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The Chinese were the first to cultivate cannabis 12 thousand years ago.

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Geneticists compared the DNA of 110 different cannabis strains from around the world and found that the basal group originated in China. The cultivation of this plant began about 12 thousand years ago, that is, in the early Neolithic era, which coincides with archaeological finds. The article was published in the journal Science Advances.

The use of cannabis has been documented since ancient times for many prehistoric societies in Eurasia and Africa. So, even Herodotus described that the Scythians who inhabited the Eurasian steppes went to steam baths, where they threw hemp seeds on hot stones.

There are known descriptions of the use of cannabis by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese. It is assumed that initially the seeds of this plant began to be eaten, as evidenced by archaeological finds from Asia dating back about 10 thousand years, and about 5.5 thousand years ago, people began to sew clothes from hemp fibers. Although such fabrics are very poorly preserved, archaeologists have managed to find a hemp shroud over 2,400 years old.

Researchers disagree about the region where cannabis production originated, citing vast areas from western Asia to northern China as versions. Subsequently, the nomadic population of the Eastern European and Siberian steppes (representatives of the Yamnaya archaeological culture) actively spread the cultivation of this plant throughout the continent. Perhaps they used it for ritual purposes already about 5500–4500 years ago. You can learn more about this from our blog “The ancient steppe dwellers turned out to be hemp distributors.”

Guangpeng Ren from the University of Lausanne, together with scientists from China, Great Britain, India, Qatar, Pakistan and Switzerland, genetically investigated the origin of cannabis sativa. Scientists have collected 110 complete genomes of different varieties (wild, local, hybrid, medicinal) of this plant from many countries of the world with a particular focus on Central and East Asia, where cannabis was supposedly domesticated.

Research results have shown strong clustering of cannabis samples in four distinct genetic groups. The first group (basal for the rest) includes 14 feral plants and local varieties collected in China, as well as 2 samples from the United States, which probably originate from local Chinese varieties of the 19th century.

The second group includes cannabis varieties distributed around the world (5 wild plants, 13 local and 20 cultivated varieties). The third group is represented by feral medicinal varieties (3 feral plants from South China, 11 – from India and Pakistan, 1 – medicinal variety from India). The fourth group includes 35 narcotic varieties that are widespread throughout the world.

The researchers found that contrary to popular belief that cannabis domestication is associated with Central Asia, cultivation of the plant began in East Asia.

The ancestors of all medicinal varieties were samples from the second group. A significant differentiation between wild medicinal plants and modern European and American varieties has resulted from recent intensive breeding.

Genomic dating suggests that the earliest domesticated cannabis varieties evolved from a wild species around 12,000 years ago, that is, during the early Neolithic era. This coincides with the dating of pottery and seeds from southern China and Taiwan (12,000 years ago), as well as Japan (10,000 years ago). Archaeological evidence shows that hemp in China began to be made more than 5 thousand years ago, and the use of hemp for ritual and intoxicating purposes – at least 2500 years ago.

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