It appears people have been smoking weed for more than two millennia, since cannabis smoking began in China at least 2,500 years ago, according to a research.
We know humans have been using cannabis for various purposes for thousands of years, but its history as a drug has been a little harder to pin down. Now have a new point of reference: Around 2,500 years ago, the people of Central Asia were smoking psychoactive cannabis at funerals.
Specifically, archaeologists have found traces of cannabinol, an oxidative metabolite of tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) in incense burners recovered from the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau.
They found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.
The burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis. “To our excitement, we identified the biomarkers of [cannabis],” study co-researcher Yimin Yang, a professor in the department of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, told reporters at a news conference.
Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.
The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.
This marijuana was potent
Marijuana is one of the most widely used psychoactive drugs in the world today, but the legacy of its use and cultivation spans millennia. The earliest known cultivation of cannabis plants occurred in Eurasia roughly 6,000 years ago, but it was used as a food crop and for hemp material — not smoked for psychoactive effects.
Previous evidence of ancient cannabis smoking came mostly from historical anecdotes, not archaeological evidence. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about ritual and recreational pot use around the same time that these braziers were buried in distant China.
Scientists also found cannabis seeds in a different 2,500-year-old Chinese tomb in 2006, but there was no evidence of smoking.
Most wild cannabis, as well as early cultivated varieties of the plant, contain low levels of psychoactive compounds. So where did this high-THC variety come from?
The researchers have two main ideas. Perhaps a wild variety of pot with high psychoactive levels arose naturally, and then humans found and cultivated it.
“I agree that humans are always going to be looking for wild plants that can have effects on the human body, especially psychoactive effects,” study co-researcher Robert Spengler, the laboratory director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, told reporters.
These tombs had evidence of human sacrifice
In the Jirzankal Cemetery, the archaeologists also found skulls and other bones with signs of fatal cuts and breaks, which they interpreted as signs of human sacrifice. They found a harp as well — an important musical instrument in ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies.
These clues from the past indicate that the burials had a ritual quality to them, and that smoking marijuana played a role in commemorating the dead.
The excavation of the tomb M12, in which evidence of the oldest ritual smoking of cannabis was found. In the photo, the cannabis brazier can be seen at the middle bottom edge of the central circle. Xinhua Wu
“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the study authors wrote.
Merlin told The Atlantic that this discovery does not suggest ancient Chinese people were into recreational drug use. Instead, he said, it was likely a spiritual practice — part of ushering the dead into the afterlife and helping the living commune with deities or the deceased.