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An Aztec farmer grinding tobacco, Florentine Codex Book XI

Aztec advances (10): medicinal use of tobacco

This is the tenth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). The image shows a Mexica/Aztec farmer grinding tobacco (Florentine Codex, Book XI) (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Native American tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) flower, leaves, and buds
Pic 1: Native American tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) flower, leaves, and buds (Click on image to enlarge)

‘According to ethnobotanists, the two most prevalent types of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica) were growing in the Americas as early as 6,000 BCE. American Indians are believed to have been cultivating tobacco by about 1 CE... Indigenous peoples used tobacco primarily in ceremonies and for medicinal purposes such as enemas and wound dressings. Some American Indians also chewed it as a toothache remedy.’

The Aztec name for tobacco in Nahuatl is picietl meaning ‘little [fragrant tobacco] perfume’. It is mentioned in the Badianus Manuscript as an enema to relieve diarrhoea (‘rumbling of the abdomen’ - picture 2) and as an intoxicating potion in the treatment of recurrent disease.

Pic 2: Reference (arrowed) to picietl (tobacco) in the treatment of tummy rumbling, Badianus Manuscript, pl. 54
Pic 2: Reference (arrowed) to picietl (tobacco) in the treatment of tummy rumbling, Badianus Manuscript, pl. 54 (Click on image to enlarge)

But it had other medicinal uses as well: bites by poisonous snakes, spiders and insects were generally treated by cutting into the bite, sucking out the poison, and ‘then rubbing [into the wound] with ground-up tobacco (presumably to act as an analgesic), followed by a careful diet’ (Ortiz de Montellano, quoting Sahagún).
Considered ‘hot’ as a substance, ‘it was used against “cold” diseases such as gout and swelling of the belly (treated by placing picietl in the navel), and as a rubdown to relieve fatigue’ (ditto).
Finally, the inhaling of tobacco was recommended as a remedy for headache.
AND, of course, they smoked tobacco: more on this another time, but you can learn more by following the links below for starters...

Sources:-
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002)
The Badianus Manuscript/’An Aztec Herbal of 1552’, facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940)
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (Rutgers University Press, 1990).

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: photo from Wikipedia (Tobacco)
• Pic 2: image from the Badianus Manuscript/’An Aztec Herbal of 1552’ scanned from our facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 08th 2020

‘Did the taco come from the cigarette, or the cigarette from the taco?! ‘

‘Fancy a puff?’

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