In one of the most widely reported scientific reports of the year, Chinese researchers released findings that indicate ancient civilizations in the Xinjiang region of northwest China burned marijuana 2,500 ago.
But why were they doing that? Were they getting high, contemplating the stars? Maybe digging deep into the Book of Odes?
No. As it turns out, cannabis was used in ritual ceremonies. And in this case, that ceremony was likely about death.
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What researchers found.
The study, released in June, reported that evidence collected by Chinese archaeologists indicates that 2,500 years ago, people in central Asia burned cannabis as part of a ritualistic funeral ceremony. The researchers found evidence of cannabis in char on wooden braziers discovered in an ancient cemetery in the Xinjiang region in northwest China.
The 10 braziers came from 10 separate tombs, all located in what is called the Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau. Nine of the braziers had elements of weed. Researchers reported that the braziers contained stones that were heated to ignite the marijuana.
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The researchers, which includes study co-author and archaeologist Yimin Yang from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, concluded that the marijuana was burned as part of a religious or ritual ceremony during funerals and that the burned cannabis produced high levels of psychoactive compounds.
In other words, they got very high. Yang told NPR that cannabis was “being used during funeral rituals, possibly to communicate with nature or spirits or deceased people, accompanied by music.”
The researchers acknowledge that “archaeological evidence for ritualized consumption of cannabis is limited and contentious.” But they believe they have found the “earliest directly dated and scientifically verified evidence for ritual cannabis smoking.”
Cannabis and Rituals
Yang told NPR that while there is controversy surrounding the use of marijuana in ancient religious or ritual ceremonies, certain facts about the ancient cultures living on the Pamir Plateau fit together with other findings and written history.
For example, they were situated along a trade route that would have led to the sharing over many years of different cultural beliefs. Some researchers believe that there may have been a “community of shared beliefs” along the Eurasian mountain foothills, according to Yang.
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Cannabis use has also been found at ancient funerals in the Altai Mountains of what is now Russia. Many researchers have long believed that marijuana has its origins in Central Asia, a theory backed up by a recent study into fossil pollen containing cannabis.
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The History of Herodotus
The earliest known mention of cannabis in Western literature is from the Greek historian Herodotus, who traveled around the ancient world and recorded a wealth of information about ancient cultures and geography. In Book IV of “The History of Herodotus” he writes about the use of hemp by those living in the Central Asian country of Scythia. “Hemp there grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation,” he wrote, adding that it was used to make clothes.
He also describes Scythians using hemp as part of a ceremony involving the funeral of a king. In language that describes something strikingly similar to what the new study reports, Herodotus writes that “a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed.”
It’s part of a ceremony to “purify themselves,” according to the ancient Greek traveler. Herodotus goes on to write, “Immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scythes, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.”
Herodotus goes on to describe how a paste is applied to the skin that cleans it, but you get the picture. As the recent findings show, Herodotus was likely accurate in his description.
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