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Prehistoric body found buried in cannabis-plant shroud at ancient Silk Road oasis

Ancient cultures on the Silk Road may have prized marijuana's psychoactive properties

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 05 October 2016 18:09
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Archaeologists say the discovery could give new insight into the ritualistic use of cannabis in prehistoric central Eurasia
Archaeologists say the discovery could give new insight into the ritualistic use of cannabis in prehistoric central Eurasia

A body wrapped in cannabis plants has been found in a prehistoric tomb in China, in a discovery which suggests the psychoactive plant may have been used for ritual purposes.

The remains of a man, who died when he was about 35, were found wrapped in 13 plants in the Jiayi cemetery at Turpan in north-west China. Archaeologists said the plants, which were up to about a metre long, appeared to have been arranged as a “burial shroud”. Radiocarbon dating was used to estimate the tomb was created sometimes between 2,400 and 2,800 years ago.

Writing in the journal Economic Botany, archaeologist Dr Hongen Jiang, of the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues described the discovery as “extraordinary”.

“Research discussed in this paper describes 13 nearly whole plants of cannabis that appear to have been locally produced and purposefully arranged and used as a burial shroud which was placed upon a male corpse,” they said. “This unique discovery provides new insight into the ritualistic use of cannabis in prehistoric central Eurasia.”

They added that, coupled with fragments of cannabis found in other tombs in the area, the discovery revealed “cannabis was used by the local central Eurasian people for ritual and/or medicinal purposes” during this time.

The man’s body was lying on a wooden bed and his head rested on a pillow made from reeds. The roots of cannabis plants were placed near his pelvis while the top of the plants brushed the side of his face.

The National Geographic magazine reported the tomb added to growing archaeological evidence that cannabis was “very popular” in the Eurasian steppe during pre-history.

The burial is associated with the Subeixi culture, also known as the Gushi Kingdom, which existed between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago in the area.

Turpan’s oasis in the surrounding desert made it an important stop-off on the Silk Road linking China to the West.

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