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Scientists Find Ancient Humans Used Weed 2,500 Years Ago, Too

Residue found in tombs deep in a Central Asian mountain range suggests that strong cannabis was used in ancient burial rites.

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Dense patches of wild cannabis grow across the mountain foothills of Eurasia from the Caucuses to East Asia. These plants were photographed growing in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. Credit. Robert Spengler

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 study.

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 Afghanistan.

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 ago.

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:

… 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.”

Ancient Weed Strains You Should Know About

There seems to be an almost never-ending flood of brand-new crossbred strains. All of these strains are a cross of two or more marijuana strains, as are the vast majority of their parent strains.

Regardless of the strain, they all share a common ancestor; the feral, annual cannabis plant. Most agree that this plant probably originated around 13,000 BC in Central Asia. The oldest weed strains in the world are classified as landraces.

Read on to learn more about landraces and some of the most ancient cannabis strains around.

What Is a Landrace Strain?

A landrace is a pure cannabis strain cultivated in its natural environment. Landrace strains have never been crossbred and have grown wild and indigenously for millennia. With this lack of variation from one plant to the next, they are incredibly consistent. They are almost entirely indica or sativa.

Usually, landrace strains get their name after their place of origin.

Usually, landrace strains get their name after their place of origin. Classic examples include Panama Red and Acapulco Gold. However, it is becoming harder to find true landraces. Imagine taking Panama Red out of its natural environment and growing it in California under different conditions in a new climate. Inevitably, the strain will lose some of the traits that made it unique.

Once a landrace is away from its original growing environment, it must mature under new conditions. Consequently, the plant takes on new traits and will not stabilize for generations. When that process finally takes place, you have a strain that’s different from the original. Now it is a phenotype rather than a true landrace.

Research indicates that the cannabis plant originated in South and Central Asia near the Himalayan Mountains and the Middle East. Throughout history, humankind spread cannabis globally, which means the oldest strains have probably been lost due to crossbreeding. Therefore, it is hard to provide a 100% accurate list of the world’s oldest cannabis strains.

However, here are five we believe make the cut.

1 – Aceh

This marijuana strain comes from the hills of Aceh, an Indonesian province. Nowadays, Indonesia has one of the world’s strictest stances on the herb. The Indonesian government is cracking down on the cultivation and sale of cannabis; it has the same policy toward cannabis as they do for heroin and meth.

This pure sativa strain is a tall plant known for its uplifting effects. It isn’t the most potent strain, with only around 10% THC. However, its delicious mango and tropical fruit taste more than makes up for what it lacks in potency. Aceh is a good option if you need an energy boost in the morning. If you get your hands on Aceh seeds, it takes 8-9 weeks to flower. This plant typically yields 13 ounces per square meter indoors and 18 ounces outdoors.

2 – Nepalese

Any strain that grows in Nepal is known as a Nepalese strain. While most countries had banned marijuana by the middle of the 20th century, Nepal held firm until the 1970s.

Up until 1973, it was legal to smoke cannabis in Nepal, and it was easy to find a hashish shop. Ultimately, the Nepalese government bowed to American pressure and began closing down stores and arresting growers.

However, to this day, Nepalese officers often have a relatively liberal attitude towards policing cannabis users. Visitors to this beautiful region can avail themselves of incredibly cheap marijuana. A tola (equivalent to 11 grams) is no more than $15! You can get a kilogram for a few hundred bucks, but at this point, you are risking lengthy prison time.

The original Nepalese landrace is a pure sativa and is rather potent with a THC content of up to 17%. However, reportedly some plants can contain up to 22%. Nepalese provides users with a euphoric high that is both stimulating and invigorating.

The Nepalese strain has a sweet, citrus taste with robust earthy flavors. Although it is a pure sativa, Nepalese has an indica-type structure. It is a sturdy plant with resinous buds that grows to a medium height. Indigenous Nepalese is grown at a high altitude, which can reach 3,000 meters! As a result, it is resilient against mold and cold temperatures. Its flowering time is 8-9 weeks, and it offers an enormous yield of up to 35 ounces per plant!

3 – Thai

Thai medical practitioners used marijuana in traditional Thai medicine until it was banned in 1934. Thailand was home to the world’s most potent and smoothest marijuana. As a result, it was exported globally in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually, Thailand followed America’s lead and began its own War on Drugs in the 80s.

However, on December 26, 2018, Thailand legalized medical marijuana, becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. It could lead to a goldmine for farmers, as a significant Thai political figure is championing its cultivation. Economists estimate that if a household is allowed to grow six marijuana plants, it could generate up to $13,500 annually.

The Thai landrace strain is a pure sativa with a THC content of up to 24%. Thai is a pure strain and provides users with a euphoric high. Some users say that it provides an energy boost and a focus that few marijuana strains offer.

It is a creamy and sweet smoke with a citrusy and herbal taste on the exhale. If you fancy growing Thai, please note that it needs the careful hand of an experienced grower. It has a lengthy flowering time of up to 11 weeks and provides around 13 ounces of bud per plant.

4 – Afghani

Marijuana has been cultivated in Afghanistan for centuries and was only made illegal in 1957. Even then, the Afghan government was far from strict when applying the law. The Hippie Trail of the 1970s involved countless cannabis-loving tourists traveling to Afghanistan to sample potent indigenous marijuana.

The Afghani landrace strain is 100% indica. It has a THC content of around 17% and comes from the Hindu Kush mountain range within Afghanistan. It has become the base strain for some of the world’s finest hybrids. Afghani offers a potent physical high that acts as a powerful sedative.

It is popular among insomniacs as it makes sleep hard to resist. The taste matches its sweet fragrance, and you may also get a hint of pine when inhaling. On the exhale, Afghani’s sweet and spicy notes are more prominent.

If you are looking to grow a unique strain, Afghani is an excellent choice due to its stable genetics. Its flowering time is 7-8 weeks, and indoors typically produces 16 ounces per square meter planted. Its yield increases to 21 ounces when grown outdoors in a Mediterranean type climate.

5 – Hindu Kush

Many cannasseurs regard this marijuana strain as one of the most important in weed’s history. This landrace was originally grown in the 800 kilometer stretch of the Hindu Kush mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a pure indica strain with a THC content of up to 20%.

If you are in the mood to relax, there are few better options than this strain. Some say it is the perfect strain for evening use as it reportedly has soporific effects.

Like Afghani, Hindu Kush’s smoke is creamy, and it has a sweet and spicy taste. It also has hints of lemon and pine cone. This plant grows short and is easy to grow outdoors, as long as you live in a warm climate. Outdoors, the yield is approximately 16 ounces per plant. If you grow Hindu Kush indoors, the yield is about 14 ounces per square meter planted. The indoor flowering time is between 7-8 weeks.

Final Thoughts on Ancient Weed Strains

Some view these ancient landrace strains as the OGs of marijuana. They are thousands of years old, and some cultures have used these plants for medicinal purposes. As these are pure strains, their effects and flavors are unique from hybrid strains. This has also allowed them to maintain distinct and consistent traits.

When you consume a landrace strain, you are experiencing a bit of cannabis history.

The properties of landrace strains vary depending on the region. As they have never been hybridized, they adopt the qualities best suited for their native area. In the modern era, cannabis users are becoming more drawn to high-THC hybrids. However, when you consume a landrace strain, you are experiencing a bit of cannabis history.