Did ancient Siberian princess use cannabis to cope with breast cancer?
The Siberian Ice Maiden, also known as the Princess of Ukok and the Altai Princess of Ochi-Bala, is a 2,500-year-old mummy of a woman found in 1993 in a kurgan (mound) of the Pazyryk culture in the Republic of Altai, Russia. Her discovery was considered to be among the most significant Russian archaeological findings of the late 20th century. Revolutionary scientific research, reported in The Siberian Times, revealed that the young woman died from breast cancer, and suffered numerous other ailments. The research team suggested that this may explain the pouch of cannabis found by her body, which she may have used to cope with the symptoms of her illness.
The Princess of Ukok was found undisturbed in a subterranean burial chamber on the Ukok Plateau near the border of China, in what is now the Autonomous Republic of Altai. The plateau, part of the Eurasian Steppes, is characterized by a harsh, arid climate. One of the most distinctive features of the Ice Maiden is her tattoos. She has tattoos on both arms, from her shoulders to her hands although only the left arm was preserved well enough to study. The tattoo depicts a mythical animal, an antlered deer with the beak of a vulture as well as other mythical clashes between vultures and hoofed animals.
As well as the sarcophagus with the mummy, six horses richly saddled and harnessed and two warriors were found indicating that the woman came from a noble clan. The Altai Princess and the two warriors found with her are believed to be Pazyryk people, a nomadic people described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus.
The Ukok Plateau, Siberia. Image Source: Wikipedia
Since her discovery, the Ice Maiden has been extensively studied at the Museum of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, which has included facial reconstruction, DNA tests, and other research projects on the Maiden – much to the disappointment of Altai locals, who say that scientists have troubled her remains.
According to the Siberian Times, the results of an MRI analysis, conducted by scientists Andrey Letyagin and Andrey Savelov and published in the journal Science First Hand, revealed the ‘princess’ had a primary tumour in the right breast and right axial lymph nodes with metastases. It is not clear whether the cancer was the ultimate cause of her death as she also suffered from osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone or bone marrow, and significant injuries, including fractures of the skull, which may have been caused by falling from a horse. But one thing is for certain, the feeble Ice Maiden would have been suffering a great deal of pain.
Ukok princess reconstruction. Image source: Wikipedia
Professor Natalia Polosmak, who first found these remarkable human remains in 1993, told the Siberian Times that the young woman is likely to have used analgesics. Since her burial chamber was found to contain a pouch full of cannabis, Dr Polosmak suggests that sniffing cannabis “was a forced necessity” to cope with her pain.
The use of cannabis has a long and varied history. Evidence of the inhalation of cannabis smoke can be found in the 3rd millennium BCE, as indicated by charred cannabis seeds found in a ritual brazier at an ancient burial site in present day Romania. While the drug was used for a variety of purposes, including its psychotropic properties, it was also used as a healing agent. The first recorded use of cannabis as a medicine dates back to 2,737 BC, used by Emperor Shen Neng of China. Evidence for the consumption of cannabis has also been found in Egyptian mummies dated about 950 BC.
Modern-day scientists have increasingly been turning their attention to cannabis due to its potential to inhibit or destroy cancer cells, and at the very least, manage the pain and symptoms that come with the illness. But then, ancient people seem to have known that already.
Featured image: Mummy of the Ukok Princess. Image source: Wikipedia