As I sit here sucking in legal weed, an unassuming plant that man has been fighting over for more than a century, I find myself surrounded by bongs, vapes and rolling papers. I mull over strains and CBD creams. I squish a premium THC gummy between my thumb and index finger, and I ask myself, how did I get here? Who was the first person to smoke weed, anyway?
According to a 2019 research paper, it all began some 2,500 years ago on a remote mountain plateau in Central Asia, where “cannabis was smoked” for what appears to be the first time ever during funeral ceremonies. Specifically, archaeologists found traces of cannabinol, a psychoactive metabolite of THC, in wooden braziers retrieved from the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau, indicating that the early people of Central Asia combined cannabis leaves and hot stones so they could get high on the resulting smoke (then, when the munchies struck, they probably devoured a bunch of foraged berries and charred marmot).
Archaeologists found the braziers to be concentrated in the more elite tombs, and claim the cannabis was burned primarily in enclosed spaces, meaning the ancient people of Central Asia were likely pioneers of the hotbox. After applying highly scientific procedures like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify the chemical compounds in the braziers, the archaeologists found the remnants contained unusually high levels of THC compared with typical wild cannabis, implying that these people truly were getting properly stoned.
In fact, the study authors even suggest that our early ancestors may have chosen the Pamir Plateau to perform their burials solely because the area supported dank weed: “It is possible that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC-producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.”
The authors go on to imply that, if the use of weed for its psychoactive properties really did originate in Central Asia, as their findings suggest, it likely then spread throughout the northern hemisphere on exchange routes associated with the early Silk Road, which is certainly possible. In writings just short of 2,500 years old, Greek historian Herodotus penned that the nomadic Scythians, who roamed the Eurasian Steppe and could have shared their knowledge as they traveled, performed a ritual hotbox quite similar to the one described above:
“The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.”
And, in the miracle of time, a whole 2,500 years later, I sit here surrounded by endless paraphernalia and weed smoke. I guess I can thank some really old dude in Central Asia for that.