Cannabis Plant Remains Discovered in an Ancient Tomb in China

October 6, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: Chmee2/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

A 2,500-year-old Cannabis burial shroud provides new insight into the plant’s use in prehistoric Central Eurasia.

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient tomb from the Turpan Basin in northwest China, containing a male corpse covered with a Cannabis plant shroud.

Writing in the journal Economic Botany, Hongen Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues describe the burial of a Caucasian male, of around 35 years old, who was laid to rest on a wooden bed with a pillow made of reeds under his head, and surrounded by pottery.

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Thirteen nearly whole Cannabis plants about 3 feet (0.91 meters) long were laid diagonally across his body, with their roots below his pelvis and the stems extending to his chin. The leaves had been pressed flat, suggesting that fresh, locally-grown plants had been placed on the corpse prior to burial.

As National Geographic reports, the tomb was one of 240 graves belonging to the Jiayi cemetery. Based on radiocarbon dating, the researchers narrowed down the burial date to between 2,800 and 2,400 years ago, suggesting the deceased was part of the Subeixi Culture — the first permanent residents of China’s Turpan Basin.

This is not the first evidence of ancient Cannabis use in the region. At the Yanhai cemetery, which dates to roughly the same period and belongs to the same culture as the Jiayi cemetery, researchers concluded that the large supply of Cannabis flowers found at one of the grave sites was derived from plants that had been “selected for pharmaceutical, psychoactive, or divinatory purposes.”

The authors propose that the Cannabis found in the Jiayi tomb, which was covered with glandular trichromes that secrete cannabinoids, including THC, might have similarly been harvested for their psychoactive resins.

“This unique discovery provides new insight into the ritualistic use of Cannabis in prehistoric Central Eurasia,” they write.

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