As much as anything else, to study human development as a species one must understand human interactions with the world around them, and the animals and plants in it. From food to medicines to decoration, plants in particular have been used by humans since the dawn of time.
Indeed, many of the plants around us have been changed by this interaction, customized and adapted to suit human needs, tracing back millennia to when we first found a use for them.
And we certainly have a long-standing relationship, as a species, with weed. Cannabis, in the form of hemp, was a robust and fast-growing source of fibers for making rope, as well as oil. Whether used this way or for other, more recreational purposes, it has been a part of human history for a very long time.
In fact, cannabis appears to have been first domesticated and used as far back as 12,000 years ago, and there is even proof of marijuana use in prehistoric societies. It was also not linked to a single society, as it is mentioned in the history of different regions across China, Eurasia, and the Middle East.
Buried With Your Stash
In a tomb discovered in 2016 in the Turpan Basin in China, archaeologists uncovered cannabis plants along with other funerary items. This marks the first time that full-sized cannabis plants have been found in a burial site.
While different cultures have widely differing burial customs, many are elaborate and many include things thought to hold significance with the dead. The Egyptians were famous for their elaborate, beautiful, and mysterious burial sites. And so it was with the ancient Chinese. Although these were different cultures, they shared a belief in some form of afterlife, and grave goods were provided for the dead to use in the next world.
However, the burial of cannabis plant, in fact 13 cannabis plants, found with the remains of a Caucasian male, is something unusual. The grave was of a man about 35 years of age. These plants were arranged across his chest in a diagonal position, and the man’s head was placed on a red pillow.
So, what significance did cannabis hold for the man, and the society that buried him? Why were the plants placed in that way? Researchers are not yet sure, but there are plenty of theories.
Taking The High Road
There are many theories on the significance of the cannabis in the man’s grave. One of the most commonly accepted theories is that the plant was used for medicinal purposes. Moreover, the use of the plant in a burial also suggested it may have had a ritual function.
The remains are in the Jiayi cemetery in the Turpan basin, among some 240 other ancient graves. The grave has been dated to 2,400 – 2,800 years ago, and after such a long period the cannabis plants have partially fossilized.
The Turpan basin at that time was an important stop of the famous Silk Road trade route between Europe and the East, and was linked with the powerful Gushi Kingdom. Excavation of the graves at the site is hoped to unearth more details about the culture of this kingdom.
This is not the first instance of cannabis discovery in Turpan graves. Cannabis seeds and dried cannabis powder have been found at other graves at the site. Therefore, one could conclude that Cannabis was in wide use in the past and had much significance. However this is the first grave with entire plants in it.
Why Are They There?
The team that discovered the Turpan graves was initially doubtful of the source of these plants. The possibility was considered that the plant was sourced or sold on the Silk Route by traders. However, the discovery of whole plants at the site now seems to confirm that the Turpan basin people grew marijuana plants themselves.
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But despite determining that the plants were local, historians still do not know the exact purpose of cannabis for this society. Since cannabis is a multipurpose herb with diverse uses, it could be used by the Gushi for all sorts of things.
The hemp plant has durable fibers, and it is possible that they used it for cloth making. However, hemp cloth has never been found in Chinese graves or other excavations. Since natural fiber cloth is degradable, it is possible that such cloths have decayed away to nothing, but the lack of evidence remains a problem.
Another use for the plant could lie in its seeds. This would fit with the common inclusion of other seeds with the dead, and hemp seeds are certainly oil-rich and nutritious. The Gushi might have eaten these seeds as a staple. Moreover, one cannot rule out the use of hemp oil for different purposes.
Getting High On Their Own Supply?
In addition to these conjectures, there is also a possibility these cannabis leaves were included for their psychoactive properties. Researchers have found that the Turpan cannabis included the hair-like fibers that hold THC, the principal active compound in cannabis. Given this, medicinal and recreational uses with ritualistic significance still stand as a plausible theory.
Whatever the use, one cannot deny that cannabis was an integral part of Chinese culture, significant enough to the Gushi to include in their burials. This places the ancient kingdom at a marked contrast with modern societies. While present day scientists are exploring the uses of cannabis for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, use of the plant remains illegal for much of the world’s population.
Maybe modern society would do well to take a leaf out of the Gushi’s book.
Top Image: Cannabis cultivation goes back to the dawn of human history. Source: Roxxyphotos / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Jiang, Hongen & Wang, Long & Merlin, Mark & Clarke, Robert & Pan, Yan & Zhang, Yong & Xiao, Guoqiang & Ding, Xiaolian. (2016). Ancient Cannabis Burial Shroud in a Central Eurasian Cemetery. Economic Botany. 70. 10.1007/s12231-016-9351-1.
Kristin R. (2016) Ancient Cannabis ‘Burial Shroud’ Discovered in Desert Oasis. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/marijuana-cannabis-pot-weed-burial-shroud-china-ancient-discovery-scythians-turpan-archaeology-botany
Tibi P. (2016). Ancient Chinese 2,500-year-old grave was covered in a shroud of 13 Cannabis plants. Available at: https://www.zmescience.com/medicine/ancient-grave-cannabis-china/