Study Shows Cannabis was Food Staple for Ancient Chinese Dynasty

January 21, 2022


Researchers studying an ancient tomb in China have found direct evidence that cannabis was a staple food crop during the Tang dynasty more than 1,000 years ago. 

Previous research into the civilizations of ancient China has shown that cannabis was an important crop for thousands of years, with historical texts showing that the plant’s seeds were a staple food consumed in a type of porridge. And now archaeological evidence from central China is confirming the significance of cannabis during the Tang dynasty, which ruled the country from 618 to 907 A.D.

Cannabis Found in Ancient Tomb

In 2019, workers at an elementary school playground construction site in Taiyuan, Shanxi province discovered an ancient tomb buried underground. Escaping discovery for more than 1,320 years, the remarkably dry environment of the tomb had preserved the wall paintings and artifacts found inside.

The researchers determined that the discovery was the tomb of Guo Xing, a cavalry officer who had fought with Tang emperor Li Shimin, or Taixzong, in a series of fierce battles on the Korean peninsula. Among the artifacts discovered in the tomb was a jar containing staple foods, which included cannabis seeds and the remnants of their husks, according to a report by the South China Morning Post

“The cannabis was stored in a pot on the coffin bed amid other staple grains such as millet. Obviously, the descendants of Guo Xing buried cannabis as an important food crop,” said Jin Guiyun, a professor with the school of history and culture at Shandong University and a co-author of the study published last month by the peer-reviewed journal Agricultural Archaeology.

The cannabis seeds were significantly larger than those of today’s varietals, suggesting that a cultivar of cannabis had been bred specifically for grain. They were so well preserved that some still showed their original color. The researchers noted that the seeds still had their husks, which can contain the psychoactive cannabinoid THC. According to the Compendium of Materia Medica, a book written by herbalist Li Shizhen about 500 years ago, eating too many cannabis seeds that still had their husks could “make a person run about like mad.”

“Cannabis seeds with husks are not only related to the high lignin content of the husk and its hard texture, which can reduce the chance of mold and prolong the storage time, it may also stimulate the nerves and cause hallucinations due to the consumption of husk for religious and medical purposes,” researchers with the Taiyuan Municipal Institute of Archaeology wrote in a report on the study.

Study Reveals Cannabis Use as Food, Fiber and Medicine

Cannabis was an important crop during the Tang dynasty, providing food, fiber and medicine for the ancient civilization. But the Taiyuan region was wetter and warmer at that time, making rice the most common grain in the area.

However, the artifacts placed in the tomb by the family of Guo Xing did not include rice as would be expected. Instead, the researchers found cannabis seeds, perhaps reflecting the personal food preference of the ancient warrior, who lived to the age of 90. 

In ancient Chinese texts, cannabis was known as one of the five staple food crops known as wu gu. Archaeologists have discovered cannabis in tombs found across the country, some as old as 6,600 years old. Previously, researchers have theorized that the presence of cannabis in tombs indicated the use of the plant for spiritual and funerary purposes. But the evidence discovered in Guo Xing’s tomb illustrates the importance of cannabis as a staple food crop as well.

“The cannabis was buried as food for the tomb owner’s feast and health in the afterlife,” the researchers wrote.

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A recent study reveals that cannabis was a part of life for an ancient Chinese civilization, and that they used it for food, medicine and textiles.
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