The Who, What, When, Where and Why of That Mummy With A Sack Of Weed

A while back, scientists in China discovered an ancient burial site with evidence of cannabis – and evidence that the persons buried in those types of burial sites were given the cannabis for their journey through death. And of course, evidence that people used cannabis to get high.

Scientists and historians have no trouble believing that ancient people used hemp to make rope, clothing, ship sails and other important dry goods. But the amount of research that’s been done on whether those same ancient people actually smoked hemp flower is… not a large amount. That’s despite the fact that there’s ample evidence – both in terms of archeological digs like this and primary sources like histories and anthropological surveys written at the time – that Gilgamesh and Enkidu sparked up with something resembling abandon.

Here are the basics on the mummy with a sack of weed:

Who was he? The burial site held a blue-eyed man of about 35 – which, in those times, was a ripe old age –  along with other objects, like a harp and bridles, to be used in the afterlife. Due to his stature and clothing, scientists believe the man in the site was a shaman. He was covered in cannabis plants – the roots of the plants covering his waist and the tips near his face. Here’s the cool part: Whoever buried him had picked out all the parts of the cannabis plant that were less psychoactive – meaning this hemp wasn’t just grown for rope and sails. In other, similar tombs, scientists have discovered wooden braziers used for burning materials – like, for instance, cannabis. 

What did he have with him? So first things first: The weed had decomposed over the thousands of years it had lain dormant and was not, sadly, smokeable. (it was, though, still green.) All told it was about two pounds of weed, or 13 individual marijuana plants that were still mostly intact. It’s the oldest weed in the world. At first, scientists thought it was coriander, but microscopic analysis revealed that it was in fact weed. The investigation was a relatively simple one, since the area around the burial site was extremely dry and the soil very alkaline. Both of these made the process of dating and examining everything much simpler, since decomposition was arrested.

“This study actually shows first of all that they are burning this material in these actual wooden burners, and that is part of a funeral ceremony, but also that there are elevated THC levels, so humans are potentially targeting specific plants with great chemical productions,” Robert Spengler, a paleoethnobotanist at the Max Planck Institute, told reporters when the mummy was found.

Where was he found? What does that mean for pot use in the ancient world? The mummy was discovered on the southeastern corner of the Pamir plateau – a desert nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. About 2,500 years ago – how old scientists have discerned the burial site is – the area was a crossroads of east and west, with a diverse population and multiple cultures mingling. It was also a stop on the Silk Road, a trade route used for (you guessed it) silk, but which some scientists suspect was used for drugs as well. What’s more, in a separate dig about ten years earlier, another set of researchers discovered cannabis growing nearby. So scientists wonder whether this area was a place where people actually came to obtain weed. The high altitude certainly helps; this burial site may have been in a local epicenter for pot use and production. The Humboldt County of the ancient world. 

How do scientists know all this? The confusion about whether the plant was cannabis or coriander was never really a problem; nobody makes any proclamations of certainty until the lab work is done. In the case of this cannabis, scientists used new techniques that enable them to identify the specific chemistry of specific plants – and even evaluate their potency. Indeed, one of the goals of the excavation is to track the spread of cannabis along the Silk Road.

Why should we be studying this? From a lay person’s perspective, the purpose of studying this seems hazy. Are we just spending a bunch of money so a bunch of scientists can prove that some old dead guy from a zillion years ago was a pothead? And the answer is, well… yes? There’s two perspectives to consider here: The scientific perspective and the pothead perspective. From a scientific perspective, it absolutely makes sense that we would want to know as much as possible about how, why and when ancient peoples used psychoactive substances. Learning this may lead future scientists to make newer and broader connections in describing the everyday lives of our progenitors. And from a pothead perspective… Look, there’s no question that the American antipathy towards weed has a major impact on a lot of disciplines – science chief among them. Not studying whether ancient people used psychoactive substances available to us today, simply because a few powerful prudes happened to be in the right time at the right place to make millions of people terrified of pot, is just silly.

The discovery as a whole adds substantially to a growing body of evidence that cannabis was used by ancient peoples for its psychoactive properties, rather than simply sticking to the more workaday uses of hemp. It didn’t just have practical purposes. It had social purposes, religious purposes, medical purposes and more. 4

“The methods are convincing, and the data are unambiguous regarding early use of cannabis as a psychoactive substance,” says Tengwen Long, an environmental scientist who researches cannabis origins.

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