People have grown cannabis for profit or subsistence since at least 4,000 BCE. There is, however, little archaeological evidence of them putting it towards what is today its best-known purpose: getting stoned. Now, however, excavation of tombs in the Jirzankal graveyard dating back 2,500 years has achieved exactly that. This is in western China’s Pamir Mountains, close to the Pakistani border. It was personnel from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who did the digging.

A Scythian horseman. Photo: w:en:User:PHG

A Scythian horseman. Photo: w:en:User:PHG

Chinese and German scientists studied wooden fragments and burnt stones taken from pots discovered in the tombs. Using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, they found a high level of tetrahydrocannabinol. This, THC to its pals, is the leading ingredient of cannabis, which is psychoactive and leads to your getting stoned.

Where to read about it

Details were in a study published by the journal Science Advances on 12 June 2019. The authors posited that people were likely getting stoned during burial rituals. This might have been to speak with the divine or dead people to the accompaniment of music. The smoking was probably not conventional. Rather, the cannabis would have been burnt incense-style in an enclosed space.

How cannabis was taken

One of the report’s co-authors, Nicole Boivin, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History’s director, detailed that the cannabis was burnt on hot stones within wooden braziers. Pipes came later. 10 braziers were found in eight tombs. Other artefacts recovered included glass beads, harps, fragments of silk and wooden plates and bowls. The cuts made to some of the bones found might be indicative of human sacrifice.

Wild-growing cannabis is low in THC. You get more THC in cannabis grown at higher altitudes thanks to heightened UV radiation and other stressors. This would explain how people got hold of it in the Pamirs; they might even have cultivated it. While remote today, it was once on the key trade route of the Silk Road, which was at times the single most important channel for the spreading of culture in the ancient world. Archaeobotanist Jade d’Alpoim Guedes from the China-fixated Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who played no part in the study, explained that horses, wheat and barley arrived in China in this manner in the second millennium BCE. Robert Spengler, the study’s lead archaeobotanist, commented that high-THC varieties of cannabis were one cultural tradition to go the other way. Boivin remarked that “finding evidence for ancient drug use is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack” because drug usage is so ephemeral and might not leave physical evidence.

It was previously believed that people were first getting stoned from cannabis in the Central Asian steppes based purely on one passage from The Histories, created in the fifth century BCE. This was a text by the Greek historian Herodotus where he wrote of the Scythians, nomads who were among the first to master mounted warfare, employing cannabis as a post-burial cleansing rite.

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