Features & Columns

Did Pot Dealers Start
Western Civilization?

A new study suggests marijuana could have been a key trade
asset as civilization expanded west
ART OF THE DEAL: A new study suggests marijuana could have been a key trade asset as civilization expanded west.

Ever since Herodotus, we've known that the nomadic pastoralists of Asia Minor, the Scythians, burned marijuana as part of religious rituals and ceremonies. Now comes new evidence that human commerce with pot extends back even further, and could have even helped stimulate the rise of Western civilization.

At the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, people on both sides of the Eurasian land mass independently discovered and made use of marijuana, according to research published in the academic journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. That same research links an upsurge in marijuana use in East Asia with the rise of transcontinental trade at the beginning of the Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago.

While the traditional view has been that cannabis was first used and domesticated in China or Central Asia and then spread westward, a new database tracking the academic literature on trends and patterns in prehistoric pot use suggests that marijuana showed up in both Japan and Eastern Europe at almost exactly the same time, between 9400 and 8100 B.C.

The database suggests only people in western Eurasia made regular use of the plant. Early records of its use in East Asia are rare, Long says, at least until about 3000 B.C.

At that time, marking the beginning of the Bronze Age, East Asian use picked up again, and researchers think nomadic pastoralists, like the Yamnaya people, thought to be one of three main tribes that founded European civilization, played a key role.

By the beginning of the Bronze Age, the nomads on the steppe had mastered the art of horse riding, which allowed them greater geographical scope and led to the formation of trade networks along the same Eurasian route that would become famous as the Silk Road several millennia later. The Bronze Road facilitated the spread of all sorts of commodities between East and West, perhaps including marijuana.

"It's a hypothesis that requires more evidence to test," Long says, noting that marijuana's high value would have made it an ideal exchange item. Burned marijuana seeds at archaeological sites suggest that the Yamnaya carried the idea of smoking cannabis with them as they spread across Eurasia.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the 'Drug War Chronicle.'