The origins of cannabis smoking have suggested that the first smoke seshes occurred in China more than a couple thousand years ago, and according to recent findings, there's new evidence to suggest the first tokers were indeed of ancient Chinese origin.
The study, conducted by an international team of researchers and published June 12, 2019, in the journal Science Advances, found cannabis residue in a 2,500-year-old cemetery in Central Asia, some 3,000 meters, or more than 9,800 feet above sea level in the remote Pamir Mountains.
Talk about being high.
The team uncovered 10 wooden braziers in the ancient Jirzankal cemetery, located on the Pamir Plateau, or what is now considered far-west China. Upon further inspection, the scientists found residue on the dated incense burners and the charred stones encompassed in them. After analyzing the remnants using a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, archaeologists discovered that nine of the ten braziers contained residue with biomarkers of cannabis. The lone exception was one severely scorched brazier.
It was determined that the residue, at one time, contained high-levels of THC — much higher than that of the typical wild cannabis flower during that time period. The key indicator was the high levels of cannabinol in the residue, the result of oxidized THC.
“The cannabinoids detected on the wooden braziers are mainly CBN [cannabinol], indicating that the burned cannabis plants expressed higher THC levels than typically found in wild plants,” the study noted.
With lower levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and high levels of CBN, the scientists hypothesized that the potent cannabis might have been the product of selective breeding. It was also noted that the plants didn't appear to contain seeds, leading researchers to believe they had been removed, perhaps for fertilization purposes.
“People may have been cultivating cannabis and possibly actively selecting for stronger specimens,” the report read.
Another potential reason, according to the study, is that traders along the Silk Road may have taken an alternative route through the Pamirs, due to fear of taxation and military intervention by the Han government. In the process, travelers may have unknowingly caused the hybridization of the plants they carried.
“The dispersal of cannabis across the mountain barriers may have played a role in driving the higher THC levels of these specific varieties, with the hybridization of disparate and genetically isolated populations resulting in higher chemical-producing offspring,” the researchers postulated.
While it was determined the cannabis was smoked for its intoxicating effects, to claim it was used for “recreational” purposes, is a bit of a stretch. Instead, the researchers believe the plant might have been used spiritually or ritualistically — potentially as a way to communicate with nature or the dead. Along with the cannabis remnants, archaeologists uncovered traces of fine silk, wooden plates and bowls, glass beads, and a Chinese harp — an instrument typically featured in funerals or ancient sacrificial ceremonies.
“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the authors concluded in the study.
Additionally, the findings corroborate with a noteworthy historical text that has long implied ceremonial psychoactive cannabis use — Herodotus's “Histories.” In the fifth century literature, Herodotus described how ancient folk of the Caspian Steppe region would sit in small tents and burn cannabis plant with hot stones after funerals. According to the ancient text, they would “throw the seed … upon the red-hot stones” and “shout for joy” at the end of the ceremony.
China has, in a sense, kept up its long-standing cannabis tradition, although not in the same way as ancient Chinese ancestors. While smoking marijuana in the People's Republic of China is currently illegal, the country produces nearly 50 percent of the world's supply of cannabis, according to Forbes contributor Andre Bourque, due to a centuries-long affinity for hemp. It's also, allegedly, looking to position itself in the burgeoning CBD industry, according to business news site Benzinga.
Feature image by James Coleman/Unsplash