On Lalibela pipe and coffee

Two of the pipes from Lalibela cave were subsequently tested for cannabis residue on the inside of the bowls. These tests showed conclusively that the two pipes in question were definitely used for the smoking of cannabis. This, together with the fact that no evidence of elbow-bend pipes was found, has been taken as evidence that cannabis was smoked in water pipes in thirteenth-or fourteenth-century Ethiopia. However, caution must be exercised in drawing this conclusion. There was no direct correlation between the pipes and any dates. Rather there was a general correlation between the pipes and the dates, since both were from the same levels. The sites were rather disturbed, and there was evidence that levels may have been contaminated by the extensive digging of pits. In addition, the culture of level II in both sites was similar to that of the people of the area today. Dombrowski postulated only that the excavation showed that Semitic-speaking Ethiopians had reached the Lake Tana area by c. I I00.

There is thus no compelling reason to assume that the pipes in question were deposited before the arrival of tobacco, although that is the most likely hypothesis, and it is known that these pipes were used for smoking something other than tobacco. Our best guess would be that these pipes were used before the introduction of tobacco from the New World, but this is far from proven. Perhaps advances in radiocarbon technology will allow us to obtain reliable dates from the residue in the pipes which would settle the issue of their dates. In the meantime Ethiopia, rather than Persia or southern Africa, has become the most likely place of origin of the water pipe, which may have spread during medieval times on routes similar to those used by coffee, another Ethiopian innovation.


African Smoking and Pipes

Author: John Edward Philips

Source: The Journal of African History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1983)

Image source: Cannabis and Tobacco in Precolonial and Colonial Africa