How did early civilizations utilize the plant? Most of our hunter-gathering ancestors did not live in caves, so “caveman” is a somewhat dated term that scientists never use today, but most of the archeological evidence has been found in caves, tombs and other dry places that can preserve organic matter for longer periods of time.
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. With burial mounds dating back as early as 3000 BCE, the Pazyryk site contained 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, researchers uncovered a powerfully built man around 45 years of age, a large bowl and leather basket containing 789 grams of cannabis. While genetic analysis was incomplete due to the age of the material, noticeable amounts of cannabinol (CBN)—a compound that appears when tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) naturally degrades over time—suggest the cannabis originally contained significant levels of THC.
The second tomb of note contained the so-called Siberian Ice Princess, a heavily tattooed, lavishly decorated woman around 25 years of age. In 2014, a team of Russian scientists announced the discovery that the Ice Princess had almost certainly died of breast cancer. The researchers further postulated that the container of cannabis found within her burial chamber may have indicated that, in life, medicinal use of cannabis was an important means of coping with her devastating illness.
Likewise, some of the Yanghai Tombs in the Turpan Basin of Xinjiang in northwest China contained large amounts of mummified cannabis sativa, but not hemp. The contents of the tombs, which date back to around 2500 BCE, suggest the Chinese civilization might have taken advantage of the plant’s psychoactive properties. Epitomizing the early use of cannabis in Ancient China, some Yangshao-era pottery dating back to 6200 BCE include paintings of the plant. Evidence of medical use dates back to 4000 BCE, and emperor Shen Nung included the plant in his pharmacopoeia—the oldest such medical book known to man—around 2700 BCE.
Photo credit: Wikipedia/Dmitry Mottl.