Montana: Ex-Missoula neurologist pens paper on old stash
By MICHAEL JAMISON, Missoulian
A 2,700-year-old bowl of marijuana, the world’s oldest pot stash, has been unearthed from a tomb in central China.
“The evidence all indicates that there was intent to utilize this cannabis for psychoactive purposes,” said Ethan Russo. “What we’ve found here is the oldest, clear-cut and proven sample of psychoactive cannabis in the world.”
Russo, who for 24 years worked as a neurologist in Missoula and still serves as a pharmacology faculty affiliate at the University of Montana was lead author on a paper describing the find, published this month in the peer-reviewed “Journal of Experimental Botany.”
The tomb, Russo said, belonged to “a shaman, or a chief, someone of extremely high stature.”
Found alongside the skeleton and the 2 pounds of marijuana were several other items, including horse bridles, archery equipment and a harp. (No pipes were found, however, and Russo remains uncertain as to whether the marijuana was to be smoked or ingested in the afterlife.)
The site is located amid the Yanghai Tombs, near Turpan in China’s Gobi Desert region. Locals stumbled across the sprawling graveyard some two decades back, while digging irrigation wells, but it was not until 2003 that formal archaeological investigations were launched.
To date, Russo said, only 500 or so of the 2,500 graves there have been excavated.
The marijuana was found buried next to a 45-year-old male, likely of the ancient Gushi culture. These fair-haired, blue-eyed horsemen were known as farmers, as well as archers, and other burial sites have offered up ancient capers, wheat, barley and grapevines.
The marijuana initially thought to be coriander was contained in a leather bottle and a wooden bowl, Russo said. The bowl was smoothed on the inside, as if it had been used as a mortar, and the cannabis appeared to have been lightly pounded.
The marijuana also had been picked clean of stems and stalks, and only female plant parts higher in psychoactive properties were found in the grave.
“It appears to have been cultivated and processed,” he said.
Russo, who now works as a consultant with GW Pharmaceuticals, offered up his company’s laboratories to analyze the find. The United Kingdom-based company makes Sativex, a cannabis-based medicine approved in both England and in Canada for pain relief.
“We have a very well-established laboratory in England,” Russo said, “for chemical analysis and quality control.”
The Yanghai discovery, he said, was particularly intriguing because of the well-preserved nature of the pot a result of dry conditions, a cool underground burial and extremely alkaline soils.
The marijuana, in fact, “retained a surprisingly green color in its leafy parts,” the journal article concluded.
“It was in remarkable shape,” Russo said. “Microscopically, it looks almost fresh. You can still see the glands that hold the THC.”
Not fresh enough, however, to resurrect the plants. Russo and others have tried to germinate the ancient seeds, but without luck.
“We’ve had plenty of people offer to help, though,” he said.
But the scientists were able to learn much from the stash, using sophisticated biochemical analysis, electron microscopy and DNA analysis. What they found was not the native hemp historically used for fiber, but rather a domesticated and cultivated crop relatively high in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that provides pot its psychoactive high.
Also, the team found no hemp products in the tombs, but rather clothing of wool and ropes of reed.
“All of the evidence,” Russo said, “points to a strictly psychoactive use.”
The journal article concludes the “most probable conclusion” is that “the Gushi culture cultivated cannabis for pharmaceutical, psychoactive or divinatory purposes,” making it the oldest such stash ever found and tested.
Russo was lead author on the research paper, which included an international team of Chinese archaeologists, Italian geneticists, English biochemists and, of course, the American neurologist who for two decades kept office hours in Missoula.
In addition to teaching pharmacology in Missoula, Russo also taught in the chemistry, physical therapy and psychology departments at the University of Montana. He has written and edited seven books on medicinal plants, including “Cannabis: From Pariah to Prescription.”
His latest work, he said, proves the importance of private science conducted by corporations, especially as government research budgets shrink.
“In this instance,” Russo said, “a private company offered its services to advance scientific inquiry, and there’s still more work to do in that area.”
With only one-fifth of the Yanghai tombs explored, “the opportunity is there to learn a great deal more of this culture, and I hope to be a part of that.”
The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China, where the Yanghai Tombs are located, is thought to be the original source of many cannabis strains now found worldwide.