Cannabis smoking emerged around 500 BCE

Organic material extracted from fragments of ancient wooden burners and stones excavated from a 2500-year-old western Chinese cemetery has produced some of the earliest evidence of ritual cannabis smoking.

In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, researchers led by Meng Ren from the Chinese academy for Sciences in Beijing detail gas chromatography–mass spectrometry results of tests conducted on the artefacts, unearthed from the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Mountains – an area that links the populations of China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and the broader Eurasian region.

The finds date to about 500 BCE and, the researchers report, did not contain any evidence of incinerated material beyond clear traces of burning. “Their immediate use was not clear,” they write. 

Chemical analysis revealed clear evidence of burnt cannabis – and cannabis containing high levels of psychoactive compounds, at that. Ren and colleagues suggest that this evidence indicates that people at the time were actively growing strong marijuana, deliberately selecting for more psychoactive strains. The alternative, they add, is that high psychoactive cultivars may have been the accidental result of hybridisation between wild and domesticated subspecies.

Either way, it appears clear that burning psychoactive cannabis – by means of placing hot stones inside wooden braziers containing parts of the plant – was a deliberate and ritual element of funerary practice at the cemetery.

Pinpointing the earliest use of cultivated cannabis in human history is a subject of fevered debate, with multiple claims being made for various locations across the wild plant’s central Asian natural range.

Many of these, the researchers recount, have been subsequently discounted. However, they argue, the discovery of the braziers, in combination with other recent finds, suggests that western China may well have been the first region in which people actively sought psychotropic cannabis.

“While most of the claims of archaeological cannabis in Central Asia are spurious, as mentioned above, new discoveries of ritual cannabis use in western China are well documented and scientifically studied,” they write. 

“The recent discovery of a cannabis burial shroud, comprising 13 desiccated plants, from the Jiayi Cemetery (ca. 800–400 BCE) in Turpan provides evidence for the ritualistic use of cannabis in prehistoric western China.”

Given the global, cultural significance of cannabis use, especially in modern history, tracking down its first intentional use by humans is a historically significant quest.

The primary counter-claim to western China as the birthplace of the practice has its roots in The Histories, a compendious narrative written around 440 BCE by the Greek Herodotus. 

In it, the author details how the Scythians – a powerful tribe of nomadic warriors that roamed the steppes of central Asia between 900 and 3200 BCE – used to throw cannabis into hot bowls and then hunker down under horse hides and inhale the smoke.

There is some archaeological evidence to support Herodotus’s contention (bearing in mind that many of his chapters are clearly owe more to legend than observation). Ren and colleagues note the discovery in the Altai Mountains in Russia of ancient copper containers that carried evidence of burnt wild hemp seeds. 

These, too, however, were associated with human burials – in contrast to Herodotus’s account, which depicts the use of cannabis as a sort of cleansing celebration.

“The smoking revealed both in the Pamirs in the present study and in the Altai Mountains was obviously performed during the burial and may represent a different kind of ritual, perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” they note.

There is also considerable evidence for the early use of cannabis in areas of eastern Asia – however, this appears linked to oil or fibre production, with no clear psychotropic element.

The chemical analysis of the Pamir braziers, on the other hand, strongly suggests that making hemp rope was a long way from the locals’ minds.

“Ultimately, this study illustrates that the earliest targeted use of cannabis with higher levels of THC originated in western China or the broader Central Asia region,” the researchers conclude.

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