The broken wooden braziers, unearthed from 2,500-year-old tombs in Western China, contained burned, blackened stones, and the interior of the wooden vessels also looked charred. To find out what had been burned in them, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences archaeologist Yemin Yang and his colleagues used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to analyze small samples of the charred wood and the residue from the stones.
Their analysis turned up a chemical called cannabinol, or CBN—an unmistakable chemical signature of cannabis. Those ancient chemical traces offer an important clue in the history of human drug use and the domestic history of cannabis.In around 500 BCE, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described people near the Caspian Sea gathering in small, enclosed tents to breathe in the smoke from cannabis burned atop a bowlful of red-hot stones.
Yang says people did something similar at Jirzankou, probably as part of funeral ceremonies. Archaeologists there also found the remains of a musical instrument called an angular harp, which played an important role in later funeral rites in Western China.“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,” wrote Yang and his colleagues.
Where there’s smoke…Archaeologists have spent years debating when people first domesticated Cannabis sativa as a drug. The plant was first domesticated in eastern Asia around 3,500 BCE, but it was used for its oily seeds and its long, durable fibers. Like modern hemp crops, the earliest domesticated varieties didn’t produce much of the psychoactive compound called THC.
Cannabis is a surprisingly versatile plant—so versatile that Yang and his colleagues say ancient people domesticated it at least twice, for very different reasons.Although cannabis has turned up at other sites, from Western China to the Altai Mountains in Siberia, archaeologists have never found such direct indications that ancient people were lighting it up.
Elsewhere, cannabis plants buried with the dead may be a sign that people ate parts of the plant for a similar effect (although brownies wouldn’t be invented for millennia). But without doing a similar chemical analysis on human remains from those graves, archaeologists can’t say for sure. At other sites, like a burial in the Altai Mountains of Siberia where archaeologists found a small tent, a bowl, and a pouch of cannabis seeds, it’s pretty reasonable to speculate that the cannabis involved may have been intended for use as a drug.
“Its hard to judge how ancient people consumed them. Thus, I try to chemically analyze artifacts and human tissues to provide more reliable evidence,” said Yang. Evidence just doesn’t get any clearer than CBN biomarkers in a charred burner. .