Archaeologists Unearth Oldest-Known Evidence of Cannabis Smoking

A groundbreaking research paper published on June 12 in Science Advances and highlighted the same day in National Geographic examined the “earliest directly dated and scientifically verified evidence” of cannabis smoking, which was recently found at a burial site in East Asia. While finding low-potency cannabis plant material and seeds is common in burial sites, this is the strongest evidence yet that early civilizations in fact smoked cannabis for its effects.

Scientists from multiple countries dug at Jirzankal Cemetery, an archaeological site on the Pamir Plateau in far-western China. What they found were wooden bowls filled with stones that were used to burn cannabis. Tiny remnants of potent cannabis residue were found, which was rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), suggesting that they were used as rudimentary pipes. The ancient “pipes” may have worked in a similar manner to modern day hookahs—which utilize hot coals to smoke tobacco, shisha(tobacco and molasses) or cannabis.

Researchers believe that there’s enough evidence to confidently determine that smoking took place. “Here, we present some of the earliest directly dated and scientifically verified evidence for ritual cannabis smoking,” researchers surmised. “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 evidence supports accounts of the Scythians cannabis burial rituals during relatively the same time period. “The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, crawling in under the mats, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smolders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath could surpass it,” Greek historian Herodotus described in The Histories. “The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath.” Ancient Scythia—being geographically close to western China where the new smoking devices were found—could be home to similar rituals.

The new study suggests cannabis smoking was a ritual at least as early as 2,500 years ago. Cannabis smoking was around long before modern drug laws, and will presumably be around long after.

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