It must have been something in the air. During a short time window at the end of the last ice age, Stone Age humans in Europe and Asia independently began using a new plant: cannabis.
That’s the conclusion of a review of cannabis archaeology, which also links an intensification of cannabis use in East Asia with the rise of transcontinental trade at the dawn of the Bronze Age, some 5000 years ago.
Central Eurasia’s Yamnaya people – thought to be one of the three key tribes that founded European civilisation – dispersed eastwards at this time and are thought to have spread cannabis, and possibly its psychoactive use, throughout Eurasia.
The pollen, fruit and fibres of cannabis have been turning up in Eurasian archaeological digs for decades.
Tengwen Long and Pavel Tarasov at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, and their colleagues have now compiled a database of this archaeological literature to identify trends and patterns in prehistoric cannabis use.
It is often assumed that cannabis was first used, and possibly domesticated, somewhere in China or Central Asia, the researchers say – but their database points to an alternative.
Some of the most recent studies included in the database suggest that the herb entered the archaeological record of Japan and Eastern Europe at almost exactly the same time, between about 11,500 and 10,200 years ago.
“The cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early as 10,000 years ago, or even earlier,” says Long.