High times in ancient China revealed in funerary cannabis discovery

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Scorched wooden incense burners unearthed at an ancient burial ground in the mountains of western China contain the oldest clear evidence of cannabis smoking yet found, archaeologists say. It remains unclear exactly what goal this unusual adornment served, but Merlin tells The New York Times" Jan Hoffman that in conjunction with the Jirzankal finds, the burial identifies cannabis "as a "plant of the gods.'" Eventually, Merlin says, "People recognized for it to be effective, you had to cook or burn it". They found a higher level of THC, the plant's main psychoactive constituent, than the low levels typically seen in wild cannabis plants, indicating it was chosen for its mind-altering qualities.

Co-author Professor Nicole Boivin, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, said: 'The findings support the idea 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'.

A brazier and skeleton found in a tomb at Jirzankal cemetery. Scientists believe heated stones were used to burn the marijuana and people then inhaled the smoke as part of a burial ritual.

Researchers have discovered "the earliest directly dated and scientifically verified evidence for ritual cannabis smoking".

The scientists scraped material off the burners and four of the charred stones and analysed the pieces with a procedure called gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy.

When chemical analysis of the braziers revealed that nine of the ten once contained cannabis, the researchers compared the chemical signature of the samples against those of cannabis plants discovered 1,000 miles to the east at Jiayi Cemetery, in burials dating from the eighth to the sixth century B.C.

The report says that the latest findings corroborate other early evidence for cannabis from burials further north, in the Xinjiang region of China and in the Altai Mountains of Russian Federation. What's more, the ancient marijuana remains featured elevated levels of THC. Moreover, the signature indicated a higher level of THC than is normally found in wild cannabis plants.

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"Our study implies that 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", Robert Spengler, who was an author on the study, said in a statement.

The history of ancient drug use has long intrigued scholars.

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.

Further work at the site has shown that some of the people buried there were not local to the area.

The evidence suggests that people were burning cannabis at rituals to commemorate the dead. They buried their kin in tombs over which they created circular mounds, stone rings and striped patterns using black and white stones.

"To our excitement we identified the biomarkers of cannabis, notably chemicals related to the psychoactive properties of the plant", said Yimin Yang at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. This non-psychedelic cannabis, which we now refer to as hemp, was used for clothing, food, and medicine.

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