“Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers,” Warf wrote in his report. “Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”
“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.
Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America.
In the report, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, and has since found its way to many regions of the world, eventually spreading to the Americas and the United States.
Both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were used widely in ancient China, Warf wrote. The first record of the drug’s medicinal use dates to 4000 B.C. The herb was used, for instance, as an anesthetic during surgery, and stories say it was even used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. (However, whether Shen Nung was a real or a mythical figure has been debated, as the first emperor of a unified China was born much later than the supposed Shen Nung.)
Where did pot come from?
“Cannabis seeds have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-ninth century,” Warf wrote in the study.
After this really long “trip” throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.
It is important to distinguish between the two familiar subspecies of the cannabis plant, Warf said. Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, has psychoactive properties. The other plant is Cannabis sativa L. (The L was included in the name in honor of the botanist Carl Linnaeus.) This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel. [11 Odd Facts About Marijuana]
Indeed, these braziers, or wooden incense burners, mark some of the earliest, most robust physical evidence of humans burning cannabis specifically for its psychoactive effects. Researchers from China and Germany described their findings in a study published today in the journal Science Advances.
Incense burners recently unearthed in western China provide new evidence of marijuana’s ritual role, once known only from historic texts.
As tempting as it is chuckle at the thought of ancient drug use, Merlin says, viewing it as recreational is too simple, no matter how high the THC levels may be in these samples. What many see as the “recreational” nature of psychoactive drugs could have been a spiritual practice: a vessel for ushering the deceased safely into the afterlife, or for altering the mind in order to facilitate a closer conversation with the gods—much like a priest aims to do. Another indication of cannabis’s spiritual connotations is the centuries-old Chinese practice of wearing hemp—which is not psychoactive—while in mourning. (Merlin also posits that cannabis may have been used simply to deodorize corpses, though that’s likely not all it was doing at Jirzankal, given the THC levels.)
The team identified the chemical traces clinging to the burners using a technique that articulates a sample’s chemical signature. By vaporizing the sample, separating its components, and recording their differences in mass, researchers can identify the relative levels of the chemicals they’re looking at. “To our excitement, we identified the biomarkers of cannabis,” says Yimin Yang, another co-author of the study and a researcher at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. And not just cannabis, but a strain bursting with CBN, the compound that forms after THC metabolizes. (These Jirzankal Cemetery samples contained, however, noticeably low levels of CBD—a medicinal, nonpsychoactive compound favored by some cannabis users.) Higher than what are typically found in regional, wild cannabis plants, the CBN levels suggest that the ancient grave keepers deliberately sought out these mind-altering varieties, and potentially even domesticated them.
In a recent paper published in Economic Botany, the scientists say that the “extraordinary cache” of 13 “nearly whole” female cannabis plants were arranged diagonally like a shroud over the body of a dead man. The man was about 35 years old, appeared to be Caucasian and might have been a shaman, they say.
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The tomb lies in northwest China’s Turpan Basin, which was “an important stop on the Silk Road,” according to the magazine.
“This is the first time ever that archaeologists have recovered complete cannabis plants, as well as the first incidence of their use as a ‘shroud’ or covering in a human burial,” National Geographic quotes the study’s lead author, Hongen Jiang, as saying.