Archaeologists working in northwestern China discovered what they call an “extraordinary cache” of “ancient, well preserved” cannabis plants serving as part of the burial shroud for a man believed to be approximately 35 years of age at his time of death.
The discovery was made by Hongen Jiang of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues and occurred at a tomb in the Jiayi cemetery of Turpan, a prefecture-level city located in the east Xinjiang region.
Writing in the journal Economic Botany, Jiang’s team reveals that the tomb features 13 cannabis plants that were nearly in perfect condition, and which appeared to have been grown specifically in the area and arranged purposefully as a burial shroud for the male corpse. The discovery, they explained, could shed new light on the plant’s ritual use in ancient Central Eurasia.
Detail from one of the plants. (Credit: Hongen Jiang)
Radiocarbon dating places the age of the cannabis plants to between 2,400 and 2,800 years old, and according to National Geographic, some of them were up to three feet long. The corpse was laid out on a wooden bed with a reed pillow under his head, and the cannabis was placed across his chest diagonally, reaching from his chin to beneath his pelvis, the publication added.
The discovery of this cannabis, along with similar remains recovered from other tombs in the Turpan cemetery, reveals that the plant “was used by the local Central Eurasian people for ritual and/or medicinal purposes in the first millennium before the Christian era,” the authors wrote.
Evidence suggests that the plant had been grown locally
The newfound burial site is one of 240 graves excavated at the Jiayi cemetery, Nat Geo noted, and the discovery of cannabis plants there adds to the mounting evidence suggesting that it was commonly used and “very popular” in Eurasia several thousand years ago, Jiang added.
Previously, cannabis seeds dating back to first millennium BC have been found at burial sites located to the west of Turpan, including at the tomb of a woman believed to have died of breast cancer and who may have been using cannabis to treat her illness. However, this is the first time archaeologists have recovered complete cannabis plants, the researchers told Nat Geo.
It also marks the first confirmed usage of the plant as a “shroud” or covering for a human body, Jiang added. The fact that the plants were lying flat on the man’s corpse leads his team to believe that it was fresh and must have been grown locally before being harvested for the funeral.
Furthermore, while most of the flowering heads of the plants were cut off prior to their use on the body, those that remained were said to be nearly ripe and contained immature fruit. Based on this discovery, it is likely that the plants had been collected (and the burial took place) during the late summer. The plants were identified based on their morphological and anatomical features.
Image credit: Hongen Jiang
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