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

Photo Friday: Yak Rugby

Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are home to quite a few superlatives. But nothing in the Pamirs elicits quite as deep a gasp as the pastime of a group of ethnic Tajiks living in China’s Taxkorgan Autonomous County, near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Buzkashi, a popular game among many Central Asian communities, is a sport in which riders grapple on horseback over an inflated goat carcass. In attempting to wrest the goat away from other competitors, riders often fall into large scrums, contorting their bodies while trying to keep their horses upright. Many fall off their horses, and deaths are not uncommon. Buzkashi may in fact be the most dangerous game in the world. In Taxkorgan, a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, it is played atop yaks one day each year.

Teeth gritting, horns swinging, dust swirling: must be Yak Buzkashi! (Source: Davie Gan).

 

Caked in dust after a difficult day of buzkashi (Source: IamNotUnique/Creative Commons).

 

Glacier ice and snow dominate Taxkorgan’s landscape (Source: llee_wu/Creative Commons).

 

Perhaps the hats offer some protection. Or perhaps not. (Source: Davie Gan).

 

In the distance stands Kongur Tagh, elevation 25,095′ (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Creative Commons).

 

Holy cow! (Source: Davie Gan).

Photo Friday: Through the Lens of a Tajikistani Glaciologist

Earth scientists and glaciologists often have the opportunity to explore and witness Earth’s glaciers and geological landscapes through fieldwork. This Tajikistani glaciologist, Dr. Farshed Karimov, a professor at the National University of Tajikistan, recently published a presentation on glacial dynamic modelling. In it, he included stunning photos from his travels, mainly of the Pamir Mountains, a mountain range in Central Asia at the junction of the Himalayas.

We’ve excerpted a few of Karimov’s photos below.

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To access Dr. Karimov’s presentation on glacial dynamic modelling or to contact him for more information, please email fhkarim@mail.tj.

 

Photo Friday: Tulips in the Wild

Few people have had seen tulips grow in their original habitat even though they are a familiar presence in gardens and florist shops. Here is a great opportunity to discover the tulips that are native to some of the most remote places on earth. Mountains at high elevations, especially the area centering on the glacier-filled Pamirs and Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, are the habitats of wild tulips. The bulbs of these flowers store energy which allows them to grow quickly in the short spring and summer seasons at high elevations. Many wild tulips grow in rock crevices on these mountains. Some wild tulips may languish in garden soil in a more temperate climate – they can only survive in their natural habitats. “Ironic as it may seem, many of these rugged beauties are easily killed with kindness.” Eric Breed, a freelance bulb photographer and a member of Tulips in the Wild , states on his website. Eric and his friends travel to the lands where tulips grow wild and capture the most beautiful moments of these flowers.

For more wild tulips photographs, please check out Tulips in the Wild

Many thanks to Sally Ferguson, Colorblends and the Amsterdam Tulip Museum for their help.

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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com

In Kyrgyzstan, not all glacier lakes are monitored equally

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Two people riding horse in Ala Archa National Park, about 40km south of Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek. Glacier lake levels in the mountains surrounding the city are monitored by the government, especially considering that lake outbursts are on the rise. (Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr)

As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.

Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.

As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.

The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. Floods from glacial lakes are the largest glacier-related disaster.(Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.

In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.

Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.

Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)
Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. A potential flood could endanger a million people. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)

The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.

Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.

New book measures changes in China’s glaciers

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The Number One Glacier in the mountains outside Urumqi, China, the largest glacier in Xinjiang province. The hydrological resources from glaciers like this one drive development in China’s remote northwest province. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

In far northwestern China, in the province of Xinjiang, the Altai, Pamir, Kunlun, and Karakorum mountain ranges rise massively out of the earth, creating peaks that rival their famous neighbor to the south, the Himalayas. The mountains are home to some 18,000 glaciers, which have sustained the famous steppe nomadic hordes of antiquity with their annual summer melts into the rivers of the arid region.

These hydrological resources are driving the development of this remote province. A chapter from the recent book, Water Resource Research in Northwest China seeks to quantify the changes occurring to glaciers in Xinjiang.

The chapter’s authors, Zhongqin Li, Puyu Wang, and Meiping Sun, conclude that the region’s glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change and the warming that has occurred over the past three decades. In “Glacier Change and Its Impact on Water Resources”, the researchers write that 11.7 percent of the total area of glaciers has been lost over that time. And with temperatures projected to increase over the next century by 1.2 degrees Celsius to 3.8, glacier loss is expected to accelerate rapidly.

The loss of glaciers in the region is limited in its impact on the region’s water resources (due to an increase in precipitation). Though the area now receives somewhat more rainfall than it did before, it still suffers because of the loss of glaciers. Glacier meltwater had been an important supplement to rainfall during the dry season, and also during years of below-normal rains, but it can no longer perform this role. Hydropower development is also limited because of the decline in meltwater. Paradoxically, the risk of floods has grown, because occasional pulses of meltwater course down streambeds. Other negative impacts include a higher risk of flooding.

Ultimately, the book does little to identify how changes in the region’s water resources will impact economic and social development in Xinjiang. This is particularly important, because this region—poised to experience economic and industrial development—will face increased demand for water resources at the same time that the supply of these resources will be threatened by glacier retreat.

You can find the chapter here.

Afghanistan’s newest national park is bigger than Yellowstone

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The Wakhan District is Afghanistan’s second national park. (Ben Paarman/Flickr)

Amid war-torn Afghanistan, the glaciers that isolated the locals for centuries are now attracting tourists. Earlier this year, officials designated the Wakhan District in the Pamir Mountains as the country’s second national park, bringing more outsiders to the remote region.

National parks were first proposed in Afghanistan in the 1960s. However, due to decades of war and political crises, the idea of the parks never came into fruition until 2009, when Band-e Amir was recognized as the first national park. Nearby Tajikistan established a national park in the Pamir Mountains in 1992.

The Wakhan District is home to about 15,000 people, most of them ethnic Wakhi or Kyrgyz. It is a 350-kilometrerstrip of land jutting out from north-eastern Afghanistan towards China, bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south, and surrounded by the Pamir range on all sides. The Wakhi live in the lower highlands, while the Kyrgyz are completely isolated in the high pastures.  Due to its towering glaciers, remoteness and inaccessibility by vehicular transportation, this region has had little to no impact from the Taliban insurgency. The Kyrgyz people in Wakhan practice Ismaili Islam; the women do not wear burqas and are treated as equal to men.

The new national park, one quarter larger than Yellowstone, aims to open Wakhan to tourists and regional development, while supporting the locals’ traditional subsistence lifestyle and herding of livestock such as domesticated yaks, sheep, and goats. The locals will co-manage it with the federal government and many will get jobs as rangers, managers and other park personnel.

Wakhan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and life expectancy is a grim 35 years. Poverty is widespread, so tourism has been encouraged to bring much-needed money into the local economy. The area’s tourism industry is in its infancy, but there is much to attract visitors to this part of the world, where cultural traditions and lifestyles have changed little over centuries.

Though the introduction of tourism and the end of the region’s isolation may have unanticipated consequence. In nearby Nepal, these changes led to outmigration, particularly among the young. Whether they will have this effect in Wakhan remains to be seen.