Proof of this, archaeologists say, are the remains of scorched wooden incense burners that were unearthed at an ancient burial ground in the mountains of western China.
These burners, which were among the relics found at the 2,500-year-old Jirzankal cemetery in the Pamir mountains, were found to have traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis plants.
According to an international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Queensland, the burners, which would carry heated stones on which cannabis would be burned, could have been used in funerary ceremonies and rituals by mystics who wanted to commune with both nature and the spirits of the dead.
“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 researchers said. (Related: Cannabis is a revolutionary, healing plant.)
According to Robert Spengler, a researcher at the MPI for the Science of Human History’s Archaeology Department, while there has been a longstanding debate over the origins of cannabis smoking, the relics they found at Jirzankal provide the “earliest unambiguous evidence” of the use of cannabis as a drug, adding that their findings are “important for understanding the antiquity of drug use.”
This was seconded by Mark Merlin, a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who reviewed the study prior to its publication.
"We've known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp," Merlin said. "Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties," he added.
As detailed in the academic journal Science Advances, the discovery came about as a result of running gas chromatography-mass spectrometry on samples taken from the 10 wooden braziers or burners previously excavated from the Jirzankal burial grounds.
Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry is a sensitive technique that can detect minuscule amounts of chemical residues.
“To our excitement, we identified the biomarkers of cannabis, notably chemicals related to the psychoactive properties of the plant,” Yimin Yang, a researcher from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said, referring to cannabinol, a byproduct of the breakdown and oxidation of THC.
According to Yang, these findings are consistent with what's known about cannabis use across Central Eurasia, noting that cannabis was used in funerals by the Ancient Russians who lived in the Altai Mountains, as well as the Scythians who originally lived in what is now known as southern Siberia.
However, while the plants used in the Jirzankal funerary rituals were likely to be high in THC, he and the rest of the research team are still not sure if those plants were cultivated or merely found in the wild, given that wild cannabis plants tend to have low levels of the psychoactive compound.
Aside from the wood burners and blackened stones, archaeologists were also able to excavate other items from the burial site, such as wooden plates and bowls, glass beads and pieces of silk.
The skeletons of individuals buried at the site, meanwhile, have not been examined in detail, although the researchers have noted seeing holes in their skulls, as well as what appears to be fatal cuts and breaks in their bones.
According to the researchers, these grisly findings, as well as the unearthing of a Chinese harp – an instrument that is often used in ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies – raise the possibility that at least some of the dead were sacrificed.
Read up on more ancient artifacts at Artifacts.news.