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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Society That Smoked Weed to Get High 2,500 Years Ago

Archaeologists Discover 2,500 Year-Old THC
Photo by Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now

In History

Archaeologists Discover Ancient Society That Smoked Weed to Get High 2,500 Years Ago

It turns out that people have been enjoying cannabis’s psychoactive effects for thousands of years.

Cannabis advocates like to argue that weed has been used in society for thousands of years. But there has always been some level of contention about just how far back cannabis consumption actually goes.

Some swear tokers have been indulging for 4,000 years or so, while others believe the plant was a gift brought to Earth by one Jerry Garcia and popularized back in the 1960s. But it turns out that the earliest known use was actually around 2,500 years ago, according to a paper published this week in the journal Science Advances.

A research team consisting of archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing discovered significant traces of THC at the Jirzankal Cemetery, an ancient burial ground located in the darkest regions of the Pamir mountains in western China. Although cannabis remnants have been found before, the latest find is the only one to this day where THC, the stoner component of marijuana, was part of the uncovering. None of the others showed signs of ancient societies using the plant to get high.

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,” Robert Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, told the New York Times.

It appears this particular Chinese community was partial to smoking the herb with a bowl. Not exactly the same kind that many of us are used to seeing being whipped out at 420 — these were wooden receptacles containing small stones that were apparently exposed to high heat. Although some of these artifacts were used for incense and other herbs, the residue found on 10 of the 17 bowls tested positive for THC.

So, this tribe was most likely hotboxing cannabis and inhaling the smoke as it filled the tombs. Researchers believe they were likely using cannabis to summon the dead, just as Greek historian Herodotus described in the Scythian mourner’s rite.

The Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud.

Interestingly, the weed the Chinese tribe used in its rituals was apparently relatively decent bud. Researchers said that wild strains of cannabis grown in higher altitudes pack a much stronger THC potency than those growing in lower elevations. They do not know whether these potent strains were produced intentionally or if they occurred naturally. But it appears that this ancient society was serious about producing herb solely for the effect.

“The findings support the idea that cannabis plants were first used for their psychoactive compounds in the mountainous regions of eastern central Asia, thereafter, spreading to other regions of the world,” co-author Nicole Boivin told USA Today.

Researchers believe that the spot where they found the artifacts were located relatively close to the Silk Road, which was crucial in ancient times when it came to global distribution. There is speculation that this is how the cannabis plant found hybridization and made its way to other parts of the world. “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,” Spengler said.

“Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes,” he added.

Dr. Mark Merlin, another researcher involved with the study, told the New York Times that other burial sites from around the same time containing marijuana show just how much cannabis was revered as a “plant of the gods.”

There is no denying that marijuana has been around for a while, but it appears to have taken a minute to catch on. Research published last month in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany indicates that the cannabis plant originated in Tibet around 28 million years ago. Although it was eventually used for fiber and food, people soon figured out that the plant could also be ingested for a variety of therapeutic reasons.

These days, it is still mostly illegal all around the globe.  

TELL US, are you surprised that cannabis was used for its psychoactive properties 2,500 years ago?

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