The Silk Road may have gotten a lot more interesting than history class would have us believe.
Photo Credit: Mangokeylime/Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Across the globe, from Colorado to Montevideo, the modern marijuana industry is blossoming. With it has come a wave of societal benefits—from the economic booms of Denver and Portland, to the mind-boggling advances in science and medicine being discovered as far afield as Tel Aviv and Madrid. As this happens, we’re slowly beginning to undo the many decades of self-inflicted damage of marijuana prohibition. Cannabis is changing the way we view the world, and could provide major boosts to humanity’s health, wealth and happiness.
To the casual observer, this explosion of progress appears to be the inevitable consequence of the liberalization of global drug policy, itself spurred on by the inexorable onward march of ethics and science. It’s considered, with good reason, to be a modern phenomenon (although granted, cannabis was not widely banned until less than a century ago).
But have we, as a species, been here before?
A new study from researchers at the Free University of Berlin has found evidence that could radically change our view of marijuana, and our perception of the history of European civilization.
Previous studies have suggested that human beings have been cultivating cannabis for millennia, but for the first time this new research links the introduction of the crop to one of the most important events in history.
This event was the migration of the Yamnaya people, an Indo-European tribe of horse-riding metal-workers who were among the ancestral founders of both European and Asian civilizations. They began migrating from the Pontic Steppe—vast grasslands and shrublands spanning areas that now belong to Ukraine, Russia and Moldova—both westwards into Europe and eastwards into parts of Asia.
And the trigger for this momentous movement of people and ideas could, it would seem, have been cannabis.
Marijuana and a Migration That Shaped History
At some point around 5,000 years ago—according to the new evidence, obtained through “A systematic review of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records of cannabis (fibres, pollen, achenes and imprints of achenes)”—there was an uptick in cannabis cultivation in East Asia, where the plant originated. This phenomenon can be observed in fossil records today. The uptick occurred shortly after the Yamnaya began to disperse from the steppes, forging long-distance trade routes that would eventually evolve into the fabled Silk Road.
This major migration has previously been attributed largely to the Yamnaya’s domestication of the wild horses native to the steppes, and the advent of animal husbandry. Scouts on horseback would have roamed through the Danube valley to the West, encountering new tribes of largely nomadic peoples as they passed through. The same would have been true to the East.
But the domesticated horses themselves are perhaps merely the technological advance that enabled such exploration. The reasons driving the steady migration of populations along these newly formed trade routes are less clear, despite the fact that the people undertaking the arduous journeys would eventually put down roots, morphing this makeshift trade route between nomadic populations into some of the first recognizable “civilizations” in Eurasia.
Aside from the simple human desire to broaden our horizons, what was the purpose of their travel? What were they trading?
Certainly, their newly-domesticated horses would have been one element such of trade, but cannabis could well be seen to provide a vital piece of the puzzle that was missing until now.
This may seem like a stretch. How could the cannabis plant—useful and fascinating though its properties are—have had a significant influence on an event that helped shape civilization?
The authors of the study have themselves been very clear in their opinion that more research is needed before we can answer that question for sure. As they explain, “More systematic, interdisciplinary and well-dated data, especially from South Russia and Central Asia, are necessary to address the unresolved issues in understanding the complex history of human cannabis utilisation.”
But the tantalizing possibility of a link is there. The two things happened at the same time: The Yamnaya spread out across the continent, and cannabis cultivation flourished in their wake. As the study authors make clear, “The westward migration of the Yamnaya people further spread the practice of cannabis smoking in Europe. One example for this is the record of a clay vessel with carbonised achenes and signs of cannabis burning from a tomb in Romania.”
The Extraordinary Properties That Make This Theory Plausible
Could an examination of the modern marijuana boom shed some light on how and why the very roots of civilization could have sprouted from a cannabis seed?
The recent explosion in cannabis cultivation has been about much more than simply being able to get legally high.
The economic benefits of the current Green Rush are perhaps the most talked about, and here there is a clear difference between modern humanity and some of our Bronze-Age ancestors. The Yamnaya were not, as we are today, legalizing a source of income that was previously reserved for illicit markets. Such things did not yet exist. But the crop they were suddenly able to cultivate brought about a different kind of economic boom, one that allowed early pot farmers to trade with their neighbors and to establish connections that would flourish, with time, into something far greater.
But more importantly perhaps, ancient cannabis cultivation plausibly boosted the spread of ideas, technology and medicine. Today, the discoveries that are being made about cannabis’ medical properties are close to becoming a true medical revolution. Breakthroughs have been made, for example, in the areas of pain relief and epilepsy, with exciting potential, too, for addressing Alzheimer’s. We know more now than we ever have about the endocannabinoid system, and how we can manipulate it to improve health and wellbeing.
The Yamnaya would not have had this theoretical knowledge, but it’s certainly safe to assume that in practice, they would have discovered medical uses for cannabis—easing pain, alleviating symptoms—even if they had no idea how or why it worked. This newfound (as far as we know from current evidence) and easily cultivated medicine would surely have been a huge boon for early civilizations, and could even have contributed to population growth that made further migrations both inevitable and necessary.
In order for what we think of as “civilizations” to take root, of course, farming is key. The Neolithic agricultural revolution had taken place thousands of years before the Yamnaya made their way through Europe, carrying cannabis with them. But the combination of this new, farmable, crop, and the advent of animal husbandry, would surely have played a huge part in the formation of settled societies both in Europe and the East. Cultivating cannabis and using it as a bartering tool was only part of the story, however, as we are rediscovering today.
Cannabis and hemp, when manipulated in certain ways, possess some incredible properties. Five thousand years ago, the first cannabis growers would have surely prized hemp fibers for their toughness, durability and versatility. Today we are slowly but surely moving out of the fog created by the prohibition of these plants, and rediscovering those properties. The results have been dramatic. We can now use hemp to make almost anything—from plastics, to building materials, to supercapacitors that out-perform the industry gold-standard, graphene.
Solid-Gold Bongs and Our Eternal Desire to Get High
Having said all that, the psychoactive properties of cannabis should not be ignored. Throughout human history, people have always wanted to get high (and of course, we still do). Evidence of the use of psychoactive plants by our earliest ancestors has been discovered all over the planet, from South America to Russia—where archaeologists recently discovered solid-gold “bongs,” used for smoking opium and cannabis.
Our knowledge of human proclivities leaves little doubt that cannabis was indeed being consumed for its psychoactive properties in the time of the Yamnaya—whether recreationally or spiritually, as part of the kind of traditional rituals similar to those which have been documented in indigenous peoples all over the world. It’s entirely plausible that cannabis used for this purpose would have been greatly prized, and could even have been seen as a luxury or status symbol, reserved perhaps for the higher echelons of early societies.
Those bongs found in Russia belonged to an ancient people known as the Scythians, thought to have been direct descendants of the Yamnaya. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus famously described their cannabis use, so we can presume it was fairly widespread:
“…the Scythians then take the seed of this κάνναβις (kannabis) and, crawling into the tents, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smoulders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath (πυρία) could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath.”
Whether or not these psychoactive properties were as important to the original cannabis farmers is unknown. But at the very least, they were exploited by their presumed descendants.
Looking through the lens of the current cannabis revolution, it is easy to imagine the impact the introduction marijuana cultivation could have had on the Yamnaya people and the societies with which they came into contact.
Even today, this remarkable ancient plant is still revealing technological and medical secrets. It is not difficult to make the case that 5,000 years ago, it could have had a transformative impact on the ancient world. Of course, we may never know for sure exactly how important a role cannabis played in ancient history, but it’s hard to deny that it must have been, if not the tipping point, than at least an important factor in broadening Bronze-Age horizons and laying the foundations for European civilization.
So if the modern-day explosion of interest in cannabis ever feels overwhelming, just remember: We’ve been here before—history is merely repeating itself!