Smoking cannabis began in China at least 2,500 years ago

Remigio Civitarese
Giugno 15, 2019

Cannabis drug use may have started even earlier in regions from Syria to China, and new analytical techniques like those used in this study may help provide evidence, Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the work tells Science. But most cannabis back then, including the kind you'd find in the wild, was low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient we associate with being stoned.

Cannabis plants were cultivated in East Asia for their oily seeds and fiber from at least 4000 BC.

The elevated THC levels raise the question of whether the people used wild cannabis varieties with naturally high THC levels or plants bred to be more potent. Recently, ten wooden braziers containing stones with obvious burning traces were exhumed from eight tombs at the Jirzankal Cemetery, which dates to approximately 2500 years ago.

The researchers do not have enough evidence to confirm if the plants were gathered from a certain location or where they were grown, but they can say that a lot of people were smoking it. Previous digs uncovered plant fossils and seeds in the same region from the same time period, but physical evidence of smoking up in ancient cultures has been limited until now, with little known about how and when the cannabis plant evolved to produce its psychoactive qualities.

The team extracted organic material from 10 wooden fragments and four burned stones and analyzed the objects using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, which separates chemicals so they can be more easily identified.

This new data, published in the journal Science Advances, corroborates other evidence for cannabis from burials further north-in the Xinjiang region of China and the Altai Mountains of Russian Federation.

In an interview with Wired, co-author and director of the Paleoethnobotany Laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Robert Spengler said, "So it's a plausible argument that there could have been human sacrifice attached to this whole ritual activity". The test revealed surprising results: a clear signature of THC.

"We all know dinky or no about these of us past what has been recovered from this cemetery", Spengler acknowledged, though he eminent that one of the indispensable crucial artifacts reminiscent of glass beads, metal items and ceramics resemble these from farther west in Central Asia, suggesting cultural links. Additionally, stable isotope studies on the human bones from the cemetery show that not all of the people buried there grew up locally. This non-psychedelic cannabis, which we now refer to as hemp, was used for clothing, food, and medicine.

The data fits with the notion that the high mountain passes of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in early trans-Eurasian exchange.

Dr Spengler, the lead archaeobotanist on the study, said: "The exchange routes of the early Silk Road functioned more like the spokes of a wagon wheel than a long-distance road, placing Central Asia at the heart of the ancient world". It is still unclear whether the people buried at Jirzankal actively cultivated cannabis or simply sought out higher THC-producing plants.

The evidence from Jirzankal suggests cannabis was being burned at rituals commemorating the dead.

The history of ancient drug use has long intrigued scholars.

Smoking cannabis in ancient times was very different to today.

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