The commonly asserted theory to the origin of cannabis states that it comes from the Central Asian Hindu Kush mountain range. There are of course competing theories as to its origins, but all of them suggest a date between 500 and 3000BCE. However new research is now supporting the theory that it was first domesticated in northwestern China up to or even more than 12,000 years ago.
According to a study published in Science Advances, researchers who investigated the origins of cannabis domestication have found that cultivation can be traced back in northwestern China to 10,000BCE. To conduct their study, the researchers analyzed more than 100 different cannabis plants around the globe.
This research counters the common belief that cannabis originated in the valleys of the Hindu Kush mountain range, in Central Asia. There are four distinct genetic types of cannabis, including a primordial, hemp, as well as drug-breeding groups. Researchers concluded that cannabis was first domesticated around 12,000 years ago in northwest China . They believe the plants were cultivated most likely for mutliple uses.
“It confirms it is one of the oldest cultivated plants,” Luca Fumagalli said, a biologist who led the study. He is working at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. “It was multipurpose, we believe. He said that it was used for fiber, oil, and food, as well as medical and recreational purposes.”
“We show that cannabis sativa was first domesticated in early Neolithic times in East Asia and that all current hemp and drug cultivars diverged from an ancestral gene pool currently represented by feral plants and landraces in China,” the study reads.
Researchers determined that modern cannabis’ wild ancestor is lkely extinct. However, strains from northwest China are the closest living relatives. According to archaeological evidence, the genomic dating of 12,000 years is consistent with pottery with hemp cord markings that dates back about the same period.
Samples were required from all over the world
Due to difficulties in getting a large number of samples from all over the globe, previous research on the origins and cultivation of cannabis has been limited. Researchers from both the wild and farmers gathered samples for the new study.
However, geographic limitations were not the only problem in collecting plants for genetic research. Investigators had to also consider the legal consequences of possessing cannabis. Fumagalli stated, “You can’t just go and collect samples because you go to jail”.
Fumagalli, along with investigators from China, India, Pakistan, Qatar, and Switzerland, analysed the genomes of 82 plants and genomic data for 28 additional plants previously collected to conduct the research.
The study concludes that genomic dating indicates that early domesticated ancestors for hemp and other drug types diverged around 12,000 years ago from Basal cannabis, which suggests that the species was already domesticated in Neolithic times.
Researchers also cam to the conclusion that cannabis was first cultivated by farmers for drug and fiber production around 4,000 years ago. Researchers discovered several changes that were caused by selective breeding. These included a few mutations that prevent hemp from branching. These mutations make the hemp plants taller and produce more fiber from the stem.
Mutations that increase branching were used to domesticate cannabis cultivars for drug manufacturing. This resulted in shorter, bushier plants and higher resin production. Many mutations were also found in plants belonging to the drug group that increased the production of THC (the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis).
So what does this mean?
This research has shaken what the community believed about the origins of cannabis as it contradicts what many currently believe about the origins of cannabis. The general consensus had been that cannabis originated in Central Asia. This previous theory was largely based on the fact that the plant can often be found growing wild in the region, as well as a cannabis culture dating back thousands of years. Fumagalli stated that the plant is adaptable to all kinds of growing conditions, and that’s the reason it is often called weed.
The authors wrote that contrary to the widely accepted view that cannabis is associated with a Central Asian centre of crop domestication and are inconsistent with our findings, they support a single East Asian origin for cannabis sativa. This is consistent with early archaeological evidence.
According to the authors, the study offers an unprecedented source of genomic data for continuing breeding as well as functional agricultural research and medical research. The study also “provides new insights into the domestication and global spread of a plant”. This is in addition to greater understanding of “divergent structural and biochemical products at a time in which there is a resurgence of interest in its use, reflecting changing social attitudes and corresponding challenges to its legal status in many countries.”