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A Brief Interview With Prof. Yimin Yang, Discoverer of Ancient Chinese Cannabis

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Circa-Millions of Years Ago

Talk about a long growing season, Cannabis has been growing wild on our planet provenly, for millions of years and cultivated for perhaps many thousands. Cannabis sativa belongs to a narrow group of flowering plants (cannabaceae) to include Hops and a handful of others. Originating in Central Asia, cannabis became embedded in early Asian culture as the people derived such necessary staples as cordage for tying, fiber for clothing, and much more from this verdant little plant with a caravan of utility.

It isn’t hard to imagine that somewhere along the Silk Road some lonely night traveler may have wondered what other secrets this little plant might possess and decided to put fire to it. A possibility no doubt, but strong evidence that marijuana was consumed for its psychotropic effects in ancient times just isn’t there. Or is it? 

First Reference

The Greek Historian Herodotus wrote that as far back as 440 B.C. the nomadic Scythians, as part of their post-burial ritual for the dearly demised, consumed cannabis smoke to purify themselves. Paraphrasing his account, they would dig a pit then fill it with red-hot stones and form a small 3-pole tent around it. The next step was the throwing of Kavvabic (kannabis) seeds onto the hot stones, apparently sending up such clouds as to rival a fine Greek bath house. 

When the tent filled with the aromatic intoxicant the mourning Scythians would crawl in, breathe the smoke and according to Herodotus, “howl in their joy at the vapor-bath.” One could reasonably assume other parts of the cannabis plant hit those hot rocks. (I wonder if that’s where the term getting stoned originated?)

Herodotus or not, present day scholars require facts and historically there has been no substantive proof cannabis was burned and smoked to potentiate its psychoactive properties. Until now.

High in the Mountains?

In 2013, an international research team led by Yimin Yang, Prof., Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, began excavation of the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Mountain range of Central China. A region known also as the Pamir Plateau.

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, the team was there to excavate the site and study the ancient tombs of the indigenous peoples of the region. Included in this diverse group of researchers was coauthor of the study, Doctor Robert Spengler, Director of Paleoethnobotany Laboratories for the Max Planc Institute for the Science of Human History.

The details of their discovery were finally published in the prestigious Science Advances in June of 2019. The article chronicled the unearthing of ten wooden braziers at the Pamir burial site, the contents of which held a yet to be realized, remarkable discovery. Within those braziers a collection of burnt residue and ash still remained, and it was within those small piles of ash an ancient secret slept.

Courtesy of Yimin Yang

Note: A brazier can be any type holder, pan or box and even a hollowed-out piece of wood for holding hot coals or stones. They were often used for cooking or in cultural rituals. In this instance, these braziers were thought to be typical funerary incense burners. However, through high-tech analyzation processes they would discover their contents were anything but typical.

Testing 1-2-3

Marshaling the latest scientific methods of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), professor Yang and his colleagues conducted several tests. First analyzing the chemical signature in the ash, which, to their excitement, revealed the presence of tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Further testing disclosed not only was it marijuana, but a strain more potent than any previously found growing wild in the region, hinting at cultivation or perhaps, even trade; another milestone. Moreover, the high quality of the cannabis lends more credence to the viewpoint marijuana was smoked deliberately for its mind-modifying properties. This was a signal discovery and historic first.

Adding to the team’s success, further testing determined the ancient herb to be at least 2,500 years old, making it the oldest pot ever discovered directly linked to consumption for the purpose of reshaping consciousness. In one interview, Professor Yang speculated that during the funeral rites mourners likely smoked the cannabis to communicate with the spirit world or the spirit of the recently departed. 

Mountain Man

This was an historic discovery an worthy of pursuit. I reached out to Professor Yang, the Pamir Expedition leader, and found him in Beijing. I explained I write for a cannabis-friendly magazine and would like to interview him about his team’s findings. He was gracious enough to grant me a brief Q&A even though he was in a hotel room and on vacation at the time.

For the record, Professor Yang holds a PhD in Archaeometry and is a world renowned authority on ancient organic residue analysis.

High Times: Thank you so much for taking time for this interview, Professor.

Professor Yang: You are most welcome.

About the marijuana discovered in the tombs, were you able to discern its type? Whether a Sativa or Indica strain?

No. There is a long debate on the taxonomy (classification) of cannabis. We just deduced the ancient, burned cannabis to have a high THC content.

I’m curious. How, after 2,500 years could you tell the cannabis you discovered was potent?

Cannabis with a high THC level often contains a low level of CBD. The cannabinoids detected on the wooden braziers are mainly CBN, indicating that the burned cannabis plants expressed higher THC levels than typically found in wild plants.

A pattern of relatively equivalent amounts of THC and CBD would be expected for wild cannabis plants, but evident peaks corresponding to cannabinoids of CBD and its degradation products (such as cannabielsoin) were not detected in the burning residues.

So the GC/MS test results told you the cannabis in the braziers was a more powerful strain than any yet discovered?

Yes.

That must have been a very exciting moment. What are the dimensions of the braziers you discovered containing the cannabis residue?

The diameter of the braziers is about 10-20 cm.

Did you find any signs of cultivation?

There is no strong evidence for cultivation. Archaeologists found some bad-burned braziers in the tomb, so we believe these braziers, stones, and cannabis burning, happened in the funeral ritual.

Have you written other papers on this subject one may be able to read?

It is the first time cannabis residue was chemically analyzed so I don’t have other papers to provide.



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