Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Evidence of marijuana use is scattered throughout the archaeological record of human civilization. Residue from most of those excavation sites indicates that the cannabis used by ancient humans was of too low potency to have been cultivated, leading archaeologists to conclude that the plants were likely wild varieties rather than ones domesticated by humans.

But a recent find at a cemetery in the glacier-rich Pamirs of western China indicates that humans may have intentionally selected higher potency strains of marijuana as early as 500 BC.

The research team, which included archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, published their findings in the June 12 issue of the journal Science Advances.

A wood brazier unearthed at Jirzankal, which was buried within the tomb, containing cannabis residue (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Mark Merlin is a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was a reviewer of the study. “We’ve known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp,” Merlin told NPR. “Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties.

The 2,500-year-old Jirzankal Cemetery lies at nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), in present day Xinjiang Uyghyr Autonomous Region, a large province in northwest China. Excavated tombs revealed mummies buried with wood containers, called braziers, used for containing hot coals. Researchers found that the braziers contained cannabis residue.

“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.”

Ren, et al

The discovery at Jirzankal is significant because of the strength of the psychoactive component of the cannabis residue, which suggests the plants were either cultivated varieties of high potency, or wild varieties which were intentionally selected for this quality.

The research further underscores the role that glaciers may have played in sustaining the marijuana plants, which have a need for high hydration.  A 2015 study on cannabis cultivated in northern California found that an estimated 22 liters of water or more per plant per day were applied during the summer growing season, similar to the water demand of the notoriously thirsty almond tree in the same region.

A wealth of glaciated peaks lie above Jirzankal Cemetery that would have provided melt water for irrigation during the dry season. “Wild cannabis grows across many of the cooler mountain foothills from the Caucasus to western China, especially in the well-watered habitats of Central Asia,” Meng Ren and the co-authors wrote.

Glaciated peaks are visible in the background of the Jirzankal cemetery, whose surface is striped with black and white stones, which mark the tombs’ surfaces. (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Robert Spengler, who worked on the study, is an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, whose work focuses on the spread and intensification of agriculture in ancient Central Asia.

“Further north in Xinjiang, in the Taklamakan Desert, there are other, roughly contemporaneous, finds of cannabis in burials and those populations were clearly living in desert oases that were fed by glacial melt and mountain rain-fed streams that emptied into a hyper-arid desert,” Spengler told GlacierHub. “All of those early populations in Xinjinag were agropastoral and would have relied on glacial melt from the Tian Shan.”

The findings at Jirzankal provoke the imagination to consider the possible role of cannabis in ancient society. “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,” the authors wrote.

Today’s inhabitants of the Pamir mountains are known as Tajiks, one of China’s recognized minorities, who number just over 33,000. They speak Sarikoli, a language in a different branch of the Iranian language family from Tajik spoken in Tajikistan. Tajiks different from the much larger Uygur ethnic community, whom also inhabit Xinjiang.

While the humans of 500 BC embraced marijuana for its psychoactive properties, modern governments have eschewed it, until recently.

A groundswell of popularity and diminishing fear of marijuana has societies around the world slowly welcoming use of the plant back into the mainstream. Barriers to legal access are falling across the United States, and several countries have fully legalized it, including Canada and Uruguay.

Even the Chinese government responded to the shifting views of cannabis, making exemptions on strict laws against marijuana that have been in place since 1985. On May 9, The New York Times ran an article titled “China Cashes in On The Cannabis Boom.” The country produced half of the world’s hemp last year, The Economist reported, though Xinjiang, where the Jirzankal cemetery is located, is not one of the two provinces with special permission to produce the plant.

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,” Spengler told The New York Times.

And the glacier-marijuana connection is being embraced by American cannabis brands.

The firm Glacier Cannabis is named after Glacier Farms, whose rolling hills in southeastern Michigan were formed by glaciers during the last glacial maximum. “All Glacier cannabis is grown with locally-sourced glacial rock dust,” reads the Michigan company’s brand strategy page.

The Glacier Cannabis logo (Source: Brittany Barnhart/Just Curious).

In the heavily-glaciated Pacific Northwest, a cannabis varietal named “Glacier OG” is bred by RedEyed Genetics, a cannabis seed distributor. Marijuana is also legal in Alaska, the US state with the most glaciers. The rapidly melting glaciers there have contributed more to sea level rise than any glacier region in the world since 1961. A marijuana manufacturer, Glacier Extracts, is based in Anchorage. The operation’s tagline “Not Just Pure: Glacier Pure,” capitalizes on the untainted quality of glaciers.

Humans may have sensed a connection between glaciers and cannabis in 500 BC — or they may have noted the plant’s growth at altitude yielded higher potency buds. “It is possible,” the study authors speculate, “that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC–producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia

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Glacial Change in China’s Central Asia

A grassland flanked by China’s Central Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.

Kazakh Chinese men bring their Golden Eagle home (Source: William Julian).

In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.

The picturesque Narat Grassland (Source: William Julian).

China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.

Inside a yurt, an elderly Kazakh woman rolls a cigarette (Source: William Julian).

For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.

Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.

A snack in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.

When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.

The glacier-covered Tian Shan is an increasingly popular tourist destination (Source: William Julian).

In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.

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Farmers and Glaciers in Northwest China

A farmer in arid Gansu (Source: Mike Moss/Creative Commons).

Extending across the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and Gansu, the Heihe River Basin is the second largest inland river basin in China. With a core drainage area of 130,000 km2, it is home to 121 million people, and roughly 74 million of them practice farming or animal husbandry. In recent years, water demand has rapidly increased, while water availability has decreased due to glacier retreat and groundwater depletion. As a preliminary step to combat this looming crisis, a team of Chinese researchers set out to assess whether local farmers and herders were aware of glacial change and, if so, what their attitudes were toward state and local response strategies. The results, published last month in Theoretical and Applied Climatology, offer an intriguing look at the way local knowledge and state media intersect in rural China.

Guofeng Zhu, a professor of geography and environmental science at Northwest Normal University and the paper’s lead author, spoke with GlacierHub in Mandarin about the stakes of this research for farmers in the region. “Alongside population growth and climate change in recent years, the pressures on the Heihe River Basin’s ecological system have become increasingly severe. Over 70 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation comes from the river. The question of whether farmers can efficiently adapt is of grave importance to sustainable development in the region,” Zhu said.

Researchers interview a local farmer (Source: Guofeng Zhu/Northwest Normal University).

To carry out the study, the researchers conducted informal interviews in five villages. The villages were selected according to their location along the river, with upstream, midstream and downstream villages all represented. Individual villagers were selected to be interviewed so as to provide a diverse sample size across socio-economic, educational, and occupational values. The team asked open-ended questions and also distributed a multiple-choice survey. The researchers surveyed residents about their impressions of glacier change and used data from the China Meteorological Data Sharing Service Network to assess if residents’ perceptions were accurate.

Runoff from the Qilian Mountains (Source: feelings3allen/Creative Commons).

The glacial data itself paints an unsettling picture: from 1970 to 2012, the total glacier area in China’s northwest shrank by 10 to 14 percent. This, when coupled with population growth and reductions in cultivable land per capita, does not bode well for agriculture intensive areas in arid regions, such as the Hexi Corridor, which feeds nearly the entire population of Gansu Province. The farmers living in this fragile ecosystem are faced with annual droughts that in some years can exact a heavy toll on crop yields and animal abundance. Stemming primarily from changes to the permafrost active layer of the Qilian Mountains, the meltwater that accounts for 15 percent of total runoff of this life-sustaining river is in jeopardy.

Rivers sustain agriculture in this arid region (Source: Dan Lundberg/Creative Commons).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Dahe Qin, a glaciologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an author of the paper, emphasized that the story of the Heihe River Basin resounds throughout the region. “The situation of Heihe is the same as that of the other river basins of the Hexi Corridor. Global warming, as well as degradation to glaciers and the cryosphere, is having a profound impact on the oasis regions, impacting the livelihoods of millions,” he said.

The farmers and herders interviewed seem to be acutely aware of the situation. Of respondents, 82.1 percent indicated that glacier retreat was a fact. Unsurprisingly, those living upstream near the glaciers themselves were most cognizant of this fact, having observed firsthand their retreat. Their perceptions of glacier retreat were also the most highly correlated with scientific observations. Education level was another strong predictor of whether farmers were aware of glacier retreat.

A farmer living in the midstream area is interviewed (Source: Guofeng Zhu/Northwest Normal University).

Gender, ethnicity and age had no impact on awareness of glacier retreat. 85.6 percent of farmers reported that they had heard about glacial change from television. However, simply being a farmer who watches television does not mean that one will become concerned with glacier retreat. The team interviewed farmers living in a nearby river basin who had a much lower reliance on glacier runoff and found that farmers there were less concerned about glacier change than those living in the Heihe River Basin. This finding suggests that concern for glacier change is associated with the degree of reliance on glacier runoff for livelihood.

While 90 percent of those polled believed that global warming is the primary cause of glacier reduction, roughly 30 percent of respondents did not believe that waste burning and car exhaust were factors. This attention to global, large-scale factors and the comparative lack of concern with local impact surfaced in other interesting ways. Respondents located the causes of air pollution in other, more industrial regions, and believed that changes to glaciers were the result of complex, trans-regional forces.

A herder living in the upstream area is interviewed (Source: Guofeng Zhu/Creative Commons).

Accordingly, the burden of mollifying the impact of climate change was overwhelmingly seen to be the task of governments and transnational organizations: the U.N. (56.4 percent), central government (52.7 percent), and polluting enterprises (47.8 percent) were most responsible in the eyes of respondents, whereas just 21.3 percent believed that the local government was responsible for ecological restoration and management. Because most farmers did not believe they were responsible for causing glacial changes, only 11.1 percent responded that individuals or households should bear the burden of resolving the problem. The authors point to the role of the media in shaping these views, with many responses being impacted by news of the recent Paris Climate Agreement.

According to the authors, although outside expert knowledge is often inaccessible within these communities, it nonetheless plays a significant role in shaping local livelihoods. Farmers feel powerless before the hegemony of scientific knowledge: they are ever more uncertain of traditional knowledge and thus increasingly incapable of making important decisions for their own future. Zhu emphasized that farmers need to be encouraged to hold on to traditional knowledge and practices. “Our survey showed that farmers commonly view traditional herding and farming livelihoods as backward, and they aspire to urban life. That they psychologically reject farming and herding and are unfamiliar with traditional practices will weaken efforts at curbing climate change,” he said. By understanding farmers’ perceptions of glacier change, policymakers are better equipped to help them adapt to deleterious changes in their environment.

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