Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The origins of tobacco go back further than you may think.

It’s widely known that tobacco was once of the treasures Christopher Columbus...
Il Sigaro della Sera
It’s widely known that tobacco was once of the treasures Christopher Columbus brought back to Europe from his exploration of Central America in the 15th Century. But peoples’ enjoyment of tobacco goes back even further, all the way back to the Mayan civilization.

As early as 1000BC there is evidence of the Mayans placing great significance on tobacco. It was grown not only for pleasure, but for its sacred and magical uses. Whether as a natural remedy for ailments or perceived magical protector, chewing tobacco was part of everyday Mayan life. Just like today’s chefs have signature dishes, the Mayans had a variety of recipes for tobacco, such as tobacco mixed with lime juice. A wide range of ancient tobacco containers have been discovered by archeologists over the years, from small personal snuff boxes and phials to larger clay pots and gourds.

It’s possible the Mayan’s saw smoking tobacco as a way to get closer to God. Many such containers were featured in Mayan folk tales and creation myths and the classic Mayan God ‘Old God L’ was often depicted in designs as an old man smoking a cigar.

We also have the Mayans to thank for the word ‘cigar’. It seems they used to refer to the tobacco they smoked as a ‘sik’ar’, later adopted by the Spanish and introduced to Europe as ‘cigarro’.

The most concrete proof yet of the Mayan’s enjoyment of cigars, was a find by Tampa University students in 2012. Deep in a cold cave in Guatemala, they found some 800 cigars, sealed in clay pots. Due to the conditions of the cave, they were deemed still smokable and auctioned the following year for a record-breaking $507,000, making them the world’s most expensive cigars. And the buyer? The master roller for Santiago Cigar Factory, who claims to be directly descended from their ancient makers - confirmed by a family seal pressed into the clay pot.

There’s still much we have to learn about the origins of tobacco and its importance to civilization, but it seems like every year, we discover something new about this ancient pleasure.