Investigating Native Californian Tobacco Use at Mission Santa Clara, California, through Morphometric Analysis of Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) Seeds

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Elsevier B.V.


Excavations in the Native ranchería at Mission Santa Clara, California, recovered a large assemblage of predominantly uncharred archaeological tobacco seeds, including many morphologically intact specimens, associated with deposits from ca. 1790–1840 CE. This assemblage, estimated to contain over 4600 tobacco seeds, provided an unprecedented opportunity to explore tobacco use by Native people living at a California mission. Morphometric and linear discriminant analysis of modern comparative tobacco species was used to identify archaeological tobacco seeds at the species or species-group level. Analysis revealed the presence of domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), and at least one other kind of tobacco (either Nicotiana attenuata, Nicotiana quadrivalvis, and/or Nicotiana acuminata) at Mission Santa Clara during the period of occupation. This evidence suggests that domesticated tobacco and tree tobacco were cultivated and processed at Mission Santa Clara. Domesticated tobacco cultivation and processing reflect hybrid cultural practice, with traditional indigenous methods applied to a novel plant. Tobacco representation in a pit feature associated with mourning ceremony materials indicates an association between ceremonial contexts and intentional tobacco burning, as well as a possible association between native tobacco species and ceremonial practices.