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2019-05-13 09:20:13   •   ID: 2099

Some remarks on Cannabis in Prehistory

Figure 1
The centre of origin of the genus Cannabis is considered Central Asia, although some scholars offer East Asia or Europe.

Figure 1: Cannabis (from the Vienna Dioscurides - an early 6th-century Byzantine Greek illuminated manuscript of De Materia Medica).

Figure 2 is from from Leonhart Fuchs's ''Das Kräuterbuch'' of 1543 (Fig 162: Wikimedia Common).

Figure 3 is from Franz Eugen Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen of 1878.

The preferred designation of the plant is Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and of minor significance, Cannabis ruderalis. Today they are seen as three varieties of one species, C. sativa L (Partland 2018).

According to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Cannabis is defined as “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops) from which the resin has not been extracted, by whatever name they may be designated.”

During historic (and prehistoric) times, Cannabis was utilized for three commodities:

  • bast fibre (for cordage and textiles). Hemp is a bast fiber plant similar to Flax, Kenaf, Jute, and Ramie. Long slender primary fibers on the outer portion of the stalk characterize bast fiber plants


  • seed (food, seed oil). Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, ground into hemp meal, sprouted or made into dried sprout powder. Hemp seeds can also be made into a liquid and used for baking or for beverages such as hemp milk and tisanes. Hemp oil is cold-pressed from the seed and is high in unsaturated fatty acids


  • medicinal use and psychoactive drugs: see below


What makes the plant so interesting for Neuroscience are the presence of so called Cannabinoids, complex chemical compounds, that naturally occur in the resin of the Cannabis plant.

Among the over 420 known constituents of cannabis, more than 60 belong to the cannabinoids, which chemically belong to the terpenophenols, the most prominent of which are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC; primarily psychomimetic) and Cannabidiol (CBD; primarily sedative).

Several Cannabinoids, including THC but not CBD interact with via two specific transmembrane G-protein-coupled receptors, that were classified as the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

CB1 receptors are found abundantly in regions of the brain responsible for mental and physiological processes such as memory, high cognition, emotion, and coordination.

Accordingly high receptor densities were found in Thalamic and Hypothalamic regions, the Amygdala and other neural circuits of the Limbic System, the Dopaminergic Reward System and other regions, while CB2 receptors are found throughout the central nervous and immune systems.

Figure 2
Endocannabinoids play a fundamental role in regulating pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, body movement, awareness of time, appetite, pain, and sensory processing (taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight), and brain development.

Endocannabinoids acting at CB1 receptors (and possibly CB2 receptors) modulate and “fine-tune” signaling in most brain regions, to enable the brain to adapt to signals generated by multiple sources.

Today we know Cannabinoids are basically derived from three sources:

  • Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoid compounds produced by plants Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica


  • Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters produced in the brain or in peripheral tissues, and act on cannabinoid receptors


  • Synthetic cannabinoids, synthesized in the laboratory, are structurally analogous to phytocannabinoids or endocannabinoids and act by similar biological mechanisms


Paleoenvironmental records of cannabis include fibers, pollen, achenes and imprints of achenes. Partland et al. and Long et al. have recently published meta-analytic reviews of archaeological literature to identify trends and patterns in prehistoric cannabis use (see external links).

From the Archaeological record, it often remains unclear, whether findings of Cannabis refer to an agricultural or pharmaceutical context or even both.

Early use of Cannabis bast fibres (for cordage and textiles)? Remarkable evidence for very early yet sophisticated fiber use has been found as impressions on artifacts discovered in the Czech Republic at the Upper Paleolithic Dolni Vestonice I and Pavlov sites located on the slopes of the Pavlov Hills above the Dyje River in the South Moravian region.

At Pavlov impressions of knotted nets survived in clay which maybe have been used to capture birds.

The textiles, basketry, and cordage specimens represented in the impressions were made of plant rather than animal fibers, though an identification of the species used is impossible.

The Ohalo II site, a well-preserved Epipaleolithic settlement submerged in the Sea of Galilee, Israel also contained cordage dated to about ~21 k.a. BP.

The only surviving Palaeolithic fragments of ropes are preserved as apparent natural casts come from Lascaux (19 ka BP), but it has not been possible to determine the material used in its construction.

These findings show that the differentiation of Cannabis from other fibers in archeological contexts is difficult and cannot be made by micro -morphology alone. More sophisticated, DNA- based techniques, already developed for a forensic context should be applied as reported by Dunbar and Murphy (2019).

Figure 3
They found that a DNA-based differentiation between ropes made from Cannabis sativa L. (hemp), Agave sisalana Perrine (sisal), Musa textilis Née (abaca, "Manila hemp"), Linum usitatissimum L. (flax), and Corchorus olitorus L. (jute) is possible with a high degree of certainty.

Early use of Cannabis seeds ?The morphological diagnosis of Cannabis seeds is much more easier than made by fibers and even traits of domestication can confidentially be determined by seeds.

New discoveries from the early Holocene affirm the antiquity of Cannabis use in East Asia. Cannabis seeds were recovered from a Jōmon site in Japan and date to 8 k.a. cal BCE.

In northern China, Zhou et al. (2011) recovered seeds at a site associated with the Yǎngsháo culture (5–3 k.a. cal BCE). Seeds from the Jōmon and Yǎngsháo sites already show traits of domestication (Portland 2018).

Surveys of Neolithic agriculture in Europe do not report evidence of Cannabis. The situation changes during the Chalcolithic period. Seeds and pottery seed impressions identified as Cannabis are known from S/E Europe during the Cucuteni–Tripolye (C–T) culture and the contemporaneous Gumelniţa culture in Romania.

Several sites in Ukraine and Romania, associated with the early Bronze age Yamnaya culture (3,5-2,3 k.a.BCE) yielded pottery seeds and another Yamnaya site in Ukraine yielded textile fragments identified as hemp or flax. There can be little doubt that these findings are a first strong signal for Cannabis Domestication in Europe.

The Catacomb culture (2,8–2,2 k.a. BCE) shows even more robust evidence for the domestication and for a possible ritualistic use of Cannabis.

" A Bronze Age burial at Gatyn Calais in the North Caucasus, possibly a Catacomb grave, contained Cannabis seeds in a vessel. An inventory of Catacomb pottery reported soot or charcoal in many censers, with pottery ornamented by cord impressions.

The author presumed hemp was burned in the censers, and she named hemp as the most likely candidate for the cord impressions. Several Bronze Age cultures following the Catacomb also evidence Cannabis usage
" (Partland et al. 2018).

The Metaanalysis of Long et al brings us back to Bronze-Age Asia and transcontinental connections.

They describe a sharp rise in Cannabis use that occurred in East Asia around 3 k.a. BCE, after the start of the Bronze Age.

The researchers associate the spike with the establishment of a trans-Eurasian exchange and migration network through the Mongolian steppe.

Nomadic tribes on the Eurasian steppe had recently mastered horse riding and could cover vast distances. They forged trade routes that thousands of years later would become famous as the Silk Road.

The Yamna or Yamnaya people of Central Asia, which are genetically among the ancestral founders of the post-Neolithic European civilization (see here: 1482 ) dispersed to Europe and eastward to Asia at the same time Cannabis was first distributed.

In their study, the researchers suggest that the multi-regional use of S/E-European and E-Asian cannabis led to the creation of cannabis as a cash crop. It may even have been a driving factor behind transcontinental trade.