Cannabis Archaeology

People have been using cannabis for millennia, and it was actually used in a variety of ways. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring cannabis consumption in the past and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

Did ancient people smoke weed? Yes. People actually have been using cannabis for millennia, and it was actually used in a variety of ways. We have some pretty fascinating archaeological evidence showing the significant role cannabis played in societies around the world and across time.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. In this video, we’re going to explore the evidence surrounding ancient people smoking weed and how cannabis was used in the past.

So let’s get into it.

For How Long?

So we’ve established that ancient people smoked weed, but for how long?

Let’s go to the Pamir region of Central Asia. Archaeologists working at a 2,500 year old cemetery found 10 wood braziers. These are kind of like portable heaters and these specific braziers had burnt rocks inside them. 

The scientists wanted to know more about what could have been inside these vessels. So they sampled the insides of the braziers using a method called gas chromatography–mass spectrometry. This method can help us find out what kinds of organic compounds might have been left behind. 

They discovered chemical traces of cannabis inside the braziers, suggesting that the plant was  “smoked as part of ritual and/or religious activities.” This is pretty amazing because archaeological evidence of smoking cannabis is limited and a bit contentious at times. In fact, some of the oldest known evidence of cannabis are fossilized fruits from an 8000-year-old site in Japan; however, just because you find cannabis doesn’t automatically mean that it was smoked. So finding evidence of cannabis in a ritual burning context could be strong evidence of cannabis smoking in the ancient world. This find is particularly compelling because at the moment, it’s one of the earliest known examples of ritual cannabis smoking.

Seeds

Now while people have smoked cannabis throughout time, the plant was valuable for more than its leaves. 

Let’s go to Yunnan in southwest China. Archaeologists working at the Haimenkou site recovered an assemblage of over 800 cannabis seeds. They measured each seed and compared their sizes to cannabis seeds found at other sites that were older, younger, and about the same age. 

Based on meticulous seed measurements, the archaeologists suggest that people living at the Haimenkou site targeted and bred certain varieties of cannabis for diverse uses. So some seed sizes might suggest using cannabis as a fiber, think hemp clothing, while other seed sizes might suggest harnessing the oil, and some other seed sizes might even suggest its use as a psychoactive.  

And cannabis plants weren’t just used for day-to-day purposes.

At a 2,500 year old site at the Yanghai Tombs, in Xinxiang, China, Cannabis sativa leaves, fruits, and shoots were recovered from a gravesite of a mummified 40-year-old man. They believe that the cannabis remains were left as grave gifts

What’s interesting about this gravesite is that it also helped us understand a bit more about cannabis’ spread and movement. 

Scientists used PCR testing to identify ancient DNA from the well-preserved cannabis remains. Based on the results, they suggest that the specific variety of cannabis found in this context may have been introduced to China from somewhere else on the continent.

Origins 

Now when it comes to origins, we’re not 100% sure of where cannabis originally came from. The three main theories are Central Asia, Northern China, and Southwest China, and each region has varying evidence as to why it might be the origin center. Other scholars think that regardless of where it might have originated, it was likely domesticated independently in different regions.

So this kind of PCR and aDNA work is important to show not only the antiquity of cannabis and its importance to ancient communities, but also how complicated the spread and movement of this plant was throughout history.

Europe

And while cannabis likely originated somewhere in Asia, it spread across the ancient world.

Archaeologists in southern Sweden, at a site dating to the 1-2nd centuries CE, recovered cannabis seeds, stems, and pollen from two small waterlogged pits. Based on this evidence, especially the remains of the stems, the archaeologists suggest that these ancient people processed cannabis plants in these water pits using a specialized technique called getting.

With water retting, you basically leave plants in water for a week or two so that they can rot, which allows the desired fibers to separate from the core part of the plant. In the case of cannabis, these fibers can eventually be used for things like clothing and rope. 

Archaeologists have found evidence of ancient Europeans, especially in Germany and Scotland, using fibers from cannabis plants to make rope, baskets, and other objects. However, evidence of cannabis processing in Scandinavia was scarce. So, this study is important because it demonstrates not just the presence of cannabis in Scandinavia, but also how and why people used this plant in this part of Europe during this time.

Outro

So ancient people used cannabis in a lot of ways. Yes, they smoked it, but they also used its oils, seeds, fruits, and stems, and we have some pretty interesting archaeological evidence of these diverse uses. 

Now, if you’re curious to learn more about how another plant shaped the ancient world, check out this video here. That’s all for this video; we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye!

Credits

Anya Gruber: Researcher

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Brooke Norton: Assisted with operations & logistics

Thank you to Brooke for helping out with some of the operations & logistics of this video. Also, thank you to @gabchomp  &  @Katharine_Chen  for their thumbnail help.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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