Wild cannabis (Cannabis sativa) may have been growing in Europe long before it was introduced by pastoralists from Asia. Sadly for the European farmers, it likely disappeared before they had the chance to cultivate the crop as the climate changed, which meant the environment was no longer suitable for cannabis growth. This is the conclusion of a new study led by John McPartland from the University of Vermont and published in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.
The study authors came to that realization after analyzing the remains of ancient pollen from 500 European archeological sites between 8,500 and 1,200 years old. The presence of what they believe are fossilized cannabis pollen would suggest there were, in fact, the wild plants on the continent during the Stone Age.
If true, this finding contradicts the general consensus, which says the plant evolved somewhere in Central Asia in what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia. According to a paper published in 2014, the drug was first harvested in Asia thousands of years ago where it was used for medical and spiritual purposes. Since then, it spread through Africa and Europe – Medieval Germans and the Vikings used cannabis to soothe toothaches and numb the pain of childbirth – to the Americas, only arriving in the US at the turn of the 20th century.
The hurdle researchers have struggled with in the past is the similarity between hop pollen and cannabis pollen, which makes it near impossible to distinguish between the two. The study authors claim they have solved this problem, saying the plants grow in very different environments. Whereas hop prefers a warmer, woodier habitat, cannabis enjoys cold, grassy steppes.
Between 10,000 and 7,500 years ago – around the time the first farmers arrived in Europe – the land began to heat up and the environment transitioned from grassy steppes to woodland. This means they narrowly missed out on the chance to cultivate cannabis (which would have already started to disappear) but were able to grow hops instead.
McPartland told New Scientist, the pollen records suggest cannabis wasn't farmed. After all, “If it wasn’t there they couldn’t domesticate it.”
McPartland's isn't the first study to point to an alternative history of the drug. In 2016, researchers from the German Archaeological Institute and the Free University of Berlin published a paper that suggested the drug was being used in Asia and Europe between 11,500 and 10,200 years ago (i.e., much earlier than previously thought). This is not to say that prehistoric Europeans were farming the crop for its psychoactive properties, as the plant has several other uses too.
So there you have it. If it weren’t for global warming, we could be a nation of pot smokers – not one of gin sippers and beer guzzlers.
[H/T: New Scientist]