Ancient History of Cannabis Use – Early Sativa Smokersadmin
Two and a half thousand years ago in the inhospitable deserts of western China there was a fascinating group of nomads cultivating and carefully preparing Cannabis with strong psychoactive qualities, they may even be the first people to selectively breed Cannabis Sativa. Very little was known about these people, referred to as the Jushi, until the discovery of the Yanghai Tombs in 2008.
The Yanghai Tombs is a vast cemetery complex located at the foot of the spectacular Flaming Mountains, vast red sandstone cliffs scored with deep gullies which shimmer in the evening heat making it seem they’re on fire. Truly a spectacularly beautiful part of the world but at the time also a key part of the immensely important Silk Road trading route, to navigate the brutally arid Turpan Basin would require very good knowledge of the various oasis and watering spots along the route so such easily recognisable landmarks likely had great cultural significance.
Inside the tombs they discovered some truly fascinating artefacts that tell us a lot about their way of life, including in one belonging to a 45 year old man a bowl containing almost thirty ounces of Cannabis Sativa which experts determined to be most likely grown for it’s psychoactive and medicinal qualities. Nearby in the Jiayi cemetery a decade later another burial was discovered from approximately the same time period in which a thirty-five year old man had been buried with thirteen large cannabis plants laid over his chest. These finds only add to a growing body of evidence that suggest cannabis was widely used for recreational and medicinal purposes all across the Asian steppe from Siberia to the Ural mountains in Europe.
Cannabis today comes in two main strains, Indica as it’s name suggests originating in India along the southern edge of the Himalayas, and Sativa originating from the planes north of the Himalayas in the areas now occupied by Mongolia, southern Siberia and western China. Sativa get’s it’s name from a Latin word meaning ‘cultivated’ to denote that it’s a domesticated crop which has been selective bred to enhance it’s yield, flavour or potency. We don’t know exactly where or by who Cannabis Sativa was first cultivated but the discovery of such carefully grown and prepared cannabis among the burials of these steppe nomads suggests they were in some way connected to that tradition.
The life these people must have lived is truly inspiring, mounted nomads with a very close bond to their horses as can be seen from the fact they’re often buried with them and some horses even have graves of their own. They must have been greatly skilled riders, their horses are kitted out with gag bits and highly ornate saddles woven from thousands of bits of knotted leather to improve flexibility and comfort. Most impressive a testament to their horse riding abilities however is the vast ranges which they appear to have travelled, artefacts and plants have been found with origins huge distances away in all directions.
One of the most fascinating things about the mummies of the Tarim Basin is they appear to come from diverse ethnic origins, many have European features with red or fair coloured hair and full beards. Recent genetic studies have confirmed many of the mummies are of Western European, Eurasian, Indian and other equally as diverse lineages. It’s not however fully understood how such diverse people came to live in one of the worlds most inhospitable regions.
We can only speculate but the image of an amazing existence becomes apparent, skilled riders going on vast adventures trading rare goods and plants with people all over the continent. Their grave goods suggest they enjoyed fine art, delicate craftsmanship and good living with exotic foods like olives, grapes, capers and other delicacies. We can only guess at the true extents of their travels, the many fascinating places they went, or for what purposes they used the Cannabis they grew. Some of the only historical clues we have come from the Greek historian Herodotus, talking about the practices of the ‘Scythians’ a Greek word for the nomadic cultures roaming the central Asian steppe;
“After the burial the Scythians cleanse themselves as follows: they anoint and wash their heads and, for their bodies, set up three poles leaning together to a point and cover these over with wool mats; then, in the space so enclosed to the best of their ability, they make a pit in the center beneath the poles and the mats and throw red-hot stones into it…. the Scythians then take the seed of this κάνναβις (kannabis) and, crawling into the tents, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smoulders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath”
Beside these hints all we really know is that after long and eventful lives roaming the world on horse back and consuming large quantities of high-quality cannabis they ended up being laid to rest at the foot of the great Flaming Mountains surrounded by some of the exotic treasures they’d grown accustomed to in their travels. Although so little is known about these people what we do know about them is fascinating and with lots of archaeological studies still in progress hopefully we’ll soon learn more about these early cannabis enthusiasts.
By Calvin Rawlins
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