Sunday, July 1, 2018

New Archeological Finds Point to Ancient Cannabis Use, Despite Prejudice of Some Scholars

“For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs,” begins an article in the 4/20/18(!) edition of Science magazine.

Alcohol was fermented at least 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the article continues, and psychoactive drugs “were an important part of culture. But the Near East had seemed curiously drug-free—until recently. Now, new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances."

Australian archeologist David Collard, who has found signs of ritual opium use on Cyprus dating back more than 3000 years, was interviewed for the article, and said that some senior researchers consider the topic “unworthy of scholarly attention.” He told Science, “The archeology of the ancient Near East is traditionally conservative.”

By Einsamer Schütze [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0
(], from Wikimedia Commons
The Yamnaya people, who traveled from Central Asia around 3000 BCE “and left their genes in most living Europeans and South Asians,” appear to have carried cannabis, which originates in East and Central Asia, to Europe and the Middle East.” They also brought with them the wheel and possibly Indo-European languages.

The Yamnaya were part of the "corded ware culture," so named because of the cord patterns in their pottery, and possibly pointing to the use of hemp for rope.

In 2016, a team from the German Archeological Institute and the Free University, both in Berlin, found residues and botanical remains of cannabis at Yamnaya sites across Eurasia. Digs in the Caucasus have uncovered braziers containing seeds and charred remains of cannabis dating to about 3000 BCE.

“The distinction between medicine and mind-altering drug may have been lost on ancient peoples,” the article states. Megan Cifarelli, an art historian at Manhattanville College in New York, notes that “the ancients likely used drugs not just to heal, but to forge sets of beliefs, and contact a spiritual realm where healing and religion were entwined.”

Munbaqa (Syria): Wall painting (red and black) in non-domestic building 
dated EBA IVA = Akkadian period. Machule, D. et al. 
“Ausgrabungen in Tall Munbaqa 1984,” MDOG 118 (1986) pp. 79, 85ff, Abb. 10.
Diana Stein, an archaeologist at Birkbeck University of London, has been re-interpreting depictions of ancient banquet scenes as representing the imbibing of psychoactive potions and the alternative reality that is produced in the imbiber. “Scholars have tended to shy away from the possibility the the ancient Near Easterners partook of ‘recreational’ drugs, apart from alcohol, so it’s good that someone is brave enough to look into it,” commented archaeologist Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University about Stein’s work.

Stein wrote in 2014,* "As courts today debate whether to legalize or regulate the use of drugs like cannabis, it is interesting to look at the history of man’s relationship with mind-altering substances. Several books, exhibits, and catalogues have recently explored the topic. Yet, despite the consensus that 'every society on earth is a high society,' the ancient Near East is omitted from these surveys. Is it too remote? Do we know so little? Was it unique? The evidence suggests otherwise."

Stein finds "widespread" evidence for the presence of Cannabis sativa in the ancient world, starting with Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic site in Turkey, where "a hemp-weaved fabric was recently found wrapped around a skeleton below a burnt building dated ca. 7000 BCE. Already at this time hemp is thought to have been an important trade item. Elsewhere in Central Asia, Caucasia, and the Eurasian steppe, evidence for hemp extends from late Neolithic to Scythian times and exists in the form of rope, thread, hemp-impressed pottery, and actual hemp seeds. Some of the hemp-impressed ware served as braziers that were found in graves, and the seeds were likewise associated with braziers and burials....All of these psychotropic plants have medicinal properties and would have been used in treating physical or psychological conditions. The residue of burnt cannabis, discovered within the abdomen of a young girl who died during childbirth and was buried in a fourth century BCE tomb near Jerusalem, supports this."

*Psychedelics and the Ancient Near East, Ancient Near East Today, ASOR (July 2014)

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