The cannabis was found with the remains of a man who was approximately 35 years old when he died and was buried in the Jiayi cemetery in the Turpan Basin. Pictured: A grow light shines through the leaves of a cannabis plant at Northern Lights grow facility in Denver, Colorado on March 27, 2014. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

Tales from the crypt: Cannabis burial find dates back thousands of years

Scientists in China recently made an exciting discovery – uncovering what they call an “extraordinary cache” of cannabis at a burial site that’s thought to be about 2,500 years old.

The find was originally documented in the academic journal Economic Botany. According to a National Geographic report, the cannabis was found with the remains of a man who was approximately 35 years old when he died and was buried in the Jiayi cemetery in the Turpan Basin, a stop on the Silk Road in what is now Xinjiang in western China:

Thirteen cannabis plants, each up to almost three feet long, were placed diagonally across the man’s chest, with the roots oriented beneath his pelvis and the tops of the plants extending from just under his chin, up and alongside the left side of his face.

Archaeologist Hongen Jiang says the discovery adds to earlier scientific data that suggests cannabis consumption was “very popular” thousands of years ago along the Eurasian Steppe: a belt of grasslands and savannahs that stretches thousands of miles from Hungary to Manchuria.

The National Geographic report notes that while previous discoveries of cannabis in Turpan burials found only certain parts of cannabis plants, the marijuana unearthed in this tomb was different.

The plants in the Jiayi burial, however, were found lying flat on the man’s body, leading archaeologists to conclude that the cannabis had been fresh — and therefore local — when it was harvested for the burial.

In addition, while nearly all of the flowering heads of the 13 female plants had been cut off before they were placed on the body, a few that remained were nearly ripe and contained some immature fruit, suggesting that the plants were collected — and that the burial occurred — in late summer.

Cannabis is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants; and its use in cloth, fiber and food in its hemp form is well-documented.

However, no hemp textiles have been found in Turpan burials, and the seeds of the plants in the Jiayi burial are too small to serve as a practical food source, archaeologist Jiang notes.

Meanwhile, the flowering heads of the Jiayi plants were covered with glandular trichomes, a sort of tiny plant “hair” that in cannabis secretes resin containing psychoactive cannabinoids such as THC. The researchers suspect that this marijuana was grown and harvested for its psychoactive resin, which may have been inhaled as a sort of incense or consumed in a beverage for ritual or medicinal purposes.

All of which suggests that consuming cannabis to get high might be part of a very old and time-honored tradition, dating back to our ancient ancestors.

Read the full National Geographic report.