"Elder Brother Tobacco"

traditional Nicotiana snuff use among the contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Highland Chiapas, Mexico

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Among the ancient Maya, Nicotiana was viewed as a sacred plant, closely associated with deities of earth and sky, and used for both visionary and therapeutic ends. The contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Highland Chiapas are heirs to this ancient ethnobotanical tradition of tobacco use and folklore. In Maya communities throughout the highlands, the tobacco plant is viewed as a primordial medicine and a powerful botanical “helper” or “protector” with uses both mundane and divine. Whole leaves are boiled, wilted, mashed, and bruised to prepare medicinal plasters and teas. Fresh leaves are mixed with slaked limestone and pounded into a green mash, yielding a potent oral snuff that serves as a medicine, a stimulant, an intoxicant, and a protective agent. This tobacco-lime snuff preparation—referred to in Tzotzil as “angel” (anjel), “elder brother” (bankilal), “great old man” (muk’ta mol), or simply “to- bacco” (moy)—forms the prototypical referent for highland Maya thinking about tobacco. Stored and carried in small, highly polished gourds, this tobacco snuff is part of an unbroken tradition of Maya tobacco use spanning thousands of years. In the pages that follow, I present a comprehensive ethno- graphic overview of contemporary highland Maya tobacco culture, exploring the therapeutic, protective, and ritual uses of Nicotiana tabacum in both Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya communities.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBreath and smoke
Subtitle of host publicationtobacco use among the Maya
EditorsJennifer A. Loughmiller-Cardinal, Keith Eppich
Place of PublicationAlbuquerque, NM
PublisherUniversity of New Mexico Press
Number of pages39
ISBN (Electronic)9780826360939
ISBN (Print)9780826360922
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Nicotiana
  • tobacco
  • Maya
  • ethnobotany
  • ethnobiology
  • cosmology
  • ethnography
  • anthropology
  • shamanism
  • Medical anthropology

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