Do these ancient relics mean that people have been smoking cannabis for 2,500 years?

A recent story in the L.A. Times reports that archeologists working in China have uncovered what appears to be drug paraphernalia used in ancient times. These relics are believed to be around 2,500 years old and appear to be pipes used for smoking cannabis. This discovery confirms what has been thought to be true for many years – that the use of cannabis for mind-altering experiences is nothing new.

This discovery is a blow to critics who disparage smoking cannabis as a modern drug that has no historical, ritual, or medical significance. Scientists are now wondering if the ancient use of cannabis began as a regional phenomenon that spread throughout the world due to its use near the Silk Road trade routes. The information gleaned from this discovery in the western region will be used to expand the knowledge and understanding of cannabis use in ancient times.

An archeological dig in western China discovers some interesting relics

The Pamir Mountains, located in China’s Western region, is the site of an ancient cemetery that scientists have been investigating for some time. They weren’t studying the use of mood-altering substances, but that’s the fascinating turn their excavation took. It was here that the team studying the site found ancient vessels believed to be 2,500 years old. Interestingly, the relics contained what is believed to be traces of burned cannabis plants. This information sheds light on the practice of smoking cannabis even earlier than was previously documented.

The find is awakening archeological interest in the study of the use of botany and mind-altering substances in ancient cultures. Modern-day cannabis advocates are also finding the discovery noteworthy. Because cannabis has different strains, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact first use of the plant as a medicinal or recreational substance. For instance, the sativa strain has a documented history of practical use that dates back thousands of years. This history is reflected in remnants of textile rope products. The discovery of the vessels in China represent the oldest history of ancient people smoking cannabis. The vessels and the chemical remains within them provide substantiation of oral use that prior to this discovery could not be verified or scientifically proven.

Cultivated vs. wild cannabis and THC levels

It is also known that cannabis plants that grow in the wild usually have significantly lower THC levels. Because of this, it is unclear when and why humans began ingesting and smoking the plant to experience a mind-altering sensation. There is so much that isn’t known about the role that cannabis played in ancient societies, which makes the new discovery of these burnt remains of the plant so exciting. These vessels make it clear that cannabis has been used as a recreational substance for 2,500 years, but we still have a lot of unanswered questions.

Another reason for the excitement over the discovery of the pot-smoking vessels is that so much of cannabis’ historical record remains unverified. Cannabis, and other plants, degrade quickly, thus leaving little to no trace of its existence as a mind-altering substance that was smoked. Many digs have been disputed following claims that they have found proof of ancient civilizations getting high. Because the chemical residue found in these relics was enough to be identified and dated, there is now conclusive proof of the millennia-old history of people getting high off of cannabis.

Questions remain about how the mind-altering properties of cannabis were discovered

Because the vessels discovered at the Jirzankal cemetery have been verified, the conversation about the history of cannabis’ use as a mind-altering substance can be based on fact rather than conjecture. It is also interesting that the discovery was made at a cemetery, as ancient funeral and burial sites offer a lot of clues into the realities of historic eras. The grounds are located above sea level and contain various burial chambers and stone groupings honoring the dead. Its location has further significance because it is adjacent to the Silk Road, which was the main route taken by traders who were traveling between Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. Because of this location, the excavation also yielded ancient textiles, musical instruments and beads that would have been transported along this route.

Was cannabis smoking a regional habit?

Testing on the bodies buried within the cemetery revealed even more information: that the bodies buried there were not all from the immediate area. Of the 34 bodies discovered, 24 were people not from the Western Region of China. The discovery became even more fascinating when the archeologists studied the relics that were found where the bodies were interred. This yielded another new piece of information: while the cannabinol that was discovered had a lower concentration of THC than today’s plant, it was higher than the typical amount of THC found in plants that grow in the wild. Scientists are not yet certain if the local people manipulated the cannabis to produce higher levels of THC, similar to what is done today, or if it was a natural result of being situated about 5,000 meters above sea level.

Cannabis smoking may have been part of the burial customs of people in the region and could have been used as a type of incense during the ceremony in addition to people smoking it. What is clear, is that ancient people in this area of Western China created vessels in which to smoke cannabis.

Did this discovery of ancient bongs raise more questions than it answered?

These relics were essentially ancient bongs. The bongs, described by the scientists as braziers, were interred with the local people, but only one of the foreigners had a brazier buried with them. This suggests that the smoking of cannabis was a local custom that was not shared by all the people who traveled through the region. Now the team began to wonder how the local community discovered the mind-altering powers of cannabis and if they did in fact cultivate it to produce a higher level of THC.

Because of this fascinating discovery, there is now a solid body of evidence that verifies the centuries-old history of people smoking cannabis to get high. For all the people who turn to our ancient forebears to dictate their diets and sleep patterns, there is now another interesting historical practice to consider. Building bongs and smoking cannabis is no longer thought to be outside the mainstream in many areas of the country. Because of this discovery, pot-enthusiasts can now present this evidence to naysayers who believe that stoner culture is something new.

What further discoveries will architects make as they excavate the cemeteries and other ruins in the Pamir Mountain region?

Finally having concrete proof that cannabis has been smoked for centuries could possibly be a game changer in how it is perceived in our modern times. Because of this new information, people can begin to take a more expansive view of cannabis and its role in ancient ceremonies and rites. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes it upon themselves to recreate the design of these ancient vessels and smoke some cannabis the way they used to 2,500 years ago!

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