Ancient Grave Discovery Shows First Humans To Get High On Cannabis

One of the braziers as it was found in a gravesite

One of the braziers as it was found in a gravesite

A team of global researchers analyzed chemical residue found in wooden incense burners recovered from 2,500-year-old tombs in China's eastern Pamir mountain range and concluded that people were selecting plants with higher levels of THC - the most potent psychoactive component in cannabis - and burning them as part of mourning rituals. As New Scientist's Michael Le Page reports, the plant-grown for its seeds, which can be eaten or crushed for oil, and fibers, which can be used to make rope and clothing-first emerged in eastern Asia around 3,500 years ago.

Compared to cultivated varieties, wild cannabis plants contain lower levels of THC, one of the psychoactive compounds in cannabis.

An global team of researchers analyzed the interiors and contents of 10 wooden bowls excavated from burials at Jirzankal Cemetery, a site on the Pamir Plateau in what is now far-western China. Scientists believe heated stones were used to burn the marijuana and people then inhaled the smoke as part of a burial ritual.

The team extracted organic material from 10 wooden fragments and four burned stones and analyzed the objects using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, which separates chemicals so they can be more easily identified.

To their surprise, the chemical signature was an exact match to cannabis. Other evidence for cannabis use has shown up at burial grounds further north in China and in the Altai mountains of Russian Federation.

"This kind of evidence is rare due to there being few opportunities for long-term preservation of the remains of activities involving drug use-which is very ephemeral, and doesn't necessarily leave a lot in the way of physical evidence", coauthor Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History tells Newsweek. "These results suggest that the cannabis burned by those using the Jirzankal Cemetery might have been physiologically altered through hybridization (domestication) or a poorly understood expression of genetic plasticity in the plants".

Cannabis has been cultivated as a crop for millennia, but there's been little historical or archeological evidence showing when humans began to use the plant for what it's best known for today: getting high. The researchers behind this current study, published in Science Advances Wednesday, say their findings provide some of the most direct and earliest evidence for a sort of ritualistic pot smoking.

Cannabis has always been cultivated as a crop, but its early history remains unclear. Additionally, stable isotope studies on the human bones from the cemetery show that not all of the people buried there grew up locally. Indeed, the Pamir region, today so remote, may once have sat astride a key ancient trade route of the early Silk Road. But it's possible that the site and cannabis was used for a variety of non-sacrificial funeral rituals, too.

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.

The evidence suggests that people were burning cannabis at rituals to commemorate the dead.

"During funeral rites, the smokers may have hoped to communicate with the spirit world - or with the people they were burying", said study co-author Yimin Yang of the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. It seems that the early Chinese buried their kin in tombs over which they created circular mounds, stone rings and striped patterns using black and white stones. This study further highlights the importance of residue analyses, which could open a unique window onto details of cultural communication in the past that other archaeological methods cannot offer.

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