After the Europeans began exploring the two continents that are now known as North and South America, a number of naturally growing plants, unknown in Europe, were encountered and several new words entered the languages of the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English.   Plant foods such as peppers, corn and potatoes were taken to the Old World for the citizens to have something new and nutritious to eat.   And new and totally unfamiliar objects were encountered by the explorers and their names such as barracuda, hummingbird, canoe, barbecue, hammock, cannibal, hurricane, and tobacco entered the European languages.  This word tobacco, which we now associate with the nicotine laden plant grown for the making of cigarettes and cigars, was originally used by the South and Central American natives to describe a pipe-like device called a “tabacu” that was used to sniff powdered plant material and/or to inhale burning leaves of the Nicotiana tabacum plant.  Such a device is this rare and unique tabacu which is also known as a double-tube nasal snuffer.

The plant we now call tobacco was not native to Asia or Europe and was only found growing naturally in North, South and Central America during the prehistoric period.  It is a member of the nightshade family which also includes important agricultural crops such as potatoes, okra, tomatillos, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes as well as many flowering plants some of which, including moonflower, angel’s trumpet and mandrake, are toxic to humans and animals.  For at least one thousand years and most likely much further back in time, the Central and South American aboriginals partook of this addictive tobacco plant, or Nicotiana, in a powdered configuration, called snuff, as well as in the burning form with which modern people are familiar.  The words the prehistoric natives actually used for this plant included betum, cogioba, picictl, petum and yietl and they did smoke and sniff the plant by itself but often mixed it with other plant materials especially the Central and South American tree of the legume family called Adadenanthera.  The powdered seeds or beans of this tree produced a psychedelic potion that was sniffed or snuffed and also smoked and the bark was, and still is, used to make a sweet drink.  The hallucinogenic snuff was called vilca/cebil or yapo/cahoba and was taken into the human body by being inhaled through instruments called nasal snuffers or smoked in pipes.  The late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century European explorers made notes of the fact that they saw Central and South American natives placing bifurcated bamboo tubes in their nostrils and inhaling smoke from a piles of tobacco burning in bowls.  They also saw natives working together with one placing an end of a hollow bamboo cane in a nostril while another aboriginal blew a powdered narcotic through the other end of the tube into the nostril after which the inhaler lay sprawled on the ground in a drug induced stupor.  Most of the reports also state that this insufflation was only practiced by the native priests, shamans and society rulers and was done in order reach a meditative trance so as to confer with their gods and ancestors.

The early Europeans who visited in Middle and South America noted that the natives did use smoking and snuffing devices that were made of grass (bamboo), wood, animal bone, gold,  stone and ceramics.  Obviously most of the bamboo, wooden and bone objects did not withstand five hundred plus years of the elements in this moist and hot region but a few prehistoric pipes and sniffing instruments made of bone have been found.  And any pipes or anything else, which was made of gold by the natives, would have been quickly confiscated and sent back to Spain by the avaricious conquerors; so very few of those have survived intact.  Some simple stone tabacu implements have been discovered in modern times but few baked pottery snuffing/smoking utensils have been found because they were fragile and so easily broken. But the ordinary people, who lived in the isthmus that would become Panama and Costa Rica, did certainly make earthenware pipes for puffing and snuffing.  The extremely uncommon example pictured with this article is made of tan ceramics and is 3 7/8” long with a bowl that is 1 3/8” high by 1 ¾” in diameter and was legally obtained in Costa Rica in the 1930’s.  The tempering agent in the ceramics cannot be exactly determined by this writer but appears to be a mixture of sand and finely crushed greenstone and/or jadite.  Around the outside of the bowl is a raised ridge with sixteen small nodes many of which are considerably worn probably from this smoking pipe/snuffer being used and handled by many hands five hundred or more years in the past.  It is not possible to determine if the device was only used for toking or snuffing but a reasonable guess would be both though the interior of the bowl does not show any residue or fire marks from burning tobacco – so it could have been used only for snuffing.  There are two hollow stems or tubes that connect to holes inside and near the base of the bowl which means that the ancient user most likely inserted the double tubes into his or her nostrils in order to inhale the snuff and/or the tobacco smoke.  The double stems/tubes are now broken cleanly from the bowl and glued back tightly in place.  This was caused by an accident in recent times and the snuffer is otherwise undamaged.  The device is not highly burnished or coated with a polychrome slip as would be present if it were originally a religious/ceremonial pottery object from that region, which probably means that it was used by ordinary citizen as opposed to some member of the royalty or priesthood.  But being small and plain and simple most likely did not deter the ordinary prehistoric farmer or craftsman or warrior from partaking of their favorite smoking or sniffing stimulant by using this extremely rare double-tube nasal snuffer.




Furst, Peter T.                                                                        1976


Gately, Lain                                                               2003


Jordan, Paper                                                                        1984


Ott, Jonathon                                                                        2001


Schultes, Richard E.                                                 1997


Torres, Constantino M. & David Repke                2006


Wilbert, Johannes                                                   1993