Thirteen well-preserved cannabis plants, each measuring up to 90 centimeters (3 feet) long, have been found wrapped around the corpse of a man who died between 2,400 and 2,800 years ago in Turpan, north-west China. The location was once a key stop along the legendary trading route known as the Silk Road, and the finding sheds light on the popularity and cultural significance of this venerated plant in ancient times.
Detailing the discovery in the journal Economic Botany, researchers explain that the man was probably in his mid-thirties at the time of his death, and that his Caucasian features suggest he was not a local. The plants, however, appear to have been grown nearby, and the fact that they were flowering indicates that they were probably uprooted in either August or September.
Though this is not the first evidence of cannabis being used in Eurasia around this period, the nature of the find is rather unique, with the plants being used as a kind of shroud for the body. While the researchers can’t be sure of the identity of the corpse or the significance of the plants, they speculate that he may have been a shaman, and that the cannabis with which he was buried was most likely used to alter his or his patients’ consciousness in order to communicate with the spirits or cure illnesses.
Part of the cannabis "shroud". Hongen Jiang/Economic Botany
What they do know is that this mysterious character would have been buried by members of the Subeixi culture, a Bronze-Age kingdom that dominated part of the Eurasian Steppe for about a thousand years until being conquered by the Western Han Dynasty, which sought to control as much of the Silk Road as possible.
The discovery allows archaeologists to build on the conclusions drawn from another recent dig, in which 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of finely cut cannabis was found buried next to the corpse of another suspected shaman. Elsewhere, cannabis seeds found in Siberian graves dating back to the first millennium BCE are also considered as evidence for early ritualistic use of the plant in Eurasia at this time.
Some of the cannabis plants found in the grave. Hongen Jiang/Economic Botany