Archaeologists Uncover the Cannabis Shaman of Silk Road-Era China | Marijuana

Archaeologists Uncover the Cannabis Shaman of Silk Road-Era China


It turns out the Silk Road was a haven for cannabis culture far earlier than we thought — about 2,500 years prior, according to a recent discovery in China.

shroud burial site china silk road

Hongen Jiang / University of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The scholarly journal Economic Botany reported that archaeologists on a dig in Turpan’s Jiayi cemetery discovered a burial site between 2,500 and 2,800 years old with some fascinating contents. The Turpan Basin site was a crucial supply stop along the famous Silk Road trade route because of an ingenious underground irrigation system that allowed the desert-like climate to produce abundant crops. We wanted to gain insight as to just how important this discovery is in the scope of world cannabis history.

Dr. Stephen Neufeld, a History Professor at Cal State Fullerton, has led a World History of Drugs class at the university for seven years. Neufeld took the time to paint a picture of Silk Road-era China to provide context for the dig’s breakthrough revelation, including when he thinks it was buried.

On the topic of the Turpan Basin and who would have been inhabiting the land around the time of the burial in question, Neufeld explained, “We know that hemp was around, as we have evidence of the fibrous use of cannabis in China and India as far back as 4,000 B.C. This case takes place in what is currently Eastern China, but at that time would have been something else. The area would’ve been inhabited by mostly semi-sedentary nomadic people; sort of an early form of the Mongols. These people were called the Yuezhi, and would have been, religiously speaking, shamanic. It is likely that this is a relatively informal Shamanic practice, passed down orally from generation to generation. My suspicion on this is that it is fumigated. It seems like they used marijuana in ceremonies like a sweat lodge. We have lots of cases where we see ingestion of marijuana, but smoking it in cigar form doesn’t seem to happen until a fair bit later, most likely with New World influence. In this case, they’re probably throwing it on the fire and having a sweat lodge. It would be part of the Shaman’s claim on power in the tribe, that he’s able to give you a really interesting night. This would have been part of a Shaman’s repertoire, one of the tools that they had. They would also know about things like ichthyotoxins, where they would throw a handful of leaves in a pond and the fish would float up dead. This would have been part of their religious, medicinal, magical set of powers, all really the same thing to the Shamans. I think that is why they are burying people with the cannabis.”

Inside the tomb, the researchers found a man wrapped in thirteen impeccably-maintained marijuana plants. The whole plants, some as long as three feet long, were laid on top of the man as a shroud.

This isn’t the first time cannabis has been found in a burial site; a 2008 dig in nearby Yanghai yielded roughly one kilo of cannabis seeds and powdered leaves. Interestingly, the plants were all female. This shows that our marijuana-loving ancestors not only enjoyed the female plants for their psychoactivity, but placed a great deal of respect on the plant’s powerful capabilities.

After further inspection, archaeologists also discovered that the cannabis remnants had been harvested for their budding flowers, which means the burial most likely occurred in the late Summer. Hongen Jiang, who led the team of archaeologists, said this is the first time whole, mature cannabis plants have been found buried in a tomb. Jiang confirmed that this was the first discovery where the marijuana found was used as a burial shroud; his estimates place the caucasian-featured man at around 35-years old. Jiang gave the following detailed description of the tomb:

The remains of the man rested on a wooden pallet with a reed pillow beneath his head. Thirteen marijuana plants up to three feet long were placed diagonally across his chest, the tops running from just under his chin and along the left side of his face, forming a sort of cannabis shroud.

trichomes ancient buds flower

Hongen Jiang / University of Chinese Academy of Sciences

We presented Neufeld with the details of the discovery and asked him to analyze them for additional context. In the details of the find, the team describes the layout of the plants within the tomb. Does the way in which the plants were situated give you any additional context as to how cannabis was viewed or used?

Neufeld: To me, the big thing that would suggest is they certainly think he is taking the cannabis with him. They know that this is useful stuff, so there’s no point in burying it with him if he’s just becoming meat. They know he is going somewhere and, as a mark of respect, he may need it where he is going. It also suggests that this is connected, especially with the diagonal placement, with transport; the psychotropic nature of the drug is that it can “transport” you in some way. They may see this as a way of helping him to get where he’s going. I think it is unusual that he is only 35. What was the normal life expectancy at that time?

Neufeld: Well, if you made it to 20, you’re probably making it to 60. They are showing him great respect at 35, I think as a Shaman. This is connected to him somehow, they’re not burying him with his tools or his sword, after all. If you think of what you would bury with your loved ones, it’s usually something that you connect to them. They weren’t so different from us in that regard.

Once the plants were dusted off for inspection, the team observed that the plants had been preserved beyond the archaeologists’ wildest expectations. Though the flowered tops of the plants had been chopped off, some buds still remained on the cannabis harvest used in the shroud. Those surviving buds amazingly still had clearly visible trichome hairs intact, indicating to Neufeld that we’ve probably vastly underestimated these early marijuana users. In other instances, cannabis has been discovered in seed form on archaeological digs of burial sites. What does it tell you that there were full plants with their flowered buds harvested found in the Turpan Basin grave; possibly that they were using the plant for its psychoactive properties much earlier than we thought?

Neufeld: Absolutely. We’ve probably been very condescending to our ancient ancestors on this one. Of course they could figure this out; for 130,000 years they were throwing things into the fire to see what happens so they would have figured this out over time. They would have figured out that some of the stuff was good for making really uncomfortable clothing, while other stuff was good for everything else. I think they absolutely sorted it out well before this time. This find is our first good evidence that they did. Later on, the people of this region were the first people to take up smoking hashish and marijuana. While the Chinese were still saying that was foul, the Uighurs, a nomadic group that come into that area, are happy to smoke it. I think there may have been more smoking of it culturally and traditionally than we originally thought, but it is really hard to pinpoint historically – mainly because they burn the evidence [laughs].

This area is the cauldron of civilizations, and the Turpan Basin was really not a part of China at this time. If the find comes from the earlier end of their estimates (roughly 700 B.C.) then the people are very nomadic, hunt-and-gatherers. It looks to be a Caucasian male, so Proto Indo-European was the language they would’ve been speaking. We sort of know this group; that they got to China and invaded it, India as well. We know a little bit about this group, but it is fairly vague. If the find comes from closer to 300 B.C., then they would have already run into some of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Then we have a really interesting mix coming into that area, with a bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Zoroastrianism, and Greek Gods; the religious aspect has really changed by 300. 700 is one thing, 500 is another thing, and 300 is another. My inclination is to think that this find comes from around 500, in which case the Silk Road is really not running very fluidly; it’s pretty intermittent, a lot of big obstacles in the way. What were some of these initial roadblocks?

Neufeld: At the beginning stages, China is a bit of – how do I say it – a shit show. China is fighting with themselves a lot, as there were 100-700 different kingdoms who were constantly at war. So they weren’t getting out that way, there were nomads in between that would’ve had horses and bows. It isn’t even until 100 B.C. that the Silk Road is safe enough for mass transit. It was a really dangerous, difficult place, even if you were prepared for it. Lots of caravans just died; it was dry in addition to the nomads and thieves. So this is an isolated area, but at the time the Turpan Basin would have been one of the richest places in the world; just in terms of the livestock they had, the lapis lazuli (a precious stone), jade (which everyone wanted). They also had a special breed of horses there whose sweat was red, which freaked everyone out a little bit. It was a breed of horses so amazing that everyone wanted one. Don’t think about this place as on the outskirts, people were coming there because they wanted the stuff. Alexander went way out of his way in 323 B.C. to get there because they have such great “stuff” [laughs]– including, apparently, some pretty good dope. Alexander may not have known that, but I’m sure his soldiers figured it out.

A discovery such as this gives us a glimpse into the past to see how our ancient ancestors viewed and used cannabis. Their great respect and admiration for the plant proves just how highly regarded cannabis was in early human culture. Hopefully, we can use knowledge gained from our predecessors for good and allow cannabis to return to its legitimate place within the framework of our society.

(Cover Image Courtesy of Nithid/Shutterstock)

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Used to write about music for XXL, Elevator, Complex, Genius, and a few other outlets. Follow @LongLiveTheDuke on Twitter if you'd like to read way fewer words by me.


  1. Great article, Mr. London. Thank you for your research. Hats off to Neufeld for this research and how the shaman was respected and revered. An excellent read and I was hoping a few ‘seeds’ were found. 😉 Keep writing! This information is important!!

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