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Ancient Grave Discovery Shows First Humans To Get High On Cannabis

An excavation of a 2,500-year-old tomb in China has led scientists to believe they found the earliest evidence of people using cannabis to get high.

Scientists have known cannabis has been cultivated for thousands of years, but there has been little archaeological evidence of humans using it to get high.

Until now.

A number of tombs, known as the Jirzankal Cemetery, in the Pamirs region in western China were found to have wooden fragments and burnt stones from pots that tested positive for cannabis, a report published in Science Advances said.

Wooden pieces and burnt stones in the burial pits in western China. Photo: Xinhua Wu

The researchers from China and Germany found the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- the psychoactive chemicals in the plant that make people high -- levels were particularly high in the samples tested.

"The wooden bowl shows characteristics of prolonged use as a mortar, indicating that cannabis was pulverized before consumption," the report said.

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The authors note the cannabis was probably used during a ritual or burial ceremony.

"The smoking... was obviously performed during the burial and may represent a different kind of ritual, perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased," it said.

Wooden pieces and burnt stones in the tombs in western China.  Photo: Xinhua Wu

The artefacts found in the tombs, including the wooden bowl and burnt stones, gave researchers an idea of how the rituals took place.

"We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind," the authors said.

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It has been known that cannabis plants were cultivated in east Asia since at least 4000 BC, and were used for their oily seeds and fiber, but had relatively low levels of THC and other psychoactive properties.

But these findings have now put a date stamp on the earliest time cannabis plants were smoked for their hallucinogenic properties.

"Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes," Robert Spengler, who was an author on the study, said in a statement.

"Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually, and recreationally, over countless millennia."

Contact the author at jdunne@networkten.com.au.