China: Scientists unearth earliest signs of cannabis smoking

The brazier and burnt stones

Now archaeologists have unearthed the earliest evidence of people smoking cannabis in a 2,500-year-old graveyard in China.

Archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences were excavating in the high mountainous regions of eastern China when they discovered the incense burners at a cemetery called Jirzankal, where people buried loved ones in tombs covered with circular mounds, stone rings and striped patterns using black and white stones. But most cannabis back then, including the kind you'd find in the wild, was low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient we associate with being stoned.

Co-author Professor Nicole Boivin, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, said: 'The findings support the idea 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'. (The site is located some 10,000 fet above sea level on the Pamir Plateau, and cannabis grown at higher altitudes is known to have a higher THC content.) Alternatively, the group may have chosen the cemetery site specifically for its ease of access to the plant.

The global team, led by Meng Reng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, excavated 10 wooden pots, or braziers, containing burnt stones from tombs at the Jirzankal Cemetery.

The high THC levels and burning of cannabis in a ritual context fit with the description of the use of a drug thought to be Cannabis sativa in a text written by the fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus, she added. Previous digs uncovered plant fossils and seeds in the same region from the same time period, but physical evidence of smoking up in ancient cultures has been limited until now, with little known about how and when the cannabis plant evolved to produce its psychoactive qualities.

The researchers used a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify organic material preserved in the braziers, detecting marijuana's chemical signature.

Much to their surprise, these extracts provided an exact match for cannabis' chemical structure. Other evidence for cannabis use has shown up at burial grounds further north in China and in the Altai mountains of Russian Federation. Most archaeological reports of ancient drug remains were published several decades ago, and some were later refuted as misleading, the study notes.

A 2006 study revealed the presence of cannabis seeds in a separate Chinese tomb but offered no indication that the plant had been burned or smoked.

The cemetery plight is situated terminate to the veteran Silk Avenue, indicating that the historical trade route linking China and the Center East will possess facilitated the unfold of marijuana utilize as a drug. But it's possible that the site and cannabis was used for a variety of non-sacrificial funeral rituals, too.

The evidence from Jirzankal suggests cannabis was being burned at rituals commemorating the dead. Still, he points out that the research expands the range of sites linked with early cannabis use.

However, it was unlikely that cannabis was smoked in the same way it is today. Yimin Yang, researcher at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing observes, "This study of ancient cannabis use helps us understand early human cultural practices, and speaks to the intuitive human awareness of natural phytochemicals in plants".

Researchers didn't set out to study early cannabis use.

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