Many of us living in the parts of the world where marijuana has recently been legalized may regard ourselves as partaking of a highly modern pleasure. And given the ever-increasing sophistication of the growing and processing techniques that underlie what has become a formidable cannabis industry, perhaps, on some level, we are. But as intellectually avid enthusiasts of psychoactive substances won’t hesitate to tell you, their use stretches farther back in time than history itself. “For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs,” writes Science’s Andrew Lawler. But was anyone using them in the predecessors to western civilization as we know it today?
For quite some time, scholars believed that unlike, say, Mesoamerica or north Africa, “the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free.” But now, “new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances.”
The latest evidence suggests that, already three millennia ago, “drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.” That these habits seem to have continued in ancient Greece and Rome is suggested by archaeological evidence summarized in the video above.
In 2019, archaeologists unearthed a few precious artifacts from a fourth-century Scythian burial mound near Stavropol in Russia. There were “golden armbands, golden cups, a heavy gold ring, and the greatest treasure of all, two spectacular golden vessels,” says narrator Garrett Ryan, who earned a PhD in Greek and Roman History from the University of Michigan. The interiors of those last “were coated with a sticky black residue,” confirmed in the lab to be opium with traces of marijuana. “The Scythians, in other words, got high” — as did “their Greek and Roman neighbors.” Ryan, author of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, goes on to make intriguing connections between scattered but relevant pieces of archaeological and textual evidence. We know that some of our civilizational forebears got high; how many, and how high, are questions for future scholastic inquiry.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.