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The First Cannabis Users

December 4, 2020

There is evidence that cannabis usage goes back as far as 10,000 years ago.  In 2019, archaeologists verified that cannabis was used more than 2,500 years ago in incense burners at burial sites in Central Asia. In this article I will explain the findings of a research study that presents data corroborating the hypothesis that humans smoked cannabis for ritual and/or religious purposes.

Research Study

The study, The Origins of Cannabis Smoking: Chemical Residue Evidence from the First Millennium BCE in the Pamirs, was published in the journal Science Advances on June 12, 2019. Its finding were based on the excavations and analyzes of two ancient burial sites in western China.

Excavations at Jirzankal Cemetery

In 2013, an international team of researchers began excavating the site from the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery, circa 500 BCE, on the Pamir Plateau, in West China. This discovery is being heralded as the earliest conclusive proof of cannabis usage for its psychoactive properties.

The cemetery is located on the west bank of the Tashkurgan River, northeast of Qushiman Village in Tashkurgan Tajik in the region known as Xinjiang. It borders on Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and Pakistan.

They analyzed the interior and the contents of 10 wooden bowls excavated from the burial site. The archaeologists believe the bowls to be braziers which were used for burning incense or other plant material. The bowls contained small stones which had been exposed to intense heat that were intentionally placed on top of the cannabis plants to produce fumes to be inhaled.

They were able to identify traces of cannabinol (CBN) on the interior of the bowls and on some of the stones. No traces of cannabis were found on the exterior of the bowls. CBN is mildly psychoactive and is mostly found in aged cannabis. It is an oxidized metabolite of THC which occurs when THC is exposed to heat and light.

Comparing Samples To Those Found at Jiayi Cemetery

Archaeologists recently discovered a collection of well-preserved cannabis plant remains in a tomb at the Jiayi Cemetery of Turpan, NW China, located 1,000 miles east of Jirzankal Cemetery. The samples have been dated to 790-520 BCE. They found thirteen plants, almost in their entirety, that they believe were produced locally. It appears that they were intentionally arranged as a burial shroud which was placed on a male corpse. This discovery sheds new light on the ritualistic use of the cannabis plant in Central Eurasia in prehistoric times.

The next step was to analyze the Jiayi samples as a chemical reference and compare them to the Jirzankal samples. The analysis of the Jiayi samples showed that CBN, CBD and Cannabicyclol (CBL) were all present. CBL results from the degradation of cannabichromene (CBC).The fact that no THC samples were found suggests that these non-psychotropic strains would have been used to produce fiber for clothing and rope and as oil seed.

In contrast, the samples found at Jirzankal contained the highest levels of psychotropic compounds ever found at any ancient site. It is thought that they were either deliberately cultivated or that wild plants with high potency were selected specifically for their psychoactive effects.

Researchers are unclear on the origin of the cannabis strains used at Jirzankal. However, the fact that the elevation of the burial site on the Pamir Plateau is at about 10,000 feet may account for the presence of wild strains with higher THC content. The other possibility is that the cemetery was situated at that elevation because of its access to such strains.

Dr. Robert Spengler, director of paleoethnobotany laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and study co-author, explained that the constant movement of people across the Pamir Plateau along the Silk Road may have resulted in the combination of local cannabis strains with those from other areas along the route.

Silk Road or Silk Route was an ancient trade route which connected China to the West. It was used not only to carry goods but to foster new religious teachings between Rome and China. Silk was sent to the west, while wool clothing, gold and silver were sent to the east. Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism from India made their way to China.

The discovery at Jirzankal also provides the first direct evidence that humans inhaled combusted cannabis plants in order to obtain its psychoactive effects. Historically, there was no evidence of the use of pipes or other paraphernalia. Instead, the smoking of cannabis was carried out by sitting in a small tent where cannabis plants were burned in a bowl with hot stones, producing fumes which were inhaled.

Identification Techniques

In the very first analysis of one of the bowls, the team was able to identify biomarkers for cannabis in the inside charred layer. They used common identification techniques of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The gas chromatograph vaporizes the sample and separates its various components into a solid phase. The mass spectrometer provides information about the structural identification of each component.

The researchers believe that this study points to Central Asia as the possible source for the use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties.

Dr. Spengler views the results of this study as a great example of the intricate relationship that humans have had with the world around us, especially of our understanding of the use of plants. Our ancient forebearers had a very intuitive and instinctive grasp of the way that the properties of plants affected the human body.

Sources:
sciencealert.com, Earliest Evidence of People “Smoking” Weed Found in 2,500-Year-Old Chinese Pots, Michelle Starr, June 12, 2019
nationalgeographic.com, Earliest Evidence for Cannabis Smoking Discovered in Ancient Tombs, Michelle Z. Donahue, June 12, 2019
advances.sciencemag.org, The Origins of Cannabis Smoking: Chemical Residue Evidence from the First Millennium BCE in the Pamirs, June 12, 2019
britannica.com, Silk Road
thermofisher.com, Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) Information

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