Burned cannabis seeds have also been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.
From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for ages, and a new report presents the drug’s colorful history.
From China, coastal farmers brought pot to Korea about 2000 B.C. or earlier, according to the book “The Archeology of Korea” (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cannabis came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., when the region was invaded by the Aryans — a group that spoke an archaic Indo-European language. The drug became widely used in India, where it was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs . which release us from anxiety” in one of the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems whose name translate into “Science of Charms.”
In 1930, Harry Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and undertook multiple efforts to make marijuana illegal in all states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country.
A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.
It was in the 1920s that marijuana began to catch on. Some historians say its emergence was brought about by Prohibition. Its recreational use was largely restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. “Reefer songs” became the rage of the jazz world. Marijuana clubs called tea pads sprang up in every major city. These marijuana establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community. Marijuana was not considered a social threat.
Soon after 1910, European and American legislators began to ban the use of drugs. First, there was an Opium Convention in 1912 and the Harrison Act of 1914 that, for the first time, defined use of cannabis and other drugs as a crime. By 1925, cannabis was banned or restricted in thirteen countries, including the United States. For some reason, this law did not go into effect until 1938.
Marijuana has been used as medicine and a way of achieving euphoria since ancient times. The first reference to its use is in a Chinese medical manual dating back to around 2700 B.C. Chinese legend states that its usefulness in treating rheumatism, gout, malaria and, oddly enough, absent-mindedness was documented by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung — known as the Father of Chinese Medicine.
Marijuana in America
By the 1950s, it was an accessory of the beat generation. In the 1960s it was used by college students and “hippies” and became a symbol of rebellion against authority.
By 1890, hemp had been replaced by cotton as a major cash crop in southern U.S. states, but hemp plants were not grown for their intoxicating properties. The level of intoxicant in this plant was very low. That began to change in 1910 when many people fled Mexico during that country’s revolution, arriving in America and bringing cannabis with them.
A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) sought to portray marijuana as a powerful addictive substance that would cause some users to become violent.
Cannabis appeared as an ingredient in many patent medicines of the day, but it was a small percentage compared to the number containing opium or cocaine.
Robert Spengler, director of paleoethnobotany laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and study co-author, says that the constant stream of people moving across the Pamir Plateau—an important crossroads connecting Central Asia and China with southwest Asia—could have resulted in the hybridization of local cannabis strains with those from other areas. While hybridization is another factor known to increase psychoactive cannabis strains’ THC potency, the question of whether it was intentional, or just by happy accident, is also still unclear.
While the researchers are unable to determine the actual origin of the cannabis used in the Jirzankal burials, they suggest that Jirzankal’s elevation some 10,000 feet on the Pamir Plateau may have put people in close proximity to wild strains with higher THC content—or that the cemetery could have been sited at that elevation for ease of access to desirable strains.
Traces of potent pot were identified in 2,500-year-old wooden artifacts buried with people who lived along the Silk Road in China.
The discovery at Jirzankal also provides the first direct evidence that humans inhaled combusted cannabis plants in order to obtain its psychoactive effects. No evidence of smoking pipes or similar apparatus has been found in Asia before contact with the New World in the modern era, but the inhalation of cannabis smoke from a heat source is described by the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, who described in his Histories how the Scythians, a nomadic tribe living on the Caspian Steppe, purified themselves with cannabis smoke after burying their dead: “The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, crawling in under the mats, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smolders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath.”
Cannabis is known for its “plasticity,” or ability for new generations of plants to express different characteristics from earlier generations depending on exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight, temperature, and altitude. Wild strains of cannabis growing at higher altitudes, for instance, can have a higher THC content.
“It’s a wonderful example of how closely intertwined humans are and have been with the biotic world around them, and that they impose evolutionary pressures on the plants around them,” he says.
According to Spengler, this new study demonstrates that already 2,500 years ago, humans were potentially targeting specific plants for their chemical production.