New research shows cannabis comes from Tibet

Ever wonder where cannabis first came from? No, it wasn’t Mexico. A new study identifies the Qinghai (ching-hahy) Lake region of the Tibetan Plateau in China as the biological source of the cannabis plant. Cannabis, which has proliferated around the world and appears in many different cultures, likely originated from this region around the massive inland lake, which is close to a number of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, 28 million years ago. It’s little wonder why the Tibetan Buddhists use it in their practices.

Published in the journal “Vegetation History and Archaeobotany,” the research was led by John M. McPartland of the University of Vermont and GW Pharmaceuticals, William Hegman from Middlebury College, and Tengwen Long from the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo China campus.

The researchers, known as biogeographers, tracked data on how wild cannabis pollen has distributed around the world throughout history, much like archeologists have used fossils and DNA to track the movements of the human species out of Africa and around the globe.

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Using “molecular clock analysis,” or a tool that looks at the mutation rate of biomolecules to estimate how long ago two species diverged, they compiled information from 155 fossil plant studies that have been conducted in Asia to come to a series of interesting conclusions on the origin and spread of cannabis around the globe.

Cannabis is perhaps one of the most interesting plants like this to study and a plant particularly important to humans for millennia. McPartland told Cannabis Now “People have wondered about the origins of cannabis for over a millennium. Ibn Wahshiyya wrote the first hypothesis back in 930 AD! Not too many crop plants provide us with three different products: fiber, food, and medicine.”

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But the history of cannabis is long and meandering, and the study led to a few more interesting discoveries. “By the time humans invented agriculture, [cannabis] had spread throughout Asia and Europe—even in India,” he said. “Botanists have long argued whether or not cannabis grew indigenously in India before humans started spreading seeds around. Thus, wild cannabis was available for people across Eurasia to bring into cultivation. It was likely domesticated, independently, in several places,” said McPartland.

Cannabis and its cousin, hops, have similar enough pollen that many studies lump them together. One of the challenges of this research was differentiating them in the data. The authors speculate that cannabis separated from hops 27.8 million years ago, in Tibet. It’s where the data points, although the oldest cannabis pollen sample they found that fits all of their parameters was dated to 19.6 million years ago and discovered in Ningxia (ning-shyah), China, on the border between the Tibetan Plateau and the Loess Plateau.

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From Tibet, the researchers said the cannabis plant migrated to Europe by 6 million years ago and the Northwest part of China by 2.5 million years ago. From there, it has popped up virtually everywhere around the world in the last 160,000 years, starting with Kazakhstan and then Turkey about 19,000 years later.

(Photo courtesy of Ilonka Dijk on Unsplash)
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