National Geographic reveals the oldest yet archaeological proof of cannabis use

Published Jun 29, 2019 12:36 p.m. ET
iStock / Sam Burt

Marijuana can be used for both medical and recreational purposes. It has many health benefits. But do we know the origin of marijuana? According to a recent research paper published in Science Advances, the earliest evidence of cannabis use dates back to over two thousand years in Central Asia. There are also other sites discovered, but it was not clear whether the plant was used for psychoactive effects or just religious ceremonies. Recent cannabis research shows that strains such as cannabis sativa were used in Central Eurasia. Also, recent photographs of macro remain indicate that cannabis was used for medical purposes as well in ancient times. In Western China, marijuana was smoked for ritualistic and religious reasons.

There is always a need for more cannabis research because archaeologists do not know everything yet. Residues from archaeological artifacts from Pamir Mountain were investigated. The investigations revealed that there was a practice of ancient cannabis burning with high psychoactive chemicals. This shows that ancient people were cultivating cannabis and probably specializing in plants with high THC properties. Cannabis was grown as an oil seed crop in China. Some of the plants were also evidently burned in wooden braziers for ceremonies at Jirzankal Cemetery. Archaeologists exhumed eight tombs at Jirzankal Cemetery and found ten wooden braziers with burning traces. CBN is the main cannabinoid found on the wooden braziers. This CBN may be a result of decomposed and oxidizes state of THC caused by the elements such as air and light. Therefore, the ancient people may have cultivated the marijuana plants for their high levels of THC. Remember that THC has a psychoactive effect. Could it be that the ancient people were aware that the certain type of crop they grew could get them high? They may not have known all the properties of the plants they cultivated, but they sure knew the effect of the plant.

Additionally, cannabis plants were also discovered at other sites such as the Jiayi Cemetery, but unlike evidence from Jirzankal Cemetery, Jiayi plant did not contain THC. Cannabis researchers still do not know the origin of the cannabis found at Jirzankal Cemetery.

Do you know how to smoke marijuana?

Nowadays, many people consume marijuana by smoking it using pipes and bongs or just simply burning a joint. Well, in ancient times, smoking marijuana included inhaling the smoke by burning the dried plant for ritual and medical purposes. There has been no discovery of pipes and other tools in Central Asia before contact with the New World. However, there is a recollection of marijuana being inhaled after being burned by the fifteen century BC, historian Herodotus. Herodotus, in his Histories, vividly described a nomadic tribe, the Scythians use of cannabis as a form of purification after burying their dead members of the tribe.  There are many other ancient people who may have smoked cannabis at burial sites as a ceremonial ritual.

Finally, there is a lot of discovered through cannabis research, and there is still more to be discovered. Smoking marijuana is not new; it has been dated back to ancient days by archaeologists.

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