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Holy smoke: New evidence suggests ancient Chinese peoples smoked the chronic at funerals

Recent research suggests that ancient peoples of western Chinese culture smoked chronic at funerals, getting stoned as reverence for their dearly departed ancestors, while playing out ancient rituals, and perhaps even doing some human sacrifice. According to a new study in the journal Science Advances:

“...analysis indicates that cannabis plants were burned in wooden braziers during mortuary ceremonies at the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region [of China]. This suggests cannabis was smoked as part of ritual and/or religious activities in western China by at least 2500 years ago and that the cannabis plants produced high levels of psychoactive compounds.”

This follows recent research that shows the cannabis plant may have originated in Tibet millions of years ago. Cannabis’s presence in central Asia has continued for a millennia.

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The cannabis in the ancient braziers discovered at the Jirzankal Cemetary, which are basically incense burners, tested high for THC by ancient standards. This is strong evidence that these people were seeking out the most powerful plants for their mortuary rituals. For them, mourning the dead meant getting as stoned as possible, but it also didn’t hurt that cannabis grown at higher elevations tends to have a higher THC content.

Today’s cannabis is vastly more potent than the ancient stuff, or even the stuff that hippies smoked in the ‘60s. Although these ancient Chinese people were undoubtedly smoking much less potent cannabis than today’s chronic, the researchers weren’t exactly sure by how much. That’s because they technically weren’t looking for THC at all, but cannabinol.

“THC will turn into CBN via an oxidative degradation pathway,” Jeff Raber, CEO of the cannabis lab the Werc Shop, who wasn’t involved in the work, told Wired. “That's a fancy way of saying, in the presence of air and/or heat, it will go from THC to CBN.”

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So, where did the ancient Chinese get their cannabis? A candidate might be the kafiristanica varieties, which today grow in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, study coauthor Robert Spengler, director of the Paleoethnobotany Laboratories at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Wired. “In its wild state, it does have higher chemical production levels. So, it's very possible this plant was existing farther north in the past, and that humans were targeting it.”

How do we know the ancients weren’t just using cannabis for its aromatic qualities, as an incense at funerals? Well, ancient cannabis didn’t have as distinctive of an aroma as today’s stuff, which gets its distinctive aroma from terpenoids

“It really doesn't make much sense why they would target something that doesn't really have much of a scent in its wild state, when there were so many other options out there,” says Spengler.

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“I think ancient people smoked cannabis to get to a special hallucinogenic state, to communicate with nature or spirits of deceased people,” study coauthor Yimin Yang, of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, said to Wired.

All this talk about funereal cannabis leads to a bigger question—How did cannabis play into the entire mortuary ritual for these ancient Chinese peoples? Well, more research must be done, but cursory evidence does provide some clues. “It's a plausible argument that there could have been human sacrifice attached to this whole ritual activity,” says Spengler, noting that the researchers discovered bones with blunt-force injuries that happened near or at the time of death. “How it all fits into one actual mortuary practice, could only speculate.”

(Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash)
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