Remains found of ancient dope smoker: Cannabis used as painkiller in fourth century


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THE MORTAL remains of the world's earliest confirmed dope smoker have been discovered in a fourth-century tomb near Jerusalem.

Israeli scientists have analysed material from the skeleton of a girl aged about 14 and conclude that she was given cannabis to smoke as a painkiller during childbirth.

Using the latest techniques for the chemical analysis of microscopic amounts of substances, the scientists discovered tetrahydrocannabinol, an active ingredient of cannabis, in a grey powder found in the abdominal area of the skeleton.

Raphael Mechoulam, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and scientific colleagues from the Israeli police forensic service and the Israel Antiquities Authority, report the discovery in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Records of the medicinal use of cannabis appear in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus of the 16th century BC. The plant is also mentioned as a medicinal agent in ancient Assyrian, Greek and Roman texts. 'But physical evidence of cannabis use in the ancient Middle East has not yet been obtained,' the researchers say, until that is they analysed an undisturbed family tomb in Beit Shemesh.

The girl's skeleton contained the remains of a fully developed, 40-week-old foetus. She was lying in an extended position, 'apparently in the last stages of pregnancy or giving birth at the time of her death'. Bronze coins found in the tomb were dated to between AD315 and AD392.

'We assume that the ashes found in the tomb were cannabis, burnt in a vessel and administered . . . as an inhalant to facilitate the birth process. In antiquity, this procedure would usually have been carried out by a midwife as physicians were by law prohibited from attending women in labour.'

Roger Pertwee, a pharmacologist at the University of Aberdeen and expert on the medicinal use of cannabis, said there are brain receptors assumed to be involved in the perception of pain that respond to cannabis.

He said there are many reports of cannabis being used as a painkiller in ancient times and cannabis seeds found at the site of a medieval hospital near Edinburgh could be the earliest physical evidence of the drug's use in the UK.