Cannabis has been cultivated by humans for millennia, or to be more precise, since at least 4000 BCE, primarily for their fiber and seeds, and later for medicinal and religious/ritualistic practices.
Our ancestors knew of the potential of the cannabis plant and used it to their advantage, but in the 20th century, the use of cannabis became illegal for the first time in history which has hindered a great deal of potential research. Because of this, certain aspects of cannabis have been shrouded in a cloud of mystery, like how humans first started smoking weed for its psychoactive properties.
Despite a noticeable lack of clear evidence, an exciting archeological discovery has been made about cannabis smoking that gives us some insight into our ancestors’ practices.
So, in this article, we’ll briefly talk about the origin of cannabis and the earliest evidence of smoking this wondrous plant.
First Things First – Where Does Cannabis Originate From?
The cannabis plant has a very long history indeed, but it’s hard to place its exact origins with certainty. However, from what science has managed to discover so far, it’s believed to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountain region in South and Central Asia 2.3 million years ago.
Over time, seeds of the plant found their way into different parts of the world where they adapted to the diverse climate conditions and evolved into different Cannabis types. Cannabis Indica evolved in Southwestern Asia or the Middle East, Cannabis Sativa in the Caucasus Mountain region between Europe and Asia, and Cannabis Ruderalis in the Siberian region in Northern Asia.
Besides these cannabis types, different strains of cannabis belonging to these groups would evolve as well. For example, some strains of Cannabis Sativa have evolved into the hemp plant that was first used for its stalks and seeds, and later, for its CBD content, too.
Cannabis is considered to have spread mainly through the Silk Road, which is a trade route network between the East and the West through which many goods have been exchanged. Hemp seeds and cannabis seeds could’ve been traded between the East and the West, resulting in its spreading.
The book Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, written by Mark Merlin and R. C. Clarke, and published in 2013, offers a comprehensive exploration into the origins and evolution of cannabis with the limited evidence we have so far.
Ancient Civilizations Used Cannabis for Numerous Purposes
Many ancient civilizations used cannabis throughout the millennia for a variety of purposes. The hemp plant was cultivated as an oil-seed, as a food crop, and for its stalks and fiber, while other marijuana varieties were used medicinally and for religious purposes.
The medical use of weed was big in Ancient China because it was used for over a hundred medical ailments, like malaria and absentmindedness. The Ancient Egyptians used it for inflammation and glaucoma, while in the Middle East they smoked it in the form of hashish. In Ancient India they made a medicinal beverage from cannabis and milk, called Bhang, which was also used as an anesthetic.
Do We Know Who Was the First Person to Smoke Cannabis?
We know very little about marijuana use in the context of cultivation specifically for its psychoactive properties, and even less about the identity of the first person who smoked it.
There is a legend about a Chinese emperor who was walking through his garden and noticed the smell of a certain plant. The smell was pungent and unpleasant to the point where he thought the plant was evil. Yet, he couldn’t stop smelling it, so decided to burn it. The legend says that once he inhaled the smoke, he basically got stoned and that’s how smoking weed came to be.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that this story is a little fantastical, and not to mention that there’s no anthropological evidence whatsoever to back it up.
A more believable story is the one by the Greek historian Herodotus who wrote about cannabis in the 5th century BCE, in his book The Histories. He wrote about how the Scythians smoked cannabis by sitting in a tent and placing hot stones over cannabis in a bowl. However, this remains in writing only.
Even though we don’t know who was the first person to smoke weed for the first time ever, scientists have discovered something insightful about cannabis smoking before our time.
The Earliest Evidence of Cannabis Being Used for Its Psychoactive Properties
Research conducted by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has given us the earliest evidence of smoking cannabis for its psychoactive properties.
The paper The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs was published in 2019 in the journal Science Advances and it documents archeological discoveries made in 2013 and 2014 and the subsequent analyses.
The archeologists found traces of cannabinoids preserved in wooden braziers (akin to modern-day incense burners) in 2500-year-old tombs in western China.
More specifically, the team explored the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Mountains of Western China where they found traces of CBD (cannabinol), the cannabinoid that forms when THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) degrades.
They recovered ten sets of wooden braziers along with other wooden artifacts, such as bowls, plates, and Chinese harps, concluding that the people in this region likely smoked cannabis during burial rites, possibly to commune with the dead. The cannabis was likely placed in the wooden braziers (akin to modern-day incense burners) and covered with hot stones so that it can start burning.
In their paper, they state the following: “The burning of cannabis inside the braziers suggests that fire was an important part of the funerary rites at the Jirzankal Cemetery, as it has been in Central Asia from at least the late third millennium BCE, when human cremations are recorded from Kazakhstan and Xinjiang.”
Later they add: “We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.”
One interesting thing about all this, though, is that the cannabinoid traces they found indicate that the type of cannabis burned had higher levels of THC than the average cannabis plants that grew in the wild at the time. So what’s unclear is whether they cultivated cannabis plants with higher THC or they sought them out in nature.
However, as Nicole Boivin, one of the researchers points out, these findings “back up the belief that cannabis was first used for its psychoactive properties by the locals in the mountainous regions of eastern Central Asia, from where it later spread throughout the rest of the globe.”
Cannabis has a long and complex history that we’re only beginning to uncover. While we do know bits and pieces based on some written evidence, it’s the archeological discoveries that give us the strongest evidence around the use of marijuana in the past. Even though the first person who smoked marijuana is still a mystery, new discoveries tell us for certain that weed was, in fact, used for its psychoactive properties.