The finest dank the Caucasus had to offer.
Stone relief from the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 870–860 BC. (The mural most likely depicts cedar, not marijuana.) Image: The British Museum
About 5,000 years ago, a mysterious tribe poured into Europe and Asia from the steppes of modern-day Russia and Ukraine. With them, they brought valuable knowledge of metalworking, horseback riding, and technology such as the wheel.
But historians believe these ancient migrants were also packing another precious commodity: none other than the finest marijuana the Caucasus had to offer. And according to new research, recently published in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, it appears they were once the drug dealers of the entire Eurasian continent.
Anthropologists suspect the Yamnaya people were among the three or four prehistoric cultures that eventually founded Western civilization—flooding Europe with new languages, genetic admixture, and metal tools that marked the advent of the Bronze Age. At the very same time, they also ventured east, into China and central Asia.
This tribe of nomadic herders originated in a territory called the Pontic-Caspian, and may have spoken Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of hundreds of Indo-European languages used today. Some populations, such as Norwegians, can trace up to 50 percent of their DNA lineage to these ancient peoples.
Even though the Yamnaya were prolific dope users, which scientists have discerned from large caches of archaeological evidence, weed has been cultivated throughout Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years.
Mummified psychoactive marijuana, likely used in shamanistic rituals, has been discovered in the royal tombs of China's Xinjiang region. Cannabis seeds dating back to 3,000 BCE were uncovered in the kurgan burial mounds of Siberia. And the tripped-out antics of the Scythians, a fearsome warrior clan, were once described by the Greek historian Herodotus as some "that no Grecian vapour-bath can surpass…transported by the vapor, [they] shout aloud."
Yet, it wasn't until the Bronze Age that people's love of weed really started blazing. "The cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early as 10,000 years ago, or even earlier," Tengwen Long, the study's co-author, told New Scientist. But it would be another 5,000 years before signs of heavy marijuana use first appeared in archaeological records.
Despite the herb's familiar presence in Eurasia, the study's authors theorize that intercontinental trade during the Bronze Age helped crops like cannabis take hold in new places. Long before the Silk Road, another route known as the Hexi Corridor was favored by commodity traders, and possibly facilitated the flow of prehistoric ganja.
"It's a hypothesis that requires more evidence to test," Long admitted, but he also added that cannabis' explosion throughout the continent suggests it might have been a "cash crop before cash."
Since then, marijuana has been grown and domesticated by cultures all over the world. Today, various strains have been carefully selected for, and are responsible for the wide array of highs the drug is now capable of inducing.
But if it weren't for the horse-riding, adze-wielding, herb-toking Yamnaya tribe, cannabis culture as we know it might not even exist. So go ahead, and light one up for these ancient ancestors who knew that a friend with weed is a friend indeed.