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Tobacco and the Maya

Nicotine Use by Classic Period Mayan Civilization


Maya Tobacco Flask - 700 AD

A Mayan vessel holds the first physical evidence of tobacco in the ancient culture. From the Kislak Collection of the Library of Congress.

United States Library of Congress

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L) is a narcotic plant native to South America, which was an important part of Maya civilization religion during the Classic Period (~300-900 AD).

  • See the article Tobacco History for details about the domestication and use of the plant.

Ethnographic Study

A detailed enthnographic study of modern Maya tobacco use was conducted by Kevin Groark and published in 2010. The Maya word for the tobacco plant and a form of tobacco ground together with lime is moy (in Tzotzil) and may (Tzeltal). The snuff form is called "elder brother" (bankilal) or "angel" (anjel). In Zinacantan, the chewing form is called "great old man" (muk'ta mol) and "lord" when used as a salve. In Venustiano Carranza, tobacco is called "holy man" (ch'ul winik).

The term "older brother" may be a reference to the Classic Maya "Old God L", often depicted in codexes and on buildings (such as the Temple of the Cross at Palenque) as an old man smoking a large cigar.

The modern Maya primarily use tobacco as snuff, like American baseball players, where a small quantity is held between the cheek and jaw or under the tongue for an extended period of time. Green tobacco used in snuff is extremely potent, and using tobacco in this manner maximizes absorption of the nicotine into the bloodstream. Tobacco is used among modern Maya communities for a wide variety of ailments, as well as a personal magical protector.

Snuff is carried, according to Groark's research, in small bottle gourds known as tzual moy ("tobacco gourd") or yavil moy ("tobacco's place/vessel"). Groark reports that tobacco gourds appear as an important role in several folk tales concerning creation myths: in one a gourd turn into a hummingbird when it was neglected. Those ideas refer to the Maya sun god Xbalanque, or "Jaguar Sun", one of the Hero Twins.

Tobacco gourds are typically 10-13 centimeters (4-5 inches) in length, with a maximum width of 7.5-10 cm (3-4 in). They are often paired with a long deer bone spatula or needle, used to break up the hard ball of tobacco that forms when the fresh tobacco dries.

Classic Maya Snuff Containers

Similar snuff containers made of pottery are common to the Classic period Maya (AD 300-900). These flasks, sometimes called "poison bottles" or "pilgrim's flasks" in the archaeological literature, feature codex-style scenes and inscriptions. Many of them have enema scenes, tobacco leaf drawings or deity motifs, and some are inscribed as "yotoot 'u may", "the house of tobacco". The bottles are gourd shaped, leading researchers to believe that bottle gourd snuff containers were probably still in use, but simply haven't survived.

In a 2012 article in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, researchers Zagorevski and Loughmiller-Newman describe a pottery vessel archived in the Kislak Collection of the Library of Congress, which was made, based on stylistic evidence, about 700 AD. The flask has the "yotoot ’u-may" inscription on its face. The presence of nicotine within the flask was identified by the use of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and high-performance liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. Researchers believe tobacco was stored in the flask.

This research is the first time residue analysis and linguistic evidence has been combined to reveal the function of a particular tobacco-related object.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Guide to the Maya Civilization.

Carod-Artal FJ. in press. Alucinógenos en las culturas precolombinas mesoamericanas. Neurología(0).

Groark KP. 2010. The Angel in the Gourd: Ritual, Therapeutic, and Protective Uses of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) Among the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. Journal of Ethnobiology 30(1):5-30.

Moon HS, Nifong JM, Nicholson JS, Heineman A, Lion K, Hoeven Rvd, Hayes AJ, Lewis RS, and USDA A. 2009. Microsatellite-based Analysis of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.) Genetic Resources. Crop Science 49(6):2149-2159.

Pickersgill B. 2007. Domestication of Plants in the Americas: Insights from Mendelian and Molecular Genetics. Annals of Botany 100(5):925-940.

Rafferty SM. 2002. Identification of Nicotine by Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy Analysis of Smoking Pipe Residue. Journal of Archaeological Science 29(8):897-907.

Zagorevski DV, and Loughmiller-Newman JA. 2012. The detection of nicotine in a Late Mayan period flask by gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 26(4):403-411.

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