The cannabis plants were lying flat and positioned like a shroud, with the roots grouped together below the man’s pelvis and the stems extending upwards to his face. 

People have been decorating their bodies with pot leaves way before you bought that "I <3 420" T-shirt at the mall.

An impressive cannabis burial shroud has been discovered in the approximately 2500-year-old tomb of a man in northwestern China. After such a long time underground, the stems and leaves have turned yellowish brown, but they actually retained their characteristic palmate shape because of the dry climate.

The unusual stash of weed was discovered in a grave in the Jiayi cemetery in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to a report this week in the journal Economic Botany.

The burial pit, estimated to be 2800–2400 years old

 

Located in the land-locked desert oasis of the Turpan Basin, this ancient cemetery was only discovered when a modern cemetery was being built in the area. So far, 240 graves have been excavated, and the tombs have been linked to the Subeixi (sometimes called Gushi) culture, a pastoral society that existed from about 3000 to 2100 years ago. Their well-preserved remains, found in graves in the region, show they generally had light hair and Caucasian physical characteristics. 

In the report, Hongen Jiang, an archaeologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues described the grave of a man who died around age 35 between 2800 and 2400 years ago. His body was resting on a bed of wooden slats.

The burial platform, composed of wooden slats

His body was covered with 13 nearly whole female cannabis plants. The plants were lying flat and positioned like a shroud, with the roots grouped together below the man’s pelvis and the stems extending upwards to his face. (See the top image.) 

The pot plants were so well preserved that the flowering parts still had their glandular trichomes, the little hairs that produce the sticky resin that contains psychoactive ingredients in cannabis like THC.

Cannabis leaf fragments with a characteristically palmate compound form and serrated margins

Jiang and his colleagues note that parts of cannabis plants have been discovered at other 1st millennium BCE tombs in Eurasia. At the nearby Yanghai cemetery, for example, archaeologists have found horse figurines with their tails made of cannabis stems, and the grave of a possible shaman who was buried with musical instruments and a large supply of processed cannabis for the afterlife.

But it was unclear from these previous studies whether the plants were cultivated locally or the product of trade. (The basin was, after all, located along the Silk Road.) Because the leaves found in the Jiayi cemetery seem like they were fresh when they were laid on top of the corpse, the researchers believe this cannabis was homegrown.

Cannabis plants can have other uses besides getting you high—hemp fibers can be used to make clothing or rope and the seeds can eaten. But no hemp cloths or textiles have been found at other Turpan burials. The plants found at Jiayi and elsewhere in the Turpan Basin seem likely to have been used for their psychoactive properties, whether for medicinal, ritual, or intoxication purposes.

All images: Economic Botany, Hongen Jiang, et al.