Smoking cannabis began in China at least 2,500 years ago

The brazier and burnt stones

The brazier and burnt stones

Wooden braziers and a skeleton found in the tomb M12 as they were exposed in the excavations at an archaeological site in western China that provided evidence for the burning of cannabis at a cemetery locale roughly 2,500 years ago, is shown in this image from the Pamir Mountains in Xinjiang region, released from Beijing, China, on June 12, 2019.

The team took ten wooden fragments and four burnt stones from burners recovered from the burial site, and analyzed them using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Given the lack of other cannabis breakdown products, the scientists believe the plants were selected to be high in THC, but whether they were cultivated or found in the wild is unclear.

Cannabis plants used to grow freely in and around Asia.

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.

The worldwide team thinks the people here were deliberately breeding plants with higher levels of THC and burning them as part of funerary rituals. But spectral analysis of chemicals on the burners matched the signature of cannabis. Other evidence for cannabis use has shown up at burial grounds further north in China and in the Altai mountains of Russian Federation.

"I think it should come as no surprise that humans have had a long, intimate history with cannabis, as they have had with all of the plants that eventually became domesticated", Spengler added.

The latest study shows that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions in China.

"Finding evidence for ancient drug use is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, because 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", Boivun said.

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The history of ancient drug use has long intrigued scholars.

Another possible explanation for the Jirzankal cannabis' strength is hybridization resulting from migration across the Pamir Plateau, which connects both Central Asia and China to southwest Asia. The findings, published this week in the journal Science Advances, suggest settlements in Central Asia played an important role in the development of Eurasian trade.

"The exchange routes of the early Silk Road functioned more like the spokes of a wagon wheel than a long-distance road, placing Central Asia at the heart of the ancient world", Robert Spengler, an archaeobotanist from Max Planck, said in a statement.

People sought and later cultivated more psychoactive varieties of cannabis for use in burial rituals.

The ancient cannabis was most likely used during rituals to commemorate the dead at funerals. 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.

However, it was unlikely that cannabis was smoked in the same way it is today. He notes that "biomarker analyses open a unique window onto details of ancient plant exploitation and cultural communication that other archaeological methods can not offer".

Weed tech has gathered serious momentum in Silicon Valley in recent times but historians have been sifting through artifacts related to cannabis for decades.

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