Ancient Marijuana 'Burial Shroud' Uncovered in Desert Oasis

Archeologists in China have uncovered a 2,500-year-old grave site that contains the bones of a man draped in freshly harvested marijuana plants—with the budding tops lopped off. As first reported in National Geographic, researchers say the "extraordinary cache" helps deepen our understanding of the plant's ritual and medicinal use in ancient Eurasian cultures.


According to research findings reported in the journal Economic Botany, a team led by archeologist Hongen Jiang unearthed the burial site of a man, approximately 35 years old with Caucasian features, from a cemetery in China's Turpan Basin. At the time of the man's death, the area was known as the Gushi Kingdom, and the desert oasis there was an important stop on the Silk Road.

The remains of the man rested on a wooden pallet with a reed pillow beneath his head. Thirteen marijuana plants up to three feet long were placed diagonally across his chest, the tops running from just under his chin and along the left side of his face, forming a sort of cannabis shroud.

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It's not the first time signs of marijuana have been found in archeological digs in the region. In 2008, a burial site in nearby Yanghai cemetery turned up turned up nearly a kilogram of marijuana seeds and powdered leaves. Not far to the west, marijuana seeds have also turned up in first millennium B.C.E. Scythian burials in southern Siberia.

But this is the first time archeologists have uncovered complete marijuana plants, and the first time they've seen them used as a shroud, Jiang said. Because they are whole plants, researchers can determine that they were grown locally, rather than obtained by trade from elsewhere.

The plants were lying flat on the man's body, meaning they had been fresh when harvested in the area. Also, most of the flowering buds—interestingly, all females—had been collected, enabling the archeologists to determine that the burial had occurred in late summer, when the plants would have been mature.

The fact that all the plants are females is especially suggestive, as the female plants contain the highest quantities of THC, the cannabinoid responsible for creating marijuana's high. Not only that, the remaining buds turned out—even 25 centuries later—to be covered in trichomes, the tiny "hairs" that secrete the resin containing THC and the other cannabinoids.

That, and a lack of discoveries of hemp textiles, led the archeologists to suggest marijuana had been grown and harvested for its intoxicating properties, and could have been smoked or consumed in a beverage for ritual and/or medicinal purposes.

The Turpan "Reefer Man" is just the latest evidence that marijuana consumption was "very popular" along the Silk Road and across the steppes at least 2,500 years before mid-20th-century jazz musicians and beatniks began to popularize it here. 

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