What the secrets of ancient graves tell us about our long relationship with cannabis

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WATCH: A doctor explains how cannabis affects lung and brain health – Dec 17, 2018

One day, about 2,500 years ago in western China, a man was laid in his grave.

A wooden bed was placed in the grave under him, and a pillow of reeds under his head.

Around him, they placed earthenware pots, and on top of him, as a blanket or shroud, they laid 13 fully grown, uprooted female Cannabis indica plants, with their roots placed below his pelvis, and the branches and flowers extending toward his face.

In a nearby grave, archaeologists found another man with what they called “a large supply” of dried flower, some in a wooden bowl close to his body, and more in a leather basket. Given the presence of THC, they decided the flowers were used for “pharmaceutical, psychoactive, or divinatory purposes.”

What did our ancestors use cannabis for? To the extent we can piece it together, more or less the same uses we make of it now: pleasure, altered consciousness, relief from pain.

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“(Cannabis) had various uses, both for medical and for non-medical use,” explains University of Toronto medical professor Harold Kalant.

“It was used for textiles, it was used for food, so it’s not surprising that it would be considered a valuable thing to have to carry over into the next world.”

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In Siberia at about the same time, near the modern border between Russia and China, a young woman with beautiful and elaborate tattoos was buried in a decorated log coffin.

Because she was buried in permafrost, scientists were able to learn a great deal about her. One thing that is obvious is that the last months of her life must have been miserable.

A woman uncovered in a remote Siberian grave had several elaborate tattoos, including a stylized deer. (SIBERIAN TIMES).

When she arrived at her nomadic tribe’s winter camp in the fall, she would have been in severe pain from the breast cancer that would soon kill her. To make things worse, she had injuries to her right hip, right shoulder and the right side of her head that scientists think may have been caused by a fall from a horse. (She would have had to move with the tribe or be abandoned.)

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She was buried in June of the following year, possibly several months after her death. With her, her tribe buried six sacrificed horses, saddled and bridled, a meal of meat and yoghurt, and near her head, a stone bowl of cannabis seeds.

“It’s a reasonable guess that she would have been using it for pain relief,” Kalant says.

“That is certainly one of its recognized actions — it’s one of the three approved uses in Canada now. One of the approved uses is chronic pain, particularly of nervous origin. It’s not particularly good for acute pain, like post-surgical pain, but it is good for chronic pain.”

“If she had breast cancer and probably metastases, cancer-induced pain is one of the things that it has been tried for, and there appears to be some evidence to support that.”

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Several hundred years later in what is now France, a man was buried with an earthenware pot that showed signs of wine, pine resin and THC. An archaeologist told the Wine Spectator that “medicinal use or recreational use” were both possible.

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As is sometimes the case today, the dividing line between medical and recreational use may blur.

In the 19th century, cannabis found its way into French medicine from Africa, and into British and American medicine from India, Kalant says.

“In India it was used both for religious and family celebrations, and as a very important part of Indian folk medicine, and also for fibre (for rope or textiles.)”

“It was described in detail by a British physician in the middle of the 19th century who was teaching at one of the universities in India and sent samples of cannabis back to England. He found that the Indians were using it for relief of fever, pain, muscle spasms, seizures, also for diarrhea.”

WATCH: A doctor explains how cannabis affects lung and brain health 
Click to play video: 'Ask the Expert: Understanding cannabis health concerns' Ask the Expert: Understanding cannabis health concerns
Ask the Expert: Understanding cannabis health concerns – Dec 17, 2018

A woman

Although Western doctors treated patients with cannabis for decades, the technology of the time made it difficult to make consistent, shelf-stable medications from.

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“The trouble with the cannabis extracts was that the shelf life was not reliable, it was hard to standardize it because the biological tests available then for standardizing it were not as good as they are now, and there was certainly no good chemical measurement for it as there is now, so it was useful, but not as satisfactory as pure single drugs that could be given in exact measured amounts so that you knew what dosage you were getting.”

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By the time cannabis began to be prohibited in the 1920s and 1930s, there was little pushback from the medical profession, which had largely already moved on. (Some doctors in Canada and the United States objected to prohibition, saying they still found it useful.)

“It’s coming back into favour now because now we can make a stable preparations of exactly known composition that you can test in clinical studies,” Kalant says.

As old as our relationship with cannabis is — pollen has been found in a 4,200-year-old grave in the Netherlandsour relationship with alcohol is much older.

Patrick Cain writes the Cannabis IQ newsletter. Subscribe here

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