Getting high on marijuana may not be a modern pastime, as archaeologists have found the earliest clear evidence to date that people were smoking cannabis for its psychoactive properties some 2,500 years ago.
They found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.
he burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis. “To our excitement, we identified the biomarkers of [cannabis],” study co-researcher Yimin Yang, a professor in the department of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, told reporters at a news conference. [25 Odd Facts About Marijuana]
Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.
The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.