Cannabis History: The Scythians

November 18, 2017




The history of cannabis is as long and convoluted as the history of humanity itself. Cannabis use in some parts of Africa dates back over 2000 years, with use in some parts of Asia going back thousands of years even earlier than that. In Siberia, an extraordinary record has emerged of cannabis consumption by the Scythians, a nomadic people who ranged across Eurasia from around 900 BCE to 100 BCE. They left few traces of themselves or their culture, but, remarkably, the cannabis consumption of at least two Scythian cultures has survived through the millennia.


Though they’re often referred to as one people, and certainly shared cultural commonalities with one another, “Scythian” is actually an umbrella term for multiple nomadic tribes in the region. Like the Mongols after them, the Scythians are thought to have been ferocious warriors who were incredibly skilled on horseback. What little information we do have about them is unfortunately extremely fragmented, pieced together from a combination of questionably objective contemporaneous accounts from Greece, and the Scythian bodies and belongings that have been excavated by 20th and 21st century archaeologists.


Cannabis has been found in at least two different Pazyryk burial mounds in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Just over twenty years ago, the tattooed “Ice Maiden” or “Ukok Princess” was discovered with a “pouch of cannabis,” which archaeologists have posited was likely medicine to ease the effects of several debilitating conditions, including breast cancer. More recently, cannabis residue was found inside gold cups from a separate, partially looted Siberian site (pictured above). Further to the east, a Subeixi man in what is now Turpan, China was unearthed last year with preserved, whole stalks of cannabis laid across his chest like a burial shroud, and another grave in a nearby area was found to contain about 2 pounds of what NBC News reported as the oldest known marijuana stockpile.


Even with all of these discoveries, there are still many unanswered questions about the Scythians and their relationship with cannabis. It’s uncertain how much more we’ll ever know about them, in no small part because the ethics of archaeological excavations are incredibly complicated. However, even these small, incomplete glimpses into their way of life are an incredible reminder of the legacy of cannabis and its place in the records of human history.


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