Humans have been using cannabis, one of the most widely used psychoactive drugs in the world today, for over thousands of years to get high. Research has indicated that marijuana plants were cultivated in East Asia for their oily seeds and fibre from as early as 4000 BC.

Early cultivated varieties of cannabis, as well as wild populations, have low levels of cannabinoid compounds with psychoactive properties. This had made it impossible for other researchers to determine when humans first started cultivating these plants for their mind-altering properties.

But a new study has detected psychoactive compounds preserved in 2,500-year-old funerary incense burners from the Jirzankal Cemetery in the eastern Pamirs. Through this finding, researchers were able to establish that plants with higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) were burned as part of the funeral rituals. The researchers identified ‘cannabis’ when they carried out investigations to identify the function of the ancient wooden burners. Archaeologists had excavated the wooden burners in the high mountainous regions of eastern China. Science Daily said the burners were recovered from 2,500-year old tombs in the Pamir mountain range.

“The research team used a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to isolate and identify compounds preserved in the burners. The chemical signature of the isolated compounds was an exact match to the chemical signature of cannabis.”

The report says that the latest findings corroborate other early evidence for cannabis from burials further north, in the Xinjiang region of China and in the Altai Mountains of Russia.

“The findings support the idea that cannabis plants were first used for their psychoactive compounds in the mountainous regions of eastern Central Asia; thereafter spreading to other regions of the world,” said Nicole Boivun, director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “The cannabis was burned on hot stones inside wooden braziers, containers of hot coals.” She explained that this is the only way that cannabis could have been smoked prior to the arrival of pipe technology.

Boivun said finding evidence for ancient drug use is 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.”

Cannabis Leaves
Moto Perpetuo Farm owner, Dave Hoyle, says he feed the pigs marijuana byproduct. These are what’s left behind after the parts that can be used for processing have been harvested. 7raysmarketing / Pixabay

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.