New Archeological Evidence of Cannabis Use in Ancient Civilizations

CANNABIS CULTURE –  Two major archeological announcements were made in April 2018 regarding the fascinating and widespread history of Cannabis in the ancient world.

Archeological evidence for fibre cannabis goes back tens of thousands of years, and evidence of its use as a ritual fumigant dates back more than 5,000 years ago. Two new archeological studies have been released further testifying to its use as a ritual intoxicant in both the Mid East and France.

The April 20th issue of Science, Vol 360, Issue 6386, contains the story, Cannabis, opium use part of ancient Near Eastern cultures:

For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs. Alcohol has been around for at least 10,000 years, but recent advances in chemical analysis of old pots reveal that other psychoactive drugs were present at the dawn of the first complex societies some 5000 years ago in the ancient Middle East. Ancient people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily, while imports like cannabis and opium made from poppies spread through early international trade networks. Armed with the new data, archaeologists are probing just how these drugs impacted early societies and beliefs. Some argue that the impact of these psychoactive substances has been underestimated, and that a drug culture was central to ritual in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the Levant.

Unfortunately the full article is not available online, but an interview with the author can be found here:

Armed with new data, archaeologists are revealing that mind-altering drugs were present at the dawn of the first complex societies some 5000 years ago in the ancient Middle East. Contributing writer Andrew Lawler joins Sarah Crespi to discuss the evidence for these drugs and how they might have impacted early societies and beliefs.

As a story on Bizbiz.com recorded of the stir of controversy from these findings:

…[N]ew techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances. Recent advances in identifying traces of organic fats, waxes, and resins invisible to the eye have allowed scientists to pinpoint the presence of various substances with a degree of accuracy unthinkable a decade or two ago.

….Diana Stein, an archaeologist at Birkbeck University of London, claims archaeologists have long studied scenes of rituals involving drugs and their effects without realizing it. She argues that the banquet scenes that often adorn small seals found Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran actually show people imbibing psychoactive potions. Another common motif, interpreted as a scene of contest, may instead represent the internal conflict that results when the imbiber faces an alternative reality, Stein proposes. In these images, “everything is distorted and pulsing—but they certainly knew how to carve things realistically when they wanted to,” she said at the meeting here.

….But others are more cautious. “Scholars have tended to shy away from the possibility that the ancient Near Easterners partook of ‘recreational’ drugs, apart from alcohol, so it’s good that someone is brave enough to look into it,” says archaeologist Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But he says Stein’s suggestions “seem to go too far on too little evidence,” a view echoed by many at the meeting.

Collard, however, is confident that additional residue and botanical analyses, along with study of iconography and texts, will gradually persuade skeptics. Cifarelli notes that the ancients likely used drugs not just to heal, but to forge sets of beliefs, and contact a spiritual realm where healing and religion were entwined. “Most of us,” she says, “are so far removed from that kind of transformative magic.”

Lawler’s article indicates the finding are based purely on residue samples, and in the interview, he makes the astonishing claim that there is little in the way of reference to these substances in the ancient literature. “The problem is, these texts, for the most part, don’t mention any psychoactive drugs, other than alcohol. So its been kind of a blind spot for the field.”  Having authored 4 books and dozens of articles on the history of cannabis, I can state quite clearly that this is not the case, and many Assyriologists, Linguists, Etymologists, acknowledge terms such as qunubu, bhanga, kanna, and a host of other terms as references to cannabis. These are widely accepted and not under the controversy regarding the identification of the Hebrew term kaneh bosm with cannabis, although it should be noted that the findings of physical evidence of cannabis in the Levant adds credence to these claims. As I briefly explained in regards to the near Eastern term qunubu, with an excerpt from my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution in an email to the interviewer at sciencemag.org, as well as the reporter at bizsiziz.com:

In the second quarter of the first millennium B.C., the “word qunnabu (qunapyqunubuqunbu) begins to turn up as for a source of oil, fiber and medicine” (Barber 1989).  Numerous scholars have come to acknowledge qunubu as an early reference to cannabis. “It is said that the Assyrians used hemp as incense in the seventh and eighth century before Christ and called it ‘Qunubu’” ( Schultes & Hoffman 1979).

“…[T]he Assyrians knew of hemp… and … called it “Qunubu”… a term apparently borrowed from an old East-Iranian word “Konaba,” the same as the Scythian name Kánnabis (cannabis), which later designation the plant bears at the present day, and as the word “Kanabas” which is derived from the primitive Germanic word “Hanapaz.” These words are evidently identical with the Greek term konabos, i.e. noise, and would seem to originate from the noisy fashion in which the hemp smokers expressed their feelings. This furnishes us with the means of interpreting some statements of the ancient Herodotus (486-406 B.C.) He mentions that the Scythians of the Caspian and Aral Seas cultivated a plant whose seeds on combustion produced an intoxicating vapour… “(Lewin,1931)

Demonstrating a connection with earlier terms for cannabis such as azalla, many of the medicinal applications of the latter came to be designated under this new name. In Science and Secrets of Early Medicine, Jurgen Thorwald records: “Quunabu – such was the Assyrian name for Indian hemp. This is basically the same word as it was later known by cannabis (Cannabis India), and hemp is cognate with it. . . . it was often employed in Mesopotamia to relieve the pain of bronchitis, bladder trouble, rheumatism, and as a remedy for insomnia” (Thorwald, 1963).

Referring to the difficulties in deciphering plant identification from the vague and long forgotten names found in the ancient texts, respected Assyriologist Erica Reiner reveals an interesting connection with the ancient world Goddess and “qunnabu,” that few other Assyriologists have noted:

“Sometimes the etymology of the name is transparent, While ‘sunflower’ (u.UTU sammi samas) probably describes any heliotrope, that is a flower that always looks at the sun: ‘the flower of Samas that faces the setting sun,’ other names composed with the name of a god or goddess are more suggestive. We do not know to what botanical species for example the herb called ‘Ninurta’s aromatic’ (Summerian sim. Ninurta, equated in Akkadian with nikiptu) refers, both varieties of which, masculine and feminine, are mentioned in recipes; however, the name of the herb called Sim.Ishara’armoatic of the Goddess Ishtar,’ which is equated with the Akkadian qunnabu, ‘cannabis’, may indeed conjure up an aphrodisiac through the association with Ishara, goddess of love, and also calls to mind the plant called ki.naIstar.” (Reiner, 1995)

In The Cults of Uruk and Babylon, Marc Linssen notes another cultic use of cannabis, “some of the known aromatics, such as … qunnabu… are mentioned in the… Kettledrum ritual text TU 44, IV, 5ff…. In the list of ingredients for this rite 10 shekel qunnabu- aromatics” (Linssen, 2004). From the ancient inscription, it would seem this was a guarded secret of the Priests involved:

“You will make a libation of first quality beer, wine and milk. With censer and torch you will consecrate (the kettledrum). You will lead the Kettledrum before the gods… The ritual procedure you perform, only the novice may see (it); an outsider, someone who is not responsible for the rites may not see (it) (because if this happens) his days will be short. The one who is competent may show (the tablet only) to one who is (also) competent; he who is not competent may not see (it). Taboo of Anu, Enlil and Ea, the great gods.”

Recipes for cannabis, qunubu, incense, regarded as copies of much older versions, were found in the cuneiform library of the legendary Assyrian king Assurbanipal (b. 685 – ca. 627 BC, reigned 669 – ca. 631 BC). Cannabis was not only sifted for incense like modern hashish, but the active properties were also extracted into oils. “Translating ‘Letters and Contracts, no.162’ (Keiser, 1921),  qu-un-na-pu is noted among a list of spices (Scheil, 1921)(p. 13), and would be translated from French (EBR), ‘(qunnapu): oil of hemp; hashish’” (Russo, 2005).

An ancient Babylonian inscription reads: “The glorious gods smell the incense, noble food of heaven; pure wine, which no hand has touched do they enjoy.” According to Mackenzie, in Babylonian religious rites, “inspiration was derived by burning incense, which, if we follow evidence obtained elsewhere, induced a prophetic trance. The gods were also invoked by incense” (Mackenzie, 1915). A view that was shared by even earlier researchers:

“The Chaldean Magus [Mesopotamian holy men of the Chaldean kingdom, circa 400-500 BC] used artificial means, intoxicating drugs for instance, in order to attain to [a]state of excitement acts of purification and mysterious rituals increased the power of the incantations Among these mysterious rituals must be counted the use of enchanted potions which undoubtedly contained drugs that were medically effective.” (Lenormant 1874)

 Records from the time of Assurbanipal’s father Esarhaddon (reigned 681 – 669 BC) give clear evidence of the importance of such substances in Mesopotamia, as cannabis, ‘qunubu’ is listed as one of the main ingredients of the paramount ‘Sacred Rites’. 

In a letter written in 680 bc to the mother of the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, reference is made to qu-nu-bu. In response to Esarhaddon’s mother’s question as to “What is used in the sacred rites”, a high priest named Neralsharrani responded that “the main items…. for the rites are fine oil, water, honey, odorous plants (and) hemp [qunubu].”  

It would seem, as with the science of medical cannabis, here in regards to the amazing history of the plant, once again, the activists are ahead of the curve from the academics. I have ordered this issue of Science, and plan to write up a full response to the article. Not that I am totally critical, as this is further confirmation of what I have been writing about for close to a quarter of a century here at Cannabis Culture, regarding cannabis’ paramount role as a sacrament in the ancient world .

Interestingly Diana Stein, a British archeologist, has suggested that the Assyrian Tree of Life images are likely related to  qunubu cannabis, an identical conclusion to that which I have independently drawn in my books Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001) and Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010).

Another interesting story appeared at Wine Spectator 2,000-Year-Old Cannabis Wine Discovered:

A 2015 excavation near the town of Cébazat in the heart of France (about 100 miles west of Lyon) of a tomb dating to the 2nd century B.C., led by researcher Hervé Delhoofs, yielded an earthenware vessel that once held a most potent potable: Analysis of plant material confirmed the presence of “biomarkers” for wine, resin and THC. Did the Gauls simply like the taste, or were they interested in a more, well, holistic experience? Researcher Nicolas Garnier told Unfiltered both “medicinal use or recreational use” were possible, and that the ethanol in wine made it a more efficient substance for infusion than water. “The wine-based medicinal preparations are common,” he explained via email. “Different recipes of many plants have been identified in tombs.”

The role of cannabis infused wines in the ancient world, is a subject I fully explored in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, and this includes its use as an anesthetic in ancient China , Zoroastrian and Jewish evidence,  and even claims that Jesus was given such a preparation to ease his pain on the cross. As noted in an 1860 edition of the The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal :

“Some high Biblical commentators maintain that the gall and vinegar, or myrrhed wine, offered to our Saviour immediately before his crucifixion, was in all probability a preparation of hemp, and even speak of its earlier use”

It has long been suggested that the Egyptian elixir Nepenthe was a cannabis wine infusion. The Odyssey of Homer (9th-8th century BC) describes the grief relieving Nepenthes which came to the Greeks from Egyptian Thebes. The historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the 1st century B.C., noted that still in his time, more than 7 centuries after the composition of Homer’s Iliad, “people say that the Egyptian women make use of the powder (of this plant, scil. the nepenthes) and they say from ancient times only those women who lived in the ‘Town-of-Zeus’ [i.e. Thebes, which was also known as Diospolis] had found medicines which cure wrath and grief” (1, 97, 1-9; Eus. PE 10, 8, 9-12; cf. also Ps.Iustinus, Cohort. ad gent. 26e). 

Many scholars have seen this as a cannabis infusion. “It is generally assumed that the drug, which Helen is supposed to have learned in Egypt, was opium, but the effects as described in the poem are much more like Cannabis, which was also widely employed in Egypt and throughout the Near East” (Ruck, et al., 2007). Numerous researchers have seen nepenthe as a cannabis concoction. An idea first put forth by the French Pharmacist Joseph Virey (1775—1846) who suggested in 1813 that hasheesh was Homer’s nepenthe (Bulletin de Pharmacie). Many others have since concurred: “The opinions entertained by the learned, on the nature of the Nepenthe of the ancients have been various. By Th. Zwinger, and… by Sprengel, in his history of botany, it is supposed to be opium… But the best authorities, with whom our author coincides, are of opinion that the Nepenthe was derived from the Cannabis sativa of Linnaeus” (Christen, 1822); “the famous nepenthe of the ancients is said to have been prepared by decocting the hemp leaves” (Watt, 1853); “nepenthe which may reasonably be surmised was bhang from the far east” (Benjamin, 1880). As the authors of The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians also concluded: “Nepenthes… Perhaps the Bust or Hasheesh, a preparation of the Cannabis sativa” (Wilkinson & Birch, 1878).

As the Nepenthe was infused in wine, it is important to note that ancient Amphorae, clay wine vessels from an Egyptian site, from the time period in question, revealed evidence of cannabis. In the 2004 paper, Pollen analysis of the contents of excavated vessels—direct archaeobotanical evidence of beverages, Manfred Rosch refers to vessels collected from a site in ˇSaruma/Al-Kom Al-Ahmar in Middle Egypt on the Nile:

At this place the Institute of Egyptology of the University of Tubingen is excavating a graveyard which was used from the 6th Dynasty until the Roman period… Here some wine amphorae were excavated, from the bottom of which we obtained samples of organic material for pollen analytical investigations…. The useful plants, Cerealia and Humulus/Cannabis were present. (Rosch, 2004)

In the case of the Gaul’s use of such an infusion was likely the byproduct of their cultural exchanges with the Persians who had a long history with cannabis infused wines and Scythians, who not only burned cannabis in enclosed tents, but were also known to partake of such infusions for ritual purposes in golden cups, and is a further testament to the widespread nature of this practice, that continued into the Mid East in Islamic times.

Although seen as particularly heretical, in the medieval Islamic world, the “combination of wine and hashish was quite often attempted…”:

A respectable scholar found nothing wrong in using both wine and hashish on the same occasion. The combination was praised as engendering at the same time “the laziness of hashish and energy of wine.” Similarly, Ibrahim al-Mi’mar (d. 749/1348), called in this connection “master of the craft”… might wonder about the extraordinary effects of wine plus hashish:

He mixed hashish with wine

And died of intoxication and became confused on the spot,

And I asked: what is this unexpected occurrence?

When he was sober (again), he answered me saying;

Be kind to your brother when he mixes.

However, the combination was considered as particularly sinful… (Rosenthal, 1971)

The “death” referred to here was the temporary death of the self, or ego, a state of realization sought out by Mystics. The 19th century work, The History of Ancient and Modern Wines by Dr. Henderson, indicates that such combinations continued in the Islamic world for some centuries. The 11th century Byszantine Jewish Doctor, Simeon Sethus wrote “the dried leaf, when drunk, as meal, or rather [as dried meal for a drink]produces a hospitable drunkenness and lack of sensation by the eater. For it is crushed or kneaded among the Arabs for wine, and it inebriates”. Centuries later, both Islamic and European authors recorded this combination still in use. “The Jews and Armenians prepare wine on purpose for the Mahomedans, by adding lime, hemp, and other ingredients, to increase its pungency and strength; for the wine that soonest intoxicates is accounted best, and the lighter and delicate kinds are held in no estimation among the adherents of the Prophet” (Henderson, 1824). As Charles Dickens journal All the Year Round,  also noted:

The best vineyards of Persia are situated in the mountainous districts that stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Sixty-five kinds of grape are grown there, its cultivation being abandoned to the Ghebers, the Armenians, and the Jews; for, though the Mohammedan part of the population drink wine without scruple, they assert that the infringement of the law of Islam consists in making the wine, not in drinking it—a convenient conclusion, which satisfies their consciences, and enables them to gratify their inclinations. Pure wine, however, is not for the topers of Ispahan and Teheran, the Jewish and Armenian dealers ministering to that fondness for narcotics which tend so greatly to enervate the East, by mixing myrrh, incense, and the juice of the Indian hemp with the finest growths. (Dickens, 1862)

More recently, in my new book, the release of which coincidentally coincided with the publication of these archeological stories, Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult,  I have looked at the role of such cannabis wine infusions in Alchemy, where we can find references and recipes in the works of such pivotal figures as Zosimos, Avicenna, and Paracelsus. It has even been suggested by a number of authors that the infamous Knights Templar held such a preparation under the rather illustrious title the Elixir of Jersusalem.

Such archeological finds as these add further confirmation to what has been recorded and are a testament to humanity’s longstanding and pivotal relationship with this ancient plant ally.

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than a quarter of a century. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018) . He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book (2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999). Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday Times, Washington Post, Vice and other media sources. He currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.