If you live anywhere in the world other than northwest China, you might never have had access to cannabis if it hadn’t hitchhiked along an ancient trade route in the first millennium. Revolutions in agriculture and industry across the world over the past 2,000 years undoubtedly would have resulted in exporting cannabis from China, of course. But think of how vulnerable that plant’s existence was at one point: indigenous to and growing in only one small part of our massive planet.
If cannabis seeds hadn’t traded hands along that fateful route, the Silk Road, they might not have ended up in cannabis crops on every continent but Antarctica. That means your pot purchases would be limited to Chinese exports (and your knowledge of botany, perhaps). Equally important, you wouldn’t have ready-made region-specific strains, such as Afghan Kush. The impact that the Silk Road had on the fate of cannabis is unparalleled and fascinating.
Earth’s Earliest Cannabis
According to a 2019 article published in “Vegetation History and Archaeobotany,” the oldest microfossil evidence consistent with cannabis is 19.6 million years old, found in northwestern China. However, molecular clock analysis estimates that cannabis became its own plant species 27.8 million years ago, which is why most sources claim that cannabis is 28 million years old. Drawing from the same data, most sources also agree that cannabis originated on the Tibetan Plateau. The article just cited even pinpoints the place of origin to “in the general vicinity of Qinghai Lake.” It’s worth noting that other theories place cannabis in Japan and Eastern Europe at that same time, but the evidence for those theories is scant by comparison.
In a comprehensive review, The History of Cannabis (THC) Museum explains that the earliest use of cannabis in China (and on Earth, implicitly) appears to have been 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists digging up a Neolithic site in Yuan-Shan discovered pottery with hemp cord markings on it, along with a rod-shaped stone beater used to pound hemp. Thus far in archaeology, this identifies – more or less – the plant’s induction into human civilization.
The Silk Road
The name can be somewhat misleading, given that the Silk Road actually comprises about a dozen intersecting roads linking Asia and Europe across the 4,350-mile landmass of Central Asia. It’s more comparable to the interstate highway system in the United States, but far larger in scale. Just like you can take different freeways to drive coast to coast, you could take different routes to travel to countries east, west, north and south of one another. Irrespective of which route you took, you were still on the Silk Road.
China’s Han Dynasty established the Silk Road in 130 B.C., but the court was actually repurposing former Persian Empire routes that were already hundreds of years old. When known as the Persian Royal Road, those courier routes ran from Susa (modern-day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea. The Han Dynasty reopened them when it needed clear paths for diplomatic missions to get allies in its war with the Xiongnu (Huns). Also, the routes were invaluable as the dynasty continued to expand its empire.
These interwoven travel routes linked the Oriental and Occidental worlds, enabling mercantile exchanges among a multitude of cultures. Porcelain, silk, paper and gunpowder traveled from east to west, and chariots, wool, glass, animals and wine came into China. There were spices from India, glass from Samarkand, woolen goods from Central Asia and an ever-expanding variety of other things to trade. More than just these material things though, religions, customs and technologies were exchanged as well. One such technology was a new way to take in the fumes of burning herbs: bongs. According to Cannanaskis, bongs were imported into Asia via the Silk Road in the 1400s.
For more than a millennium, the Silk Road survived while the Han Dynasty, Mongol Empire and Roman Empire fell around it and the British Empire emerged. It even remained in use while disease ravaged the people who used it. After the Bubonic Plague started in China in the mid 1300s, it spread along the Silk Road in infected rats aboard trade caravans.
After everything the Silk Road outlasted, it finally met its end when the Ottoman Empire gained control of the western routes in the mid-1400s. The Ottomans began taxing goods and imposing religious rules on people crossing their lands, and Europeans responded by replacing Silk Road routes with sea passages. Gradually, this transit system became a relic for a second time in its history.
It wasn’t until 2013 that a third chance was given to the ancient Silk Road. As National Geographic reports in “The New Silk Road,” this ancient transit system is undergoing another revival. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (aka One Belt, One Road) aims to restore a cherished piece of Han history and use it to connect Europe and Asia via two trade routes: one by land and one by sea.
By constructing a modern transport route between East and West, China is leading what Aveneer DMC calls “a large-scale transformation of the entire trade and economic model of Eurasia, and primarily of Central Asia.” The routes will lead through more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. China.cn.org reports that the number of countries cooperating on the infrastructure, trade, investment and energy needed for this massive undertaking continues to grow.
Key Archaeological Discoveries
Across roughly 1,500 years, the Silk Road saw a lot of action. So, one must ask: How can we know whether cannabis in particular was a commodity being traded at that time? It’s not like we can access a web-based data repository with itemized receipts and customs forms. The answer: Artifacts recovered from archaeological digs in three cemeteries discovered along the Silk Road provide enough to complete a credible forensic analysis. (They also provide the premise for a horror movie centered on the consequences of disturbing ancient burial grounds, no?) Despite the uncertainties of the findings in the first two discoveries, the conclusion drawn from the third one is that cannabis likely spread across exchange routes along the early Silk Road.
In 2003, archaeologists excavated the Yanghai Tombs (circa 500 B.C.) near Turpan, a Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region in China. (Read the full story from 2008 here.) They found excellently preserved cannabis seeds, leaves and shoots containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) near the head and feet of a high-ranking male shaman in a 2,700-year-old grave. The leather basket and wooden bowl containing the cannabis were marked in ways to indicate pulverizing the plant before consumption. However, it was unclear whether the plant had been burned and smoked or simply consumed orally. Thus, the archaeologists’ assumption was that cannabis was employed by this culture as a medicinal or psychoactive agent, or as an aid in practicing divination. At the time, it was the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent.
At another gravesite in Turpan, the Jiayi Cemetery (circa 800 to 400 B.C.), a 35-year-old Caucasian man covered with a cannabis burial shroud was discovered in 2016. (Read the full story here.) The grave was associated with the Subeixi culture (aka Gushi Kingdom), which existed there 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Turpan’s oasis in the surrounding desert made it a popular stop along the Silk Road, leading archaeologists to conclude that traders from across Eurasia were familiar with cannabis. Moreover, evidence that the plants had been harvested locally, coupled with their being purposefully arranged, provided evidence of the ritualistic use of cannabis in prehistoric western China.
The Jiayi discovery marked the first time that researchers found entire cannabis plants, let alone the use of cannabis plants as a burial shroud. However, as was the case with the Yanghai findings, the cannabis macroremains in Jiayi did not adequately reveal how the cannabis plant had been used. That gap was finally filled for archaeology three years later.
At Jirzankal Cemetery (circa 500 B.C.), in the Pamir Mountains in far western China, a cannabis chemical residue with THC levels above what would be found in wild cannabis was found in 2019. (Read the full story here.) It was discovered in incense burners believed to be used during funerary rites. The cannabis was apparently burned in an enclosed space, so those around it (presumably mourners) almost certainly inhaled THC-laced fumes.
This provided some of the earliest clear evidence for the use of cannabis for its psychoactive compounds, as well as people’s awareness of higher-THC-producing varieties of the plant. The researchers said that this could “support the idea that cannabis plants were first used for their psychoactive compounds in the mountainous regions of eastern Central Asia, thereafter spreading to other regions of the world.”
Also, analyses of multiple skeletons and accompanying artifacts from Jirzankal indicated that people from further west in Central Asia, and even in the mountain foothills of Inner Asia, were among those buried there. This sign of ancient immigration supports the idea that the Pamir Mountains were once part of the Silk Road. Also, it demonstrates how the high-elevation mountain passes of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in the early trans-Eurasian exchange.
Equally noteworthy, the graves in Jirzankal appeared to contain a blend of commoners and elites. To researchers, this indicated that the ritualistic smoking of cannabis had gradually been popularized from the elite class (usually shamans) to the common people at least 2,500 years ago.
The Jirzankal findings supported the hypothesis that the earliest targeted use of cannabis with higher levels of THC originated in western China or the broader Central Asia region. This led researchers to conclude that cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along the Silk Road.
Here’s to the Ancient Ones!
The next time you roll a joint, pack a bowl, nibble on an edible, grease up with hemp massage oil for a romantic evening, throw on your hemp bikini or high-fashion hemp frock, or do anything else with cannabis, don’t take it for granted. The Persian Empire laid the foundation for the roads that brought you cannabis – thank you, ancient Persia! The Han Dynasty built the roads that brought you cannabis – thank you, ancient China! And the people who traveled those roads not only carried the actual plants but even made sure they snagged the chronic, trading cannabis with higher THC in particular – thank you, ancient reefers who committed to getting fried! To the Ancient Ones, Head salutes you proudly!
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
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