mainly with hunting and gathering, did in fact harvest tobacco. In fact they even took time from their hunting to tent to the plants. Obviously, activities that lead to pleasure were ultimately more important than feeding themselves.


Maya priest smoking cigar.  

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© (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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