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In the Pamir Mountains in present-day western China, researchers have found evidence of cannabis use dating back at least 2,500 years ago. Traces of CBN (the chemical compound formed by the metabolization of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana) were discovered in wooden braziers in an area thought to be a burial ground, known as Jirzankal Cemetery.
Scientists were especially intrigued to find cannabis remnants with significantly high levels of THC, compared to the wild marijuana plants found naturally in the area. Using the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry method to isolate specific cannabinoid compounds preserved for thousands of years in the burners, the artifacts also suggest that people in the area purposely cultivated high-THC plants for use in rituals.
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.
In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, scientists posit that these cannabis users filled braziers with hot stones and marijuana leaves, then inhaled the smoke produced by the coals. Also found in the cave were the bones of an individual who did not grow up in the area – lending credence to theories that the area was a part of an ancient Silk Road.
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Previously, researchers had difficulty finding evidence of marijuana use by earlier civilizations. In Herodotus’s historical writings of the Scythians, he described funeral receptions where attendees would “throw the seed … upon the red-hot stones” and “shout for joy” as the smoke filled the air.
The Jirzankal cannabis discovery represents the first hard evidence of use of the psychoactive substance for the purpose of experiencing mind-altering effects. So far, researchers have been able to uncover remnants of cannabis use from cemeteries to the north of Jirzankal, in the Chinese Xinjiang territory and the Russian Altai Mountains.
East Asians have cultivated cannabis since at least 4,000 BCE, using hemp for its oil and fiber.
While the discovery does not entirely fall under “recreational” use, scientists who analyze the time period believe it was an important part of funeral and, possibly, spiritual rituals. To this day in the region, many Chinese people continue to practice the tradition of wearing hemp while in mourning.
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