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There’s no more popular recreational drug than cannabis. Over 150 million people smoke it on a regular basis. When and where folk first appreciated the plant’s psychoactive properties has been a matter more of speculation than science – until now.

The Tibetan Plateau, where cannabis first appeared 28 million years ago. Photo: DaiLuo

The Tibetan Plateau, where cannabis first appeared 28 million years ago. Photo: DaiLuo

Initially, it was unclear whether cannabis saw use for psychoactive reasons or some other ritual purpose. But a team headed by Yang Yimin and Ren Meng, archaeologists at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, has uncovered undeniable physical evidence of mourners burning cannabis to produce intoxicating fumes some 2,500 years back on a remote mountain plateau in Central Asia.

New techniques

The team’s study, which appeared in the journal Science Advances in July 2019, depended on new-fangled techniques that allowed researchers to identify the chemical signature of a plant, including its potency.

Cannabis first evolved 28 million years ago

In May 2019, a study of pollen showed that cannabis first evolved around 28 million years ago on the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Closely related to the common hop that occurs in beer, cannabis still grows wild throughout Central Asia. One academic located there spoke of how he and colleagues had both eaten and smoked cannabis that grew wild but failed to get high. Over 4,000 years ago, Chinese farmers certainly grew cannabis for oil and fibre to make clothing, paper and rope.

So when was it that people first smoked cannabis to get high?

Working out just when people first smoked cannabis because of its psychoactive properties has been difficult. Archaeologists claimed that burning of cannabis was part of rituals in Central Asia as much as 5,000 years back. Other teams analysed those plant remains, however, and found these strains of cannabis were low in tetrahydrocannabinol – THC, the stuff that gets you high.

That was not the case with the cannabis burnt 2,500 years ago at the Jirzankal cemetery. This is almost 10,000 feet up in far western China’a Pamir Mountains. Carbon dating proved the burials took place around 500 BCE. Excavations there discovered bowls, Chinese harps commonly used in funerals or sacrificial ceremonies, skeletons and wooden plates in addition to wooden braziers that contained burning material. All were common amongst the Sogdians. Living in the west of China and also Tajikstan, they mostly adhered to the Persian religion Zoroastrianism. This religion’s sacred texts later discussed cannabis’s mind-expanding properties.

Wooden braziers turned up more often in elite tombs. The Chinese team ground bits of brazier down into powder. They then used gas chromatography to discern the chemicals left behind. They found levels of THC that were higher than those in typical wild cannabis and those from the time occurring anywhere else but considerably less than in the highly bred plants of today. It appears that burning of cannabis took place in an enclosed space. This would have presented mourners with THC-laced fumes they could inhale: they smoked cannabis. Per the study, funerary rites included “flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke” which had the intention of altering people’s state of mind. This is the earliest incontrovertible evidence of people using cannabis for psychoactive purposes.

The high altitude of the region would have produced cannabis high in THC, commented co-author Robert Spengler. He added that the cemetery was perhaps established there specifically because wild strains of cannabis higher in THC grew there, but people might also have intervened to make the cannabis more potent. Tengwen Long, an assistant professor of geographical sciences at Nottingham University who has taken an academic interest in the origins of cannabis, described the Chinese team’s methods as “convincing” and stated that they they generated “unambiguous” data that people smoked cannabis for psychoactive purposes. But Megan Cifarelli, an art historian at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, who has looked into ancient drug use, countered that the fumes might have served to conceal the stench of a decaying corpse.

Yang and Ren’s team believes only elites used cannabis until potent cannabis began to spread across Central Asia over the Silk Road that linked China to Iran. Mark Merlin, who is a professor of botany at the University of Hawai’i and knowledgeable of the history of cannabis, called their work “a real indication” of the length of time that humans have been manipulating cannabis. In 440 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the nomadic Scythians, who once controlled huge areas from Siberia to Eastern Europe, heated rocks to produce cannabis vapour that caused them to “howl in their joy”. In 2013, Andrei Belinski, an archaeologist at a heritage museum in Stavropol in Russia, excavated a Scythian tomb that contained gold vessels covered with residues of not only cannabis but also opium. These supported the idea that it was elites who first used the drug.

According to Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, there are hints of even earlier usage of cannabis in ancient artwork and texts from Syria to China. New analytical methods might yield concrete evidence that people smoked cannabis even sooner.

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