General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Mar 2019/7 Flint
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Professor Stephanie Wood

Question for February 2006

Did the taco come from the cigarette, or the cigarette from the taco?! Asked by Dulwich Hamlet Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Stephanie Wood.

‘Tacos de carnitas’, freshly prepared for Professor Wood’s dinner!
‘Tacos de carnitas’, freshly prepared for Professor Wood’s dinner!

You have fastened onto two very different American products, one that you can eat and one that you can smoke, but I am guessing that you are associating them with one another because they can both be rolled.

Preparing tacos in ‘Tacos Beatriz’, Mexico City
Preparing tacos in ‘Tacos Beatriz’, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Tacos can be rolled into what are sometimes called flautas (flutes) or taquitos (little tacos), but often they are simply folded in half. They might be served with a side of “guacamole,” which consists of smashed avocados (or alligator pears). Today in the central Mexican highlands, when you request tacos you will be served flat, warm, soft tortillas, topped with chopped meats, tomatoes, onions, peppers, coriander, and possibly cheese. Typically, you will add some salsa, too, and then fold the tortilla in half as you carry it to your mouth. (Am I making you hungry yet?)

A taco a day... (‘Tacos Beatriz’, Mexico City)
A taco a day... (‘Tacos Beatriz’, Mexico City) (Click on image to enlarge)

This folding of the taco in half may explain the origin of the word, “taco.” If “taco” did not originate in sixteenth-century Spanish, there is a Nahuatl word (Classical Nahuatl is the language that was spoken by the Aztecs, among other peoples) “tlaco,” which means half. That tlaco could evolve into taco, dropping the “l,” is supported by the existence today of a town named Tacotalpa, formerly Tlacotlalpan, in the Mexican state of Tabasco.

Pre-Hispanic pipes, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pre-Hispanic pipes, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Now, as for the rolling of the cigarette, we do not believe that the cigarette as we know it today was a pre-Columbian product, but the cigar was. The Spanish sailor Juan de Grijalva found indigenous people smoking cigars when he landed in the Yucatan in 1518. The Yucatec Maya word “sicar” is said to mean “to smoke rolled tobacco leaves.” The Spaniard Bartolomé de las Casas, who began writing his history of the Indies in 1522 on the island of Santo Domingo, also observed cigar smoking among the native peoples of the Indies. Another early Spanish resident of the Caribbean, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, published a history book in 1535 that stated “tabago” was a local word used for a pipe in which tobacco was burned and the smoke was inhaled. In that same year Jacques Cartier observed indigenous people on the island of Montreal smoking pipes made from wood or stone.

With thanks to Mundo Maya Online History
With thanks to Mundo Maya Online History

Whether they used pipes or tobacco leaves rolled into cigars, shamans of the Americas were typically the people who smoked, and they did so more for religious than for recreational purposes. Religious uses for tobacco can still be found in parts of Latin America today, such as Guatemala. There, local representations of Saint Simon, dubbed “Maximón,” will smoke cigars or cigarettes. This figure gets his name from a highland Mayan term for tobacco, “max” (pronounced “mawsh”). Worshipers make offerings to him consisting of tobacco, particularly cigarettes, along with candles and alcoholic beverages. Even Guatemalan women will smoke cigars when celebrating the feast day of Maximón.

Smoking cigars, San Andrés Iztapa, Guatemala
Smoking cigars, San Andrés Iztapa, Guatemala

The term “cigarette” (little cigar) was coined in the nineteenth century by the French. It was Jean Nicot (the word “nicotine” memorializes him) who introduced tobacco to France in the sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth century its distribution was a state monopoly. The cigarette differs from the cigar in that it requires a piece of paper and processed tobacco to be put into the paper and then rolled. It was during the Crimean War (1854-1856) that soldiers in large numbers began to smoke something that resembled the cigarette of today. They rolled their tobacco in small pieces of newspaper. By the twentieth century, the cigar and the pipe gave way to the cigarette as the major tobacco commodity, available widely, especially after World War II.

Graciela enjoying a taco!
Graciela enjoying a taco! (Click on image to enlarge)

Tacos and cigarettes would not be consumed around the world today if it were not for the process of cultural and biological interaction we call the “Columbian Exchange.” This is named for Christopher Columbus, since he is credited with bringing the Old and New Worlds into contact in 1492. Alfred Crosby coined “Columbian Exchange” to describe the plants, animals, and diseases that went both directions across the Atlantic and beyond. Maize, which is the essence of the tortilla (and the basis for the taco), was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago. It has become a staple of many peoples in Africa, and elsewhere, thanks to the Columbian Exchange. In contrast, rather than nourishing people, the cigarette rivals the diseases commonly associated with the Columbian Exchange, such as smallpox, for their deadly effect. So, if you are thinking of giving one of these American products a try, let me recommend the taco over the cigarette!

* Borio, Gene. “Tobacco Timeline: The Sixteenth Century—Sailors Spread the Seeds,”
* “Brief History of Tobacco Use and Abuse,” Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Online Patient Education,
* Crosby, Alfred W., “The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds,”
* Diccionario Breve de Mexicanismos (This dictionary does not overtly make the association between taco and tlaco, but does include both terms as well as the town mentioned in Tabasco.)
* Entries for “Cigarette,” “Columbian Exchange”, “Tobacco,” and “Maize,” can be found in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,, and an entry for “Bartolomé de las Casas” in the Catholic Encyclopedia,

* Gately, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
* Wilbert, Johannes. Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
* Winter, Joseph C. “Traditional Uses of Tobacco by Native Americans,” in Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer, ed. Joseph C. Winter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, pp. 9–58.
* “Yucatec Maya,” Languages of the World,

’Tacos de carnitas’ by Robert Haskett
Photos in ‘Tacos Beatriz’ (inc. of Graciela) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Photo of pre-Hispanic pipes by Xavier Miró/Mexicolore
Photo of ‘Maximón’ by Ricardo Mata/Diego Molina/Johan Willens (Mundo Maya)
Photo of women in Guatemala smoking cigars by Mara Lavitt, The New Haven Register.

Professor Stephanie Wood has answered just this one question

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