Pubdate: Fri, 14 Jun 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Jan Hoffman


An association between weed and the dead turns out to have been
established long before the 1960s and far beyond a certain ur-band's
stomping grounds in San Francisco.

Researchers have identified strains of cannabis burned in mortuary
rituals as early as 500 B.C., deep in the Pamir mountains in western
China, according to a new study published Wednesday. The residue had
chemical signatures indicating high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol
(THC), the plant's most psychoactive, or mood-altering, compound.

You think the Grateful Dead were the first to wonder "what in the
world ever became of sweet Jane?" That CBD gummies to assuage the
anxious are anything new? That puffs of elevated consciousness started
with Rocky Mountain highs?


"Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally,
but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use,
medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,"
said Robert Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute
for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who worked on the

Cannabis stems and seeds had previously been found at a handful of
burial sites around Eurasia, but the evidence at the Pamir cemetery,
verified by advanced scientific technology, shows an even more direct
connection between the plant and early ritual. The new findings expand
the geographical range of cannabis use within the broader Central
Asian region, said Mark Merlin, a professor of botany at the
University of Hawaii at Manoa, who did not work on the research.

"The fact that strongly psychoactive ancient residue has been
documented in laboratory testing is the key new finding," said Dr.
Merlin, a cannabis historian. He hypothesized that "It was used to
facilitate the body communicating with the afterlife, the spirit world."

The study was published in the journal Science Advances. The research
team included archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of
Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

About 70 artifacts have been retrieved from the Pamir burial site so
far, including glass beads, harps, pieces of silk and wooden bowls and
plates. Perforations and cuts in some skulls and bones could suggest
human sacrifice.

"We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that
included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended
to guide people into an altered state of mind," the authors wrote in
the study.

Ancient mourners apparently created the smoke by placing hot stones in
wooden braziers - receptacles for flaming objects - and laying in
cannabis plants, the researchers wrote. The residue was found on the
insides of 10 braziers and on stones exhumed from eight tombs in the
2,500-year-old Jirzankal Cemetery.

The chemical signatures were isolated and identified through a
procedure known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

Although cannabis seeds have been found in a few other sites, no such
seeds were found here. Archaeobotanists theorize that either the seeds
had already been removed and discarded or that mourners deliberately
chose nonflowering plant parts, such as stems, for the rituals.

Among the provocative questions raised by the findings are how and why
mourners singled out the higher potency strains. Wild cannabis, which
grows commonly across the well-watered mountain foothills of Central
Asia, typically has low levels of cannabinol, a metabolite of THC, the
researchers wrote.

Instead, these higher THC levels suggest that "people may have been
cultivating cannabis and possibly actively selecting for stronger
specimens," they added.

Another possibility, they said, is that traders may have unwittingly
caused hybridization as they moved plants along the Silk Road routes
through the high mountain passes of the remote Pamirs, which connected
regions of what are now known as China, Tajikistan and

The tombs varied in size as well as the number of bodies, prompting
researchers to wonder whether the ritualistic use of cannabis for
mortuary rites had spread to common folk from being an exclusive
practice for elite tribal leaders and priests.

These tombs have a distinctive appearance, the researchers noted. They
are separated by rows of black and white stones, the purpose of which
is unknown. Individual burials are within round mounds, additionally
marked by stones.

Use of two parts of the cannabis plant - fibers for hemp rope, sail
canvas (a word derived from "cannabis") and clothing; oily seeds for
food - stretches back about 4,000 years. Those plants, however, have
low THC levels. According to Dr. Merlin, cannabis seeds attached to
pottery shards found in Japan have been dated to roughly 10,000 years

But ancient evidence of the plant's utility for medicinal and ritual
purposes is scant and more recent. (By contrast, the historical record
about the use of opium poppy and peyote is relatively ample.)

Investigators have long tried to confirm or refute the ancient world's
only known recounting of funereal cannabis use. Around the fifth
century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described a Scythian
mourners' rite:

=85 when, therefore, the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp,
they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red hot stones;
but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no
Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by
the vapour, shout aloud.

In the mid-20th century, researchers found artifacts in a frozen
burial site that seemingly comport with Herodotus's account, in
Russia's Altay mountain region near the Siberian and Mongolian border.
Close to the bodies was a fur-lined leather bag with cannabis seeds, a
bronze cauldron filled with stones and the frame of what seems to be
an inhalation tent.

Dr. Merlin said that the Pamir cemetery, together with other
relatively contemporaneous burial sites elsewhere in the Xinjiang
region of China, strengthens a striking narrative about how cannabis
was used ritually by local cultures. North of the Pamir cemetery and
from roughly the same period, other researchers identified a container
with about two pounds of chopped cannabis next to the head of a body
believed to be a shaman, presumably to use for herbalist concoctions
in the afterlife.

At yet another grave, also about 2,400 to 2,800 years old, in the dry
desert of Xinjiang, researchers recently discovered a man about six
feet tall buried with "13 cannabis plants gathered at their base and
spread across his breast like a bouquet of roses," Dr. Merlin said.
The array has also been described as a "cannabis shroud."

"I think the evidence from the Pamir site connects cannabis as a
'plant of the gods,' " he said. "And that people recognized for it to
be effective, you had to cook or burn it."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt