The tragic and moving story of just one Great War soldier

I happened upon the fascinating grave of a First World War soldier recently.

All of these proud markers have a story to tell, but this one was intriguing as the date of this man’s death was months after the end of hostilities, on November 11th, 1918.

Vernon Alan Lawrence, known as Alan, a Private in the Bedfordshire Regiment, was listed as dying on Monday, March 3rd 1919.

The grave is in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, in Apsley, Hertfordshire.

A bit of research, on the excellent HemelHeroes.com website, revealed a moving tale of family tragedy.

Alan was born in Hertford in 1894 the third son and youngest child born to William Markwell Lawrence and Ada Williams Broome, who had a family of five children together.

A series of tragedies befell the Lawrence family as only one of the children survived their parents.

Nanette died in 1890 aged two, Wilfred in 1910 aged twenty-six, Eustace in 1912 aged twenty-four and Alan in the Great War.

The only surviving child Josephine died in 1964, in Hemel Hempstead, having never married.

William brought his family to Apsley End, near Hemel Hempstead, sometime shortly after Alan was born, when he gained employment with John Dickinson & Co. Limited, as a Printer’s Compositor at the historic Apsley Mills, home to the world’s oldest paper mill.

Alan followed his father into Apsley Mills when he had completed his education in 1907 and was initially apprenticed in the Engineering Department.

Both of his older brothers also worked with Dickinsons whilst his sister Josephine became a school teacher.

Not long after he went to work in Apsley Mills, Alan left to take up a position as a chauffeur for Percy Christopherson the Headmaster of a school.

Percy Christopherson had been an England rugby international and first-class cricketer for Kent before taking up the Headmastership of the school in 1902.

His position as a chauffeur was more lucrative and came with more responsibility than his job at Apsley Mills, though his early engineering experience would certainly have qualified him for the position. The job at that time would have included the maintenance and repair of the motor cars as well as driving.

On the outbreak of war, Alan immediately made a request to his employer to be released from his position so that he could volunteer.

A brief report was published in the local Hemel Gazette newspaper at the time describing his enlistment and the generosity of his employer.

Alan attested in Hemel Hempstead in the first week of September and enlisted with the Bedfordshire Regiment and was posted immediately for basic training at Aldershot.

He had joined the 7th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment “The Shiney Seventh” and for the next eleven months he learned how to be a soldier.

He was sent overseas to France on the 26th July 1915 when the 7th Battalion was posted overseas.

In 1916 Alan was wounded in a raid on German trenches on the 26th April, an action reported in The Times and recorded in the Battalion War Diaries as follows: “Last night the Bedfordshire Regiment carried out a very successful raid near Carnoy.

“The raiding party rushed the trenches and after fierce hand to hand fighting drove the remaining Germans into their dugouts and bombed them there. Our casualties – eight wounded, all brought in. German loss considerable.”

Alan was mentioned in dispatches for “bravery and devotion to duty” and taken out of the line for treatment and recuperation.

A year later he was wounded for a second time in July 1917, but returned quickly following his recovery and continued to see significant action until, on March 23rd, 1918, he was taken prisoner at Cambrai.

He had been wounded for a third time but on this occasion severely in both legs. He was taken to a German Prisoner of War camp where he was treated and remained until the following October.

He was repatriated from Germany on the 23rd October 1918 along with 538 other prisoners, most of whom were stretcher cases, and he was admitted to No.2 London General Hospital, in Chelsea.

During the next few months, Alan underwent several operations on his legs to treat his wounds and it was reported that these were generally successful.

However, due to his weakened state, following his time as a prisoner, the medical intervention took its toll and Alan succumbed to his wounds.

He died in hospital on Monday, 3rd March 1919.

His body was returned to his parents in Apsley and Alan was buried in the Churchyard of St Mary’s in the village on Saturday, 8th March 1919.

The well-attended funeral was reported in some detail in the next edition of the Hemel Gazette which described the service and the presence of several of the men who had served with him along with his parents and relatives.

Messages of condolence were received from his ex-colleagues at Apsley Mills as well as one from Mr and Mrs Percy Christopherson who said: “In grateful and affectionate memory of one who served loyally.”

Alan is Remembered with Honour in the Apsley End (St. Mary) Churchyard, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, where he is interred in a Grave Near the North Hedge.

He was 24 years old when he died.

This focus on just one young man, wounded three times in gallant action highlights the horrors and bravery of the First World War and really struck a chord with me when I learned of this extraordinary, tragic and short life, which ended just over a hundred years ago. 

It also highlights the that every single one of these graves has a story to tell.

Roman crucified remains found in Britain

A heel bone belonging to a victim of the brutal Roman execution of crucifixion has been unearthed in England.

A nail was hammered into the bone of a probable slave in a brutal execution in third or fourth century Britannia.

The Celtic victim died between the ages of 25 and 35 and was found to have had thinning in his leg bones, indicating that he had been “chained to a wall” for a prolonged period before his crucifixion.

David Ingham, a project manager at Albion Archaeology, who led the excavation of the remains, said: “We think he was one of the local native population.”

Archaeologists discovered the man’s battered skeleton in a cemetery containing the graves of 48 people.

The remains exhibited signs that they had toiled endlessly in hard manual labour.

Nearby, they found a kind of workshop, where animal bones were split so that marrow, which was used to make soap and other products, could be extracted.

The team conducted the excavations before a housing development was built in the area, in Cambridgeshire.

They published the findings last month in British Archaeology magazine. 

It’s possible that the crucified man, along with other people buried in the cemetery, were slaves, Mr Ingham told Live Science.

He said that in A.D. 212, Roman citizenship was extended to all free people who lived in the sprawling Empire and that crucifixion was generally reserved for those deemed unfit to be citizens – slaves in other words.

During the crucifixion, the man’s arms would have been tied to a cross, with his feet nailed to the ground.

This agonising contortion would have made it hard to breathe, and the ultimate cause of death would have been suffocation.

Even for slaves, crucifixion was rare and would only have been inflicted on victims for “one of the most serious crimes”.

This raises the prospect that the executed man was punished for a crime such as rebellion or treason against the state.

This discovery is one of a handful of examples of a crucified person being found from the Roman Empire, Mr Ingham said.

Another example, discovered in 1968, was unearthed in a first-century tomb in Jerusalem. 

Obviously there are the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ execution, by crucifixion, which have maintained the barbaric method of death in the public consciousness ever since.

Although the Romans were not the first to employ the grisly form of execution.

There are accounts of its use by Alexander the Great, with the Macedonian king said to have crucified 2,000 survivors from his siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre in 332 BC.

The practice is thought to have started even further back in some of the first civilisations, with the Assyrians and Babylonians.

It was also carried out by the Persians in the sixth century BC.

In that rendering of the practice victims were lashed to trees or posts.

It was the Romans, ever the innovators even – and perhaps especially – in dealing gruesome death, that first used specially-made crosses.

Roman Emperor Constantine I, the so-called first Christian Emperor (above), abolished the practice in the fourth century AD.

Is this the earliest depiction of Jesus Christ?

A newly-discovered ring could portray the earliest image of Jesus Christ.

The octagonal gold jewellery dates to the third century and is inlaid with a green gemstone that has an image of Christ as the ‘good shepherd’ carved into it.

Almost two thousand years ago, a devastating storm off the coast of Caesarea, in modern-day Israel, caused a shipwreck.

Now, archeologists have recovered treasures from that ship’s hull, including the ring and other fascinating artefacts.

The ring is inscribed with an image of a boy holding a sheep on its shoulders.

This calls to mind the words Jesus was said to have spoken: “I am the good shepherd… the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Because of this Christians often depicted Jesus in this way.

Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) also discovered third-century Roman coins, bells to ward off evil spirits, a bronze eagle figurine, and a Roman pantomimus figurine in a comic mask.

Close to the third century sunken ship the team found another more recent wreck, which is thought to have sunk around 600 years ago.

In this ship they found 560 Mamluk-era coins from the 14th century.

The IAA wrote on Facebook: “An archeological survey of the ancient authorities in the Caesarea area revealed a spectacular treasure of two ancient tropic ships. The discoveries tell the story of two ships that sank during different periods, probably when they tried to anchor or find shelter from storms.”

Commenting on the ring the authority wrote: “This image, of the ‘Good Shepherd’, is known in ancient Christian art as a symbol of salvation.

“It is a parable of Jesus as the merciful shepherd of mankind, or as the one who has shown the protection of man or the testimony of his believers.”

Archaeologists believe that the ring’s owner was one of the first Christians.

And since the ring is small, it may have belonged to a woman.

Helena Sokolov, a curator at the IAA, said: “This was a period when Christianity was just in its beginning, but definitely growing and developing, especially in mixed cities like Caesarea.”

At the time of the sinking Caesarea was home to one of the first Christian communities.

The city is even mentioned in the Bible as the site of the baptism of the Roman centurion Cornelius by the apostle Peter.

Jacob Sharvit, of the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit, said: “This was the first instance of a non-Jew being accepted into the Christian community.

“From here, the Christian religion began to be disseminated across the world.”

Perfectly preserved embryo discovered in dinosaur egg

This blog tends to focus primarily on history, rather than natural history. But a new 66 million year old fossil is well worth an examination.

A fossilised dinosaur egg, containing a perfectly preserved embryo has been discovered by scientists.

The embryo, named ‘Baby Yingliang’, was found in the Late Cretaceous rocks of Ganzhou, in southern China, and belongs to a toothless theropod dinosaur, or oviraptorosaur.

Researchers said it is one of the most complete dinosaur embryos ever found and reveals startling insights into the behaviour of modern birds and their evolutionary ancestors – dinosaurs.

Professor Steve Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh, part of the research team, said: “This dinosaur embryo inside its egg is one of the most beautiful fossils I have ever seen.

“This little prenatal dinosaur looks just like a baby bird curled in its egg, which is yet more evidence that many features characteristic of today’s birds first evolved in their dinosaur ancestors.”

Experts from the University of Birmingham and the China University of Geosciences, in Beijing, found the posture of ‘Baby Yingliang’ unique among known dinosaur embryos.

The animal’s head lies below the body, with the feet on either side and the back curled along the blunt end of the egg.

Researchers said that in modern birds, this posture – called ‘tucking’ and previously unrecognised in dinosaurs – involves the embryo bending its body and bringing its head under its wing shortly before hatching so it can prepare to crack the egg.

Embryos that fail to attain this particular posture are more likely to die because they cannot hatch out properly.

After studying the egg and embryo, scientists believe that the pre-hatching behaviour, previously considered unique to birds, may have originated among non-avian theropod dinosaurs.

Fion Waisum Ma, joint first author and PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, said: “Dinosaur embryos are some of the rarest fossils and most of them are incomplete with the bones dislocated.

“We are very excited about the discovery of ‘Baby Yingliang’ – it is preserved in a great condition and helps us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it.

“It is interesting to see this dinosaur embryo and a chicken embryo pose in a similar way inside the egg, which possibly indicates similar prehatching behaviours.”

The embryo, housed in Yingliang Stone Nature History Museum, is around 27cm long from head to tail and lies inside a 17-cm-long elongatoolithid egg.

The embryo was identified as an oviraptorosaur due to its deep, toothless skull.

Oviraptorosaurs were a group of feathered theropod dinosaurs, closely related to modern-day birds, known from the Cretaceous of Asia and North America.

Greek monkey mystery points to ancient Bronze Age links with India

Ancient frescoes like that of the Greek monkeys on Santorini could point to trade links between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent as far back as 3,600 years ago.

That is the conclusion of a recent study of ancient murals on the Aegean island, which is also known as Thera.

The blue monkeys painted on walls at Akrotiri are around 3,600 years old and were originally believed to be an African species.

Obviously, the proximity of Greece to Africa and the extensive interrelationships between the Hellenic world and Africa, via Ancient Egypt would make this a reasonable assumption.

But the new study has reached a different conclusion.

A team of primatologists were drafted in to study the simians depicted in the frescoes and their evaluation had pointed to potentially greater globalisation in the Bronze Age.

Researchers now think that the paintings actually depict Hanuman langurs, a species from the Indian subcontinent.

This suggests the Aegean people, who came from Crete and the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea, may have had trade routes that reached over 2,500 miles.

The murals, which also depict other animals, were preserved by ash from a volcano that destroyed the city some time in the 16th or 15th century BC and offer an incredible glimpse of an early civilisation in Europe.

The researchers said: “We haven’t been able to translate the earliest Aegean writing, but the paintings suggest just how developed these people’s society, economy and culture were.

“Much animal art from this period is generalised, meaning it’s hard to confidently identify individual species. In the case of the monkeys, we also don’t have any physical remains from Aegean settlements to provide additional evidence of which species are depicted.”

Marie Pareja and taxonomic illustrator Stephen Nash examined photos of the art and discussed the animals depicted, considering not only fur colour and pattern but also body size, limb proportions, sitting and standing postures, and tail position.

They said: “While we all agreed that some of the animals depicted were baboons, as previously thought, we began to debate the identification of the animals from one particular scene.”

The monkeys in the paintings are grey-blue. But although some living monkeys have small patches of blue skin – the blue on a mandrill’s face, for example – none have blue fur.

There is an African forest monkey called the blue monkey, but it is mainly olive or dark grey, and the face patterns don’t match those in the paintings.

So researchers needed to use other characteristics to identify them.

They were previously believed to be vervets or grivets, small monkeys weighing between 3kg and 8kg (roughly the size of a housecat) that are found in the savannas of north and east Africa.

Despite their silvery white fur, they also have dark-coloured hands and feet and an overall look that matches the depictions in the paintings.

However, Hanuman langurs, which weigh a more substantial 11 kg to 18 kg, have a similar look. They also move quite differently, and this was crucial to the identification.

The researchers added: “This study is an excellent example of the importance of academics from different disciplines working together.

“Without the expertise of primatologists, it may not have been possible to confidently identify these animals.

“Conversely, primatologists may not have considered these ancient human-primate interactions without a prompt from archaeologists.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a slightly comical scene in the the 2004 film ‘Alexander’, which tells of Alexander the Great’s conquests, in which the Macedonians shoot arrows at what was referred to as a “new tribe” they called ‘monkey’.

The paintings on Santorini and the proximity to Hellenic influence to Africa highlights how this was simply artistic license on behalf of the filmmakers.

Although, that said, the Roman author Pliny the Elder once described a race of silvestres, or forest-dwellers, in India who had humanoid bodies but were covered in fur and unable to speak. This mystery race were almost certainly gibbons.

Such asides, aside, the new research potentially reveals just how interconnected the ancient world may have been.

Stonehenge: Mysterious pits ‘were man-made’ and formed largest prehistoric structure in Britain

A number of mysterious pits close to Stonehenge were man-made, new high tech research has revealed.

The holes, which lie around two miles northeast of the World Heritage Site, were detected by remote sensing technology and were calculated to be 4,500 years old.

The research was carried out by Tim Kinnaird, of the University of St. Andrews and involved optically stimulated luminescence dating, to pinpoint the age of the pits.

Each pit measures more than 30 feet in diameter and some are as deep as 16 feet.

It was determined that they were deliberately excavated as, if they had been natural sinkholes, they would have been of irregular sizes.

It is thought that the pits formed a circle measuring 1.2 miles in diameter, with the henge monument of Durrington Walls, close to Woodhenge, in its centre.

Vincent Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, said: “So effectively this really does say this is one enormous structure. It may have evolved from a natural feature, but we haven’t located that.

“So it’s the largest prehistoric structure found in Britain.”

Mr Gaffney added that the Neolithic farmers who built the monument must have been able to count their paces to measure the placement of the pits, forming a boundary that may have had cosmological significance to them.

In other news a new, and unwelcome, digging project at Stonehenge seems to have been buried.

National Highways has said it will not award key contracts for the A303 Stonehenge tunnel scheme until its future is decided.

Planning permission for the £1.7bn dual carriageway scheme was thrown out by the High Court in July, following a legal challenge by heritage campaigners.

The court ruled that Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, had not considered alternative schemes properly and had not shown enough evidence of looking at its different heritage impacts.

The Wild Hunt: An Anglo-Saxon ghost story

The concept of the Wild Hunt – a ghostly host streaming across the night sky – has ancient roots.

Whilst it is popularised in Northern European folklore, particularly in the Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions, it has representations in other belief systems – particularly those of an Indo-European root.

It’s echoes can be seen in Vedic beliefs from India and even in Abrahamic faiths.

The story of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer-drawn sleigh could even owe its origin to the legend.

The leader of the Wild Hunt has been chopped and changed over the centuries with both the Windsor Forest-dwelling deer-headed spectre Herne the Hunter and Norse god Odin being described as the head huntsman.

The terrifying procession can be seen as a representation of the souls of the dead rampaging across the sky and visible to the living.

As such it has connections to Samhain and, therefore, Halloween as well as Christmas.

After a recent visit to the magnificent Peterborough Cathedral, I was reminded of an account of the legend that centred on the historic site and the surrounding countryside.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of this fearful gathering of apparitions.

It read: “It was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry.

“They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes.

“This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford.”

The related Peterborough Chronicle details the sighting with further embellishments.

It claims the Wild Hunt materialised after the appointment of a disastrous abbot at the monastery, which is now the cathedral, called Henry d’Angely, in 1127.

It read: “Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting.

“The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.

“This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.”

Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ tells of the Herne-led hunt in Act 4, Scene 4.

It read: “There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter (sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)

“Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

“And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

“And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

“In a most hideous and dreadful manner.

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

“The superstitious idle-headed eld

Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age

“This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.”

Was the Peterborough tale a folkish wish for revenge against the new Norman orthodoxy?

Or was this a retelling if a truly ancient myth with contemporary details added?

Either way it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset and traditions of the people of 12th century England.

Neolithic and Bronze Age bones reveal oldest mercury poisoning in history

5,000-year-old bones have revealed the oldest instances of mercury poisoning in history.

The poisoning was caused by exposure to cinnabar, a mineral that was pulverised and used in decorations, paintings and funeral rituals.

The research was carried out by a team from the University of Seville, which looked at 5,000-year-old bones from southern Spain and Portugal.

The study looked into the many and various interactions between people and mercury over the centuries.

It is the largest of its type to examine the presence of the substance in human bones.

A total of 14 specialists in biology, chemistry, physical anthropology and archeology participated and used as a sample the skeletal remains of 370 individuals from 50 tombs located in 23 archaeological sites in Spain and Portugal.

These bones span 5,000 years and date back to the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age and other periods.

The study found that the highest concentration of mercury exposure occurred at the beginning of the Chalcolithic, or copper, age, between 2900 and 2600 BC.

This timeframe coincided with the increase in the use of cinnabar, which is a vivid red mineral.

The research revealed that in tombs discovered in southern Portugal and Andalusia, thbpowder was used to paint megalithic chambers, decorate statuettes or stelae, and spread it over the dead in funerary rites.

This is similar to how red ochre was used to cover bodies by other ancient humans and, intriguingly, by Neanderthals too.

Just as in modern times those who worked with the building material asbestos, which is now known to be highly toxic, have suffered from mesothelioma – a type of cancer – so the Neolithic and other peoples could have accidentally inhaled, or ingested, the powdered cinnabar and became poisoned.

This led to high levels of deposits in their bodies.

The study recorded levels of up to 400 parts per million in the bones of some of these individuals.

Taking into account that, according to the World Health Organization, exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, can cause serious health problems, the bodies had a high level of intoxication.

As well as, as a by-product of working with the toxic mineral, the sheer scale of intoxication could also suggest a fascinating and disturbing alternative theory.

This is that the substance could have been voluntarily consumed by inhalation of vapours, or even eaten, because of the potent esoteric symbolism of the ruddy-hued rock.

From cinnabar’s red to the ancient Phoenician’s Tyrian purple, a dye fashioned by extracting secretions from thousands of sea snails, vivid colours have been revered and highly valued for centuries, even millennia.

This study’s findings provide a fascinating glimpse into the ritual behaviour of our distant ancestors, who simply would not have known how deadly their religious and cultural practices actually were.

Old Scarlett: The extraordinary gravedigger who buried two medieval Queens

Cathedrals are usually the burial places of powerful monarchs or pious priests.

And there are certainly those at Peterborough Cathedral, in East Anglia.

But one tomb is given a prominent position at the entrance to the magnificent building, which began under the Anglo-Saxons, was hugely remodelled under the Normans and was added to by subsequent dynasties.

And this burial place is reserved for a man who occupied what you’d think would be a lowly position – that of gravedigger.

But Robert Scarlett, or Old Scarlett as he is remembered, was no ordinary gravedigger.

Scarlett, who served as Sexton at the Cathedral, had an impressive career burying two Queens at the historic site.

He also lived for 98 years, until his death in 1594, a prodigious lifespan in those times – and still now.

Old Scarlett has a portrait, in fact two, placed in a lofty position above the main doors.

Next to one of these there is a rhyme, which reads:

“You see old Scarlitt’s picture stand on hie,

But at your feete here doth his body lye.

His office by thes tokens you may know.

His gravestone doth his age and Death time show,

Second to none for strength and sturdye limm,

A Scarebabe mighty voice with visage grim.

Hee had interd two Queenes within this place

And this townes Householders in his lives space

Twice over: But at length his own time came;

What for others did for him the same

Was done: No doubt his soule doth live for aye

In heaven: Tho here his body clad in clay.”

As well as the two famous Queens, more on which soon, according to local legend, Old Scarlett was said to have interred two people from every Peterborough household during his impressive lifetime.

This is estimated to total 1,500 souls laid to rest by the overachieving undertaker.

Old Scarlett’s first royal funeral duty came in 1536, when he buried the hugely-significant Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.

Katherine’s inability to provide Henry with a male heir led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England, after Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage.

Henry’s claim that the marriage was illegitimate since Katherine was previously married to his brother, Prince Arthur, who died aged 15, in 1502, cut no ice with the Pontiff.

Likewise, Katherine, mother to the future Queen Mary I, never recognized Henry’s divorce, and was exiled from the Royal Court in 1534.

She died just two years later at Kimbolton Castle, and was brought to the abbey at nearby Peterborough for burial.

Her remains still lie in the cathedral’s North Aisle.

Were it not for Katherine, the history of Peterborough and its cathedral may have followed a very different path, for it is widely believed that the church was spared Henry’s vandalism in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, because it was her final resting place.

Scarlett was, as his sobriquet suggests, indeed old when he was next called upon to bury a Queen.

After years of suspicion and alleged plots, Queen Elizabeth I, another daughter of Henry VIII, finally lost patience with her Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

After being implicated in a plot to murder Elizabeth Mary was tried for treason and executed at nearby Fotheringay Castle, in 1587.

She was buried in the South Choir Aisle of Peterborough Cathedral.

However, her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey by her son, James I of England.

The site of her original grave is still marked in the cathedral where Scarlett himself is buried, although his grave remains.

Peterborough Cathedral is a magnificent building, marked in positive and negative ways throughout centuries of tumultuous history.

As well as the story of Old Scarlett every nook and cranny of this incredible construction tells a story.

It is well worth a visit.

Tobacco: a 12,000-year-old habit begun by hunter-gatherers

Recent findings suggest tobacco use goes back 12,300 years.

Mankind’s obsession with the weed began in our distant past, before agriculture even started, according to new research.

Researchers from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group recently published a new paper that claims the use of tobacco goes back 12,300 years.

It was hitherto believed that indigenous people in eastern North America were thought to be the first users of the substance, which was completely unknown to Europeans, until they arrived in the continent centuries ago.

Natives used tobacco in ceremonial rituals, such as the archetypal peace pipe, or for religious customs.

After years of conquest and European colonisation the plant became a lucrative cash crop, underpinned by slavery, that fired the colonies – and later burgeoning new country – of America’s economy.

The first human chattel labourers arrived in Virginia in 1619 to work backbreaking shifts on tobacco plantations. This is despite the early settlers referring to tobacco as a “noxious weed”.

The new study looked at charred seeds of a variety of wild tobacco that were unearthed by scientists at an archaeological dig in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah.

Investigations concluded that these seeds were found within an ancient hearth built by nomadic hunter-gatherers dating back 9,000 years before the previously-thought earliest use of tobacco.

Before the new research, it was thought the oldest use of tobacco, for intoxication, was much later and was evidenced by nicotine residue found in a smoking pipe from modern-day Alabama.