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Cannabis plant origins traced to ancient Tibet.

Research Traces Cannabis Plant Origins to the Tibetan Plateau 28 Million Years Ago

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A fascinating new study published in the journal  Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, on May 14, details the work of a team of researchers from the University of Vermont who present their evidence that the cannabis plant “evolved 28 million years ago at a specific area on the Tibetan plateau.”

Titled, “Cannabis in Asia: its center of origin and early cultivation, based on a synthesis of subfossil pollen and archaeobotanical studies”, the study aimed at establishing the oldest common ancestors of the cannabis plant. Led by John McPartland from the University of Vermont the team of investigators analyzed ‘wild-type plant distribution’ data including ‘155 fossil pollen studies.’

Striving to determine the unknown origins of the modern cannabis plant they revealed that it thrived in arid steppe-like conditions caused by the tectonic formation of the northeastern Tibetan Plateau in the general vicinity of Qinghai Lake around “28 million years ago.” This co-localizes with the first steppe community that evolved in Asia, said the team, and while cannabis pollen is visually similar to hop pollen the researchers managed to distinguish the two species and established that hops and cannabis shared a common ancestor.

Left; cannabis plant, Right; Hop plant. Both are part of the same flowering plant family (Cannabaceae). Soucre:  (Dmytro Sukharevskyi /Adobe; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Left; cannabis plant, Right; Hop plant. Both are part of the same flowering plant family (Cannabaceae). Soucre:  (Dmytro Sukharevskyi /Adobe; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Where Did The Cannabis Plant Take Root?

Humans have utilized cannabis plants for at least 27,000 years and this new study provides a richer understanding of not only ‘when’ the first cannabis plants evolved but also about ‘when’ humanoids first began to use them as medicines and within ritual environments. A Live Science article said that “While this medicinal and psychotropic plant was long thought to have first evolved in central Asia, scientists were hazy on the precise location.”

The cannabis origin site which is central in this new paper is situated only a few hundred kilometers from Baishiya Karst Cave which researchers recently announced, in a New Scientist article, that was once inhabited by an ancient relative of Homo sapiens - Denisovans. DNA testing showed that a jawbone found in this Tibetan cave came from a Denisovan and so showing the species was more widespread than had been known. And now the oldest traces of cannabis have been found in or around that same area.

It is thought that because “the earth was in the midst of ice age they may have transported cannabis seeds from another place” which is supported by cannabis pollen having been discovered in other caves inhabited by Denisovans.

Denisovans could have transported cannabis seeds. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Denisovans could have transported cannabis seeds. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Modern Flowers With Ancient Origins

From the Tibetan Plateau, according to another Live Science article, Cannabis reached Europe approximately 6 million years ago and had spread as far afield as eastern China by 1.2 million years ago. Over the millennia cannabis migrated all over the world, and through Africa it reached South America in the 19th century penetrating the United States at the beginning of the 20th century with Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.

After 28 million years of growth and almost 30 thousand years of evidential use by humans both Cannabis sativa L. and  Cannabis sativa were outlawed in Utah in 1915, and by 1931 it was illegal in 29 states. By 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country.

However, the beginning of this century has seen these laws collapse under the pressure of the American people, and as 2018 Business Insider report states, “Marijuana Legalization Is Sweeping Across The States”. It looks like, while the richest and most technologically equipped country in the world brings in our future there remains a hardcore population that prefer the old ways, the Denisovan way, in which the magic plant was a dietary and social staple.

Top image: Cannabis plant origins traced to ancient Tibet.         Source: CC0 / Pixabay

By Ashley Cowie



Rick Whitmore's picture

Cannabis extract was quite prolific in medicine prior to the 20th century and hemp(cannabis) was one of the first crops commercially grown in the Americas, with many textile and industrial uses. To assert that Mexicans brought it here in the early 20th century is not only wrong, but also racist misinformation used to promote racially based discrimination. Your orgins research is interesting, but being inable to produce factual information about more recent history of cannabis makes me question the legitmacy of all of your statements


Cannabis was grown by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on their plantations so when you were wrong when you wrote Marijuana came into N America from Mexicans fleeing their Homeland in 1911. You do realize Hemp/Cannabis/Marijuana are the same species right?

Gary Moran's picture

Had some home-brewed beer ‘back in the day’ made from hops that had been grafted to cannibis root stalks. It was pretty interesting, but I don’t remember any details.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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