Humans First Started Enjoying Cannabis in China Circa 2800 BC

Judg­ing by how cer­tain Amer­i­can cities smell these days, you’d think cannabis was invent­ed last week. But that spike in enthu­si­asm, as well as in pub­lic indul­gence, comes as only a recent chap­ter in that sub­stance’s very long his­to­ry. In fact, says the pre­sen­ter of the PBS Eons video above, human­i­ty began cul­ti­vat­ing it “in what’s now Chi­na around 12,000 years ago. This makes cannabis one of the sin­gle old­est known plants we domes­ti­cate,” even ear­li­er than “sta­ples like wheat, corn, and pota­toes.” By that time scale, it was­n’t so long ago — four mil­len­nia or so — that the lin­eages used for hemp and for drugs genet­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er.

The old­est evi­dence of cannabis smok­ing as we know it, also explored in the Sci­ence mag­a­zine video below, dates back 2,500 years. “The first known smok­ers were pos­si­bly Zoroas­tri­an mourn­ers along the ancient Silk Road who burned pot dur­ing funer­al rit­u­als,” a propo­si­tion sup­port­ed by the analy­sis of the remains of ancient bra­ziers found at the Jirzankal ceme­tery, at the foot of the Pamir moun­tains in west­ern Chi­na. “Tests revealed chem­i­cal com­pounds from cannabis, includ­ing the non-psy­choac­tive cannabid­i­ol, also known as CBD” — itself rein­vent­ed in our time as a thor­ough­ly mod­ern prod­uct — and traces of a THC byprod­uct called cannabi­nol “more intense than in oth­er ancient sam­ples.”

What made the Jirzankal ceme­tery’s stash pack such a punch? “The region’s high alti­tude could have stressed the cannabis, cre­at­ing plants nat­u­ral­ly high in THC,” writes Sci­ence’s Andrew Lawler. “But humans may also have inter­vened to breed a more wicked weed.” As cannabis-users of the six­ties and sev­en­ties who return to the fold today find out, the weed has grown wicked indeed over the past few decades. But even mil­len­nia ago and half a world away, civ­i­liza­tions that had incor­po­rat­ed it for rit­u­al­is­tic use — or as a med­ical treat­ment — may already have been agri­cul­tur­al­ly guid­ing it toward greater poten­cy. Your neigh­bor­hood dis­pen­sary may not be the most sub­lime place on Earth, but at least, when next you pay it a vis­it, you’ll have a sound his­tor­i­cal rea­son to cast your mind to the Cen­tral Asian steppe.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

Pipes with Cannabis Traces Found in Shakespeare’s Gar­den, Sug­gest­ing the Bard Enjoyed a “Not­ed Weed”

Reefer Mad­ness, 1936’s Most Unin­ten­tion­al­ly Hilar­i­ous “Anti-Drug” Exploita­tion Film, Free Online

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Mar­i­jua­na (1969)

Watch High Main­te­nance: A Crit­i­cal­ly-Acclaimed Web Series About Life & Cannabis

The New Nor­mal: Spike Jonze Cre­ates a Very Short Film About America’s Com­plex His­to­ry with Cannabis

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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