A group of researchers has unearthed the oldest "clear evidence" of marijuana smoking in the mountains of western China, in a 2500-year-old burial ground known as the Jirzankal cemetery.
New evidence from this rural area of Xinjiang in China suggests that cannabis was being smoked 2,500 years ago, the earliest conclusive evidence of its use as a drug.
In a complex of lofty tombs in the Pamir Mountains - a region near the borders of modern China, Pakistan and Tajikistan - excavators found 10 wooden bowls and several stones containing burnt residue of the cannabis plant.
Little is known about the origins of cannabis smoking, but its use at the cemetery resonates with Herodotus's written account from the 5th century BC.
The artefacts found in the tombs, including the wooden bowl and burnt stones, gave researchers an idea of how the rituals took place. They "contained small stones that had been exposed to high heat, and archaeologists identified them as braziers for burning incense or other plant matter", explains Michelle Z. Donahue at National Geographic.
The global 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 Jirzankal Cemetery findings also suits with assorted veteran evidence for hashish utilize at burial sites in the Altai Mountains of Russian Federation.
"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", coauthor Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History tells Newsweek.
Moreover, they indicated a higher level of THC than is normally found in wild marijuana.
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It's still unclear, though, whether the locals actively cultivated cannabis, or simply sought out higher THC-producing plants.
"Our study implies knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes".
"Some of the artifacts are from Central Asia and some from Central China", he said.
The data fits with the notion that the high mountain passes of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in early trans-Eurasian exchange.
Though remote today, the mountainous Pamir region may once have sat astride a busy trade route of the early Silk Road. But it's possible that the site and cannabis was used for a variety of non-sacrificial funeral rituals, too.
Fast forward to current times, researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have discovered that humans have had a long history with cannabis.
The cemetery, reaching all the plan by three terraces at a rocky and arid plight up to a pair, 080 metres above sea level, entails unlit and white stone strips created on the landscape the utilization of pebbles, marking the tomb surfaces, and round mounds with rings of stones below. This study further highlights the importance of residue analyses, which could open a unique window onto details of cultural communication in the past that other archaeological methods cannot offer. And since the cannabis plant has other uses - seeds are pressed for oil and fibers used for cloth - the presence of seeds alone doesn't confirm drug use.