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Cannabis discovered in ancient China

15 June 2019

Now archaeologists have unearthed the earliest evidence of people smoking cannabis in a 2,500-year-old graveyard in China.

To make sure the finding wasn't a lab mistake or something else, they then compared that chemical signature to ancient cannabis previously found at another burial site dated around the same time period, and found a flawless match. The degree of THC discovered at Jirzankal is the most ever found at an ancient site, indicating to experts that these ancient peoples may have been cultivating or hunting for the plant with the intention of smoking it. Research has indicated that marijuana plants were cultivated in East Asia for their oily seeds and fibre from as early as 4000 BC.

Some wild strains of cannabis at high altitudes are known to sometimes produce a higher THC content, leading historians to speculate whether peoples of the Pamir Plateau settled there for its accessibility to the heady plant. 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. Scientists believe heated stones were used to burn the marijuana and people then inhaled the smoke as part of a burial ritual.

Samples collected by the researchers found the chemical signature for CBN (aka cannabinol) inside the braziers, a lesser-known cannabinoid that is often found in old cannabis.

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.

"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", said Robert Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute. "These results suggest that the cannabis burned by those using the Jirzankal Cemetery might have been physiologically altered through hybridization (domestication) or a poorly understood expression of genetic plasticity in the plants".

Boivun said finding evidence for ancient drug use is bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

The trade routes that formed the Silk Road connections between East and West facilitated cultural as well as material exchange between ancient civilizations.

Whether cannabis also had other uses in society is unclear, though it seems likely that the plant's ability to treat a variety of illnesses and symptoms was recognised early on.

People sought and later cultivated more psychoactive varieties of cannabis for use in burial rituals.

"Some of the artifacts are from Central Asia and some from Central China", he said.

Regardless of the type these people had used, evidence suggests that smoking pot had its place in commemorating their dead.

The cemetery, reaching across three terraces at a rocky and arid site up to 10,105 feet (3,080 meters) above sea level, includes black and white stone strips created on the landscape using pebbles, marking the tomb surfaces, and circular mounds with rings of stones underneath. He notes that "biomarker analyses open a unique window onto details of ancient plant exploitation and cultural communication that other archaeological methods can not offer". The timing for the use of a different cannabis subspecies as a drug has been a contentious issue among scientists, but ancient texts and recent archeological discoveries have shed light on the matter.

Cannabis discovered in ancient China