Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pituri – aboriginal chewing tobacco

I am reading about the history of tobacco consumption and will blog on this general topic soon. It is a fascinating story. Wherever tobacco has presented itself as a consumption possibility it has been enthusiastically used. It seems first to have been recognised in South America 15,000 years ago and has been consumed there for 5,000-7,000 years. It spread throughout the American continent and was even consumed on offshore islands where two of Christopher Columbus’s sailors first smoked it in 1492.

In a bit more than 100 years tobacco then spread around the world. People love their tobacco.

Last year while reading Mr Stuart’s Track by John Bailey I found that Australian aboriginals also used a tobacco-like plant. In a conversation Mr. Geoff Drucker mentioned to me that the aboriginals call this tobacco Pituri – it is a chewing tobacco. Geoff was kind enough to send me some information on Pituri and some links that provide further information. Another link I found is here.

Pituri is still consumed today as chewing tobacco and is, on that account, probably safer than smoked tobaccos. Aboriginal consumption of smoked tobacco is a very serious health problem for aboriginal people. It might be that switching to traditional sources of nicotine might improve aboriginal health.

I am working on aboriginal smoking issues so this is very interesting information.

These are the notes Geoff kindly sent:

‘Leaves, flowers and flowering stalks are highly valued by the Aborigines as chewing tobacco with nicotine and nor-nicotine content being up to 25% of the dry weight of plant material. Pituri is the term used by the Aborigines for the ball of chewing tobacco. Pituri is prepared by drying and powdering the leaves of the nicotine plant and mixing with ash from a variety of different specially selected species. It is rolled up into quids (balls) that are 6cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and then chewed. The mixing of the alkaloid ash with the plant material renders the alkaloids more available when chewed and ingested. When it is not chewed it is put behind the ear like bubblegum. The chewed tobacco is used as a token of friendship, of which it has taken on the significance of a social event.

Pituri is mixed with ash as the nicotine is liberated from the acids through the action of the alkaloids present in the ash. The ash promotes the rapid absorption of the nicotine into the bloodstream through the thin tissues of the lips and mouth and probably through the skin behind the ear (Latz, 1995). There are certain species that are used to manufacture the ash within the pituri....

The initial effect of pituri is as a stimulant, later however the user begins to fall a bit heavy and finally sleepy. In small quantities the pituri can assuage hunger and enable long journeys to be undertaken without fatigue and with little food. It can also be used to excite the participants before fighting....

The quids are sometimes mixed with threads of native flax (Psoralea spp.) to make the pituri stick together. If preferred plants are unavailable then small amounts of I.petrae are added to less popular Nicotiana leaves to give the quid extra strength. Aborigines also used the smoking of the burning leaves of D.hopwoodii as an anaesthetic, where the usage of the plant in the circumcision of boys during their initiation ceremonies was frequently practiced.

Today: Most Aboriginal people who chew tobacco use either native tobacco (also called 'bush tobacco') or loose smoking tobacco. People mix the dry, crushed material with ash and form it into 'quids' using saliva. They place the quids between the teeth and cheek. Nicotine is absorbed through the lining of the mouth (mucous membrane). The drug effect is similar to smoking tobacco. Chewing is restricted to around Central Australia and is practised mostly by women.
There is currently no evidence that chewing tobacco in the way it is done in Central Australia has any long-term, harmful effects on people's health’.

Source: Entheogens & Salvia Teaching Plant Forum: ‘Duboisia Hopwoodii’ and Katie Littlejohn, 1998.


amphibious said...

The role of tobacco as a 'gateway' drug has never been broached as far as I can ascertain.
Prior to its arrival in Europe, and thereafter spreading eastwards, neither cannabis nor opium were smoked. Cannabis was eaten in the ME as 'majoum', a sweet concoction of honey & spices similar to a sloppy fudge and in India it was drunk as 'bhang', a mix of milk, pepper & spices. The muslim influence on the later moghuls led to eating but bahng was/is the preference of the hindu devotees.
Opium, further east until the middle of the Common Era, was usually swallowed as a pellet washed down by sweet tea, ie China & India, until the arrival of the dreaded tobacco.

hc said...

That's an interesting observation. So it was apparently a gateway drug in Europe but not Asia. And you are suggesting opium was only smoked in China after tobacco got there.

One of the things about smoking is that it suggests that your lungs can be used for things other than breathing. Maybe that's part of the gateway idea.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the world would be like if Sir Walter Raleigh had returned smoking marijuana instead of tobacco?

ononotagain said...

Bugger the patches! I want the Govt to subsidise my BEER! It worked for xiku...

amphibious said...

Sorry if I was unclear earlier - YES, tobacco was the 'gateway' drug to smoking cannabis & opium in Asia as well as Europe.
It reached the ME via the Venetian/Turkish trade routes and most of the muslim lands smoked using some form of nagileh or waterpipe, for complex haram/halal reasons. In India, for similar ritual cleanliness reasons, the preferred implement was the chillum for hindus while the local muslims developed the nagileh into the huge hookahs so beloved of the Raj collectors when returning Home.
The bong originated in bamboo rich Malaya & Indoenesia once the tobacco arrived via their colonial rulers (British & Dutch respectively.
In China opium was a predilection of those who could afford it, swallowed as pellets washed down by sweet tea. It only became the scourge of China once industrial quantities were introduced by the British (from their huge Indian plantations)and smoked along with the tobacco by the coolies. It was forced onto China because of the drain on the British balance of payments of their addiction to tea. The heavenly Kingdom didn't want any of the trade goods proffered by the industrialised barbarians and ended with the Opium Wars, whence originated that glorious Imperial phrase "send a gunboat" when the authorities tried to stop the landing of a fleet of opium laden british ships.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

Perhaps the biggest health threat of the occassional joint these days is that it might be a gateway to smoking tobacco.

I've been intereted in Pituri ever since I went to Pichi Richi pass and was told it was called that because for year the local aboriginals (and non locals) used to gather there to harvest the pituri and it waa an important economic centre in the pre white days. Pituri was traded.

I always understood it was a bit like Betel nut in it's effect and was prepared somewhat like Beteal nut with ash and chewed like betel nut.

I'm guessing its not without health hazards - life long Betel Nut chewing certainly has a downside.

hc said...

I am writing a paper on indigenous smoking ogf converntional cigarettes. I'd be interested in you had a source for specific damages from Pituri. I know some of the other chewing tobaccos - from India - are very unhealthy but everything I have seen so far says Pituri is not too bad.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I don't have any sources but at one stage for some reason I knew a lot about pituri.

I think that some of the betel nut health problems come from the ash (lime?)- so that might be a fruitful line of enquiry.

Anonymous said...

So does anyone have a date when northern Aborigines and Cape York aborigines were introduced to smoking? I have seen pictures of aboriginal smoking implements, but remember reading that the inland tribes only used chewing tobacco's.

Incidentally, I was under the assumption that pituri originally referred to a highly prized and heavily traded chewing tobacco. That trade is now extinct.

Although chewing tobacco lives on - one paper I saw mentioned eight different species harvested. And pituri became a general word used by whites to refer to all aboriginal chewing tobaccos.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

hc said...

I don't know but presumably quite early.

I am more interested in the origins of pituri. Conventional tobaccos have been consumed for about 7,000 years but pituri might beat this.

hc said...

(New thoughts, same issue)

This site suggests aboriginals introduced to tobacco 400 years ago and that Pituri still consumed:

amphibious said...

As an economist HC you might also include the trade in pepper (and other spices) in the frantic colonial lunges, east & west. Teh indonesian archiapelago & points east generally where known as the Spice Islands until carbed up by the Eruopeans into the feifdoms.
On the news this morning i hear that the Commonwealth is revitalising its import ban on kava, introduced in the 80s but lackadaisically enforced.
Both betel & kava a of the Pepper genus.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Harry.

But nothing there contradicts me. I was under the impression Duboisia hopwoodii was the original pituri, or pitcheeri or whatever Burke and Wills took.

And I remember reading Nicotania gossei was the preferred species of chewing tobacco of the tribe in NT that utilised eight different plants for similar use.

I think Pamela Watson was the source.

Anonymous said...

Also I suppose we would have to leave the origins of use to the anthropologists or botanists. I have never seen any paper on it.

I did find this interesting...

"Aboriginal people showed considerable knowledge of nicotine both as a drug and as a constituent of plants; pituri had great political social and economic importance at the time of European conquest; and social controls existed over both drug supply and drug demand."

Is it possible trying to resurrect traditional drugs supplies, some of the harm and institutionalisation of tobacco smoking could be reduced in remote aboriginal communities?