Central Asia is believed to be the ancestral homeland of the cannabis plant, and the ancient peoples of the region are known to have been instrumental in its spread throughout the world, to southern and eastern Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe.
The Early Evolution of the Cannabis Plant
It is postulated that the common ancestor of the modern varieties of cannabis we know now originated in the steppes of Central Asia in one of two places: A) around the Irtysh River that flows westward from Mongolia into the Siberian lowlands south of Lake Baikal, in the Taklamakan desert north of Tibet, or B) growing wild in abundance in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, around the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, in the Hindu Kush mountain range, and in the southern foothills of the Himalayas.
From its heartland in Central Asia, it is thought that early humans assisted the spread of cannabis in almost all directions. In the hot tropical regions of southern and eastern Asia, tall and spindly sativa-type strains adapted well to higher temperatures and humidity levels and became more prevalent, while indica-type strains evolved in the mountainous southern regions of the Himalayan foothills and the Hindu Kush, which are cool and dry but still receive intense sunlight.
Now, the cannabis varieties found in Central Asia vary greatly. In the cooler northern regions, strains that are currently identified as C. ruderalis dominate; further southwards, traits more reminiscent of C. sativa and C. indica become increasingly apparent.
How Ancient Central Asians Helped Bring Cannabis to the World
The Scythians were a nomadic Central Asian civilization who arguably did more than any other to assist the spread of cannabis from its heartland in the steppes westward into Europe and the Arabian Peninsula, merely by travelling extensively throughout the regions described, and making enthusiastic use of cannabis that was noted and in some instances imitated by the people they encountered.
Around 450 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the Scythians burned cannabis in special braziers that allowed them to effectively “bathe” in its fumes, an activity that apparently afforded them great pleasure. It is also thought that the tribe of warlike women known as the Amazons were of Scythian origin, and that they too made extensive use of cannabis.
The Scythians were also thought to have introduced cannabis to central and eastern Europe by the 8th century BCE. Charred remains of hemp seeds have apparently been found in Scythian burial sites sites dating to 800-400 BCE in Ukraine. It is also thought that many of the hemp-related rituals of eastern Europe, such as the throwing of hemp seeds into a fire to commemorate the dead, have their roots in Scythian tradition.
Image above by Dzungarian Alatau/Shutterstock
Archaeological Evidence for Cannabis Use in Central Asia
There is a surprising abundance of archaeological evidence for ancient use of cannabis in Central Asia. Many grave sites have the advantage of being dug deep and located in areas with cold/frozen, arid and alkaline conditions that allowed for excellent preservation of biological material. Undoubtedly, the most famous Central Asian sites that afford evidence of early cannabis use are the Pazyryk burials that were discovered in the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in 1929. Dated to 700-500 BCE, the Pazyryk site contains spectacular graves of several individuals, one of whom is thought to be a chieftain and another a warrior woman or shaman.
In the tomb of the so-called chieftain, a powerfully built man around 45 years of age, a large bowl and leather basket containing 789 grams of cannabis were discovered. Although originally thought to be coriander, the contents of the bowls have been thoroughly tested and confirmed to be cannabis. Furthermore, while genetic analysis was incomplete due to the age of the material, the presence of noticeable amounts of CBN suggest that the cannabis in question contained significant levels of THC, as CBN is the compound that results when THC naturally degrades over time. Researchers also detected trace levels of the cannabinoids CBD, CBC, CBL and CBNV.
The second tomb of note contained the so-called Siberian Ice Princess, a highly-tattooed, lavishly-decorated woman around 25 years of age. Last year, a team of Russian scientists announced the discovery that the Ice Princess had almost certainly died of breast cancer. They further postulated that the container of cannabis found within her own burial chamber may have indicated that in life, medicinal use of cannabis was an important means of coping with her devastating illness.