Cast your minds back 2,500 years.
You’re standing in a Central Asian mountain range, it’s a bit cold but the whole world was back then. And in a few years you’ll get to witness the birth of Jesus so, y’know, swings and roundabouts.
So what are you going to do in the meantime? There’s no internet ‘cos Zuckerberg hasn’t been invented yet, and the only thing on TV is David Attenborough standing in your back yard pointing at all the amazing wildlife you live among.
Instead, you get your mates round and smoke some of those interesting looking plants that are lying around, because this is the ancient world and stimulating entertainment is scarce.
Fast forward to the present day, and scientists are stunned when they find evidence of your drug use! Everyone gets caught eventually, it seems.
Though it’s likely it was used in traditional funeral rites, scientists have discovered cannabis residue in incense burners in the Jirzankal Cemetery – a fifth century BCE tomb, located 3,000m above sea level in the Pamir Mountains, Central Asia.
The team of researchers, led by archaeologist Yimin Yang from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, used a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to uncover the secrets of the tomb.
Their research found much higher concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol – also known as THC, the most psychoactive component in cannabis – in the strain of cannabis at the site, compared to the levels of THC in wild counterparts of the plant.
The authors of the study suggested it’s possible people from the area at time collected and used cannabis specifically for its effect on the mind.
As they wrote in Science Advances:
It is possible that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC–producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.
The evidence the archaeologists found is the earliest traces of recreational, or ritualistic, drug use. They noted that ‘mind-altering plants’ have played ‘important role in ritual and/or religious activities in various areas of the world’, as well as having ‘medicinal purposes’.
They also suggested our ancestors from 2,500 years ago may created their own strain of cannabis ‘through hybridization between wild and cultivated subspecies’, which ‘may have inadvertently led to stronger chemical-producing plants through human dispersal and subsequent selection.’
As the researchers said:
Here, we present some of the earliest directly dated and scientifically verified evidence for ritual cannabis smoking. This phytochemical analysis indicates that cannabis plants were burned in wooden braziers during mortuary ceremonies at the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region.
This suggests cannabis was smoked as part of ritual and/or religious activities in western China by at least 2500 years ago and that the cannabis plants produced high levels of psychoactive compounds.
The Origins of Cannabis Smoking: Marijuana Use in the First Millennium BC – new paper in @ScienceAdvances by Robert Spengler & Nicole Boivin of @MPI_SHH & Meng Ren & Yimin Yang of Univ. of Chinese Academy of Sciences & colleagues!
Read more at the link!https://t.co/VTe3pZmCXs pic.twitter.com/c0RHXi4ktr
— MPI-SHH Jena (@MPI_SHH) June 12, 2019
Robert Spengler, co-author of the study and laboratory director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told USA Today:
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.
Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes.
Which means, as well as goods and produce like fruits, nuts and materials, cannabis was also traded throughout Central Asia, because Amazon hadn’t been invented yet either.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.