Cannabis used 2,500 years ago in China.

Researchers uncover the earliest known evidence of cannabis use, from tombs in western China.

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Cannabis used 2,500 years ago in China.  Cannabis has been cultivated for oil and fiber seed for millennia in East Asia. However, little is known about the origins of the use of this plant for its psychoactive and medicinal properties.

Cannabis used 2,500 years ago in China

A study published by German scientists in the latest issue of Science Advances reveals that cannabis was in use about 2.5 thousand years ago.

Cannabis used 2,500 years ago.

The researchers found psychoactive traces of cannabis preserved in funerary incense burners in the region of Jirzankal Cemetery, eastern Pamir, China.

They point out that the findings show that the group that lived in the place possibly selected for cannabis plants with higher levels of THC – the principle responsible for the hallucinogenic effects – and burned them as part of the mortuary rituals, as a kind of aid in the acceptance of death.

Evidence of cannabis use.

The research came as a result of testing some waste found in a cemetery in the remote Pamir mountains. “We then partnered with the group to investigate these findings in detail using state-of-the-art chemical methods,” says Nicole Boivin, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany, and one of the authors of the study.

The burners were recovered from 2,500-year-old tombs. Brown’s team used a method called gas mass spectrometry chromatography to isolate and identify compounds preserved in utensils.

To the surprise of the group, the chemical signature of the isolated compounds corresponded exactly to the chemical signature of cannabis. In addition, it indicated a higher level of THC than would normally be found in wild cannabis plants.

The findings tie in with earlier evidence of the plant’s presence in northern burials in the Xinjiang region of China and the Altai Mountains in Russia.

“Our data support the idea that cannabis plants were first used for their psychoactive compounds in the mountainous regions of eastern Central Asia, spreading to other regions of the world,” says Brown. “Our research shows that as early as the first millennium BC, higher varieties of THC were being used by people.”

The researchers also pointed out that skeletons recovered at the site, situated in western modern China, have characteristics that resemble those of the more contemporary western peoples of Central Asia.

Objects found in the tombs also seem to link this population to peoples more to the west. In addition, stable isotope studies on the human bones of the cemetery show that not all people buried there have grown in the region.

For scientists, these data fit the notion that the high-altitude mountains of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in the early trans-Asian exchanges. “Indeed, the region of Pamir, so remote today, may have settled on an important and old trade route of the ancient silk route, which was at times the single most important vector for cultural dissemination in the ancient world”, notes the scientist.

“Our study implies that the consumption of cannabis was among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes,” says Robert Spengler, archaeobotany of the German Institute and also the author of the study.


For German scientists, it is still unclear whether people buried in Jirzankal actively cultivated cannabis or simply searched for THC-producing plants. Although modern cannabis is primarily used for recreational or medical purposes, it may have had different uses in the past. The evidence found in this cemetery suggests that ancient peoples burned the herb in mortuary rituals, for example.

The bodies were buried in tombs on which circular mounds, with rings of stone and striped patterns, were made using black and white rocks. “We see evidence of this use in more ritualized contexts. It is difficult to say exactly why cannabis was used in funerary rituals, but it may have helped people to ponder or understand death or to perform certain shamanic transformations, for example, “she says.

Yimin Yang, a researcher at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, draws attention to possible developments in German research. “This study of the ancient use of marijuana helps us understand early human cultural practices and talks about the intuitive human consciousness of natural plant phytochemicals. Such analyzes open a unique window to understand details about the exploration of ancient plants and cultural communication of that time, “he said in a statement.

The author of the study says that her research group intends to further refine the methods of analysis so that it is possible to track the development and spread of drug and stimulant use in the past.

“We want to understand how drugs have spread along the old trade routes and how they have transformed the societies that came into contact with them,” he says. “It includes everything from cannabis and opium to daily stimulants such as tea, coffee, and nicotine.”

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously across cultures, but of course the plant has a long history of human, medicinal, ritual and recreational use over countless millennia,” adds Spengler.

“She (cannabis) may have helped people to ponder or understand death or to perform certain shamanic transformations,” Stated Nicole Boivin, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and one of the authors of the study.

“This is interesting research, and now it is part of a group of many studies that try to understand the relationship of humans to cannabis, seen as something of prehistoric origin by most of the research already done.

origin of human agriculture and data also from China itself, from older colonies, have already revealed the cultivation of this plant in the past, but we still did not know about the use as a psychoactive substance.

We knew of its use as fiber in the construction of archery, networks, and to reinforce ceramic utensils, for example.

The news that Cannabis was used 2,500 years ago in China reinforces an old suspicion of the emergence of cannabis along with shamanism, which is related to the emergence of medicine in history.

Thus, this psychoactive power may have been explored in the appearance of interferences in health, “Renato Malcher Lopes, professor of physiological sciences at the University of Brasília (UnB).

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