Scientists discover nicotine in ancient dental plaque

Figuring out when tobacco use became prominent in ancient cultures has been difficult for scientists and archaeologists to properly document. For the first time, scientists have discovered nicotine in dental plaque from eight individuals buried between 6,000 and 300 years ago.

The report, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, comes from a team of researchers at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Since nicotine is detectable in plaque of modern smokers, the scientists wanted to see if the same held true for ancient people. Plaque is a sticky film that covers teeth and can contribute to tooth decay.

Using regular toothpicks, the team recovered samples from ancient teeth supplied by the Ohlone tribe in San Francisco Bay. The samples were then tested for signs of plant-based intoxicants such as caffeine and the muscle relaxant atropine. Two of the eight samples tested positive for nicotine; none featured traces of the other plant-based intoxicants.

The authors hope this is a breakthrough for discovering how ancient societies used plants and consumed intoxicants.

For more information on the effects of nicotine, search the term ‘smoking’ on

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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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