“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.
Burned cannabis seeds have also been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.
From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for ages, and a new report presents the drug’s colorful history.
Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia, according to Warf. The history of cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, according to information in the book “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980).
“The idea that this is an evil drug is a very recent construction,” and the fact that it is illegal is a “historical anomaly,” Warf said. Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.
India has many long-standing traditions that involve the consumption of cannabis in a drink called “bhang,” a tea mixed with milk. There is documentation of people in India having smoked resin and yogis smoking cannabis mixed with tobacco to increase the effectiveness of meditation. In Sanskrit Vedic poetry cannabis is repeatedly described as an herb that relieves anxiety. Since at least 1400 BC cannabis has been considered sacred to the Hindu culture.
You smell it, smoke it, and cook with it. But where did cannabis come from and how did this miraculous plant migrate across the globe and leave such a psychedelic presence? Cannabis history has traveled a long and diverse road around the world.
Cannabis seeds were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, the city frozen by volcanic ash in 79 AD. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
How long has marijuana been around?
The history of marijuana closely follows migration patterns, conquests, and trade routes and has experienced varying degrees of acceptance and use throughout history. The plant originated in Central Asia and spread quickly throughout the world.
The first case of cannabis consumption is attributed to the Chinese herbalist, Emperor Shen Nung. Around 2700 BC he categorized more than 365 medicinal herbs, many of which are still used in Eastern medicine today. His documents on cannabis show the plant as a remedy for rheumatism, malaria, gout, and more. Around 2000 BC cannabis emerged in Korea and Japan by way of China.
Cannabis played a large role in the Greco-Roman cultures as a source of both fiber and as an intoxicant. Cannabis seeds were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, the city frozen by volcanic ash in 79 AD. Greek rhetorician Athenaeus made note of hemp being used to make rope between 170 and 230 AD, and Roman writer Lucilius cites hemp as a source of sails and canvas.
The Scythians are also believed to have been responsible for cannabis’ introduction to Russia and Ukraine during various occupations. As early as 3000 BC the plant spread to Eastern Europe. Burned cannabis seeds have been discovered in archaeological sites from Finland to Bulgaria, and hemp seeds can be found in traditional Lithuanian and Polish recipes.
While the researchers are unable to determine the actual origin of the cannabis used in the Jirzankal burials, they suggest that Jirzankal’s elevation some 10,000 feet on the Pamir Plateau may have put people in close proximity to wild strains with higher THC content—or that the cemetery could have been sited at that elevation for ease of access to desirable strains.
Traces of potent pot were identified in 2,500-year-old wooden artifacts buried with people who lived along the Silk Road in China.
Robert Spengler, director of paleoethnobotany laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and study co-author, says that the constant stream of people moving across the Pamir Plateau—an important crossroads connecting Central Asia and China with southwest Asia—could have resulted in the hybridization of local cannabis strains with those from other areas. While hybridization is another factor known to increase psychoactive cannabis strains’ THC potency, the question of whether it was intentional, or just by happy accident, is also still unclear.
While cannabis plants and seeds have been identified at other archaeological sites from the same general region and time period—including a cannabis ‘burial shroud’ discovered in 2016—it’s been unclear in each context whether the versatile plant was used for psychoactive reasons or for other ritual purposes.
They saw that the Jirzankal cannabis had something the Jiayi hemp did not: Molecular remnants of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—the chemical responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects. The strain of cannabis found at Jiayi does not contain THC, and would have been primarily been used as a source of fiber for clothing and rope, as well as nutrient-rich oilseed.
According to Spengler, this new study demonstrates that already 2,500 years ago, humans were potentially targeting specific plants for their chemical production.
Cannabis is known for its “plasticity,” or ability for new generations of plants to express different characteristics from earlier generations depending on exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight, temperature, and altitude. Wild strains of cannabis growing at higher altitudes, for instance, can have a higher THC content.