Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Does this bust get burned or cultivated?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-12-06

So, what happens when archaelogists discover a 2700-year-old stash of cannabis?  Do they get busted?  Does the find get confiscated and incinerated?

Three quarters of a kilogram of the stuff isn’t exactly "personal use" even in the most liberal jurisdictions.

Even a small percentage of that, taken as a sample for analysis, is a significant amount.  Will the authorities stand guard over the analysts to make sure they don’t "misbehave", and is a behavioural assay legitimate?

What about when the scientific find crosses borders?

How old does a stash of psychotropic substances have to be before it is considered invaluable scientific material?

Such questions are relevant, because according to the original paper (Journal of Experimental Botany 2008 59(15):4171-4182; doi:10.1093/jxb/ern260, "Phytochemical and genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia") it was "perfectly preserved".  Abstract over the fold.

And if perfectly preserved, are the seeds (pictures available in the original paper) viable, like some seeds from Pharoahs’ tombs?  Given they have the genetics down pat (including knowing that it "novel genetic variant with two single nucleotide polymorphisms"), might they even be able to create a cultivar even without viable seeds?  Would growing this stuff at all be legitimate science, or would the investigators be investigated?

The Yanghai Tombs near Turpan, Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, China have recently been excavated to reveal the 2700-year-old grave of a Caucasoid shaman whose accoutrements included a large cache of cannabis, superbly preserved by climatic and burial conditions.  A multidisciplinary international team demonstrated through botanical examination, phytochemical investigation, and genetic deoxyribonucleic acid analysis by polymerase chain reaction that this material contained tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis, its oxidative degradation product, cannabinol, other metabolites, and its synthetic enzyme, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid synthase, as well as a novel genetic variant with two single nucleotide polymorphisms.  The cannabis was presumably employed by this culture as a medicinal or psychoactive agent, or an aid to divination.  To our knowledge, these investigations provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent, and contribute to the medical and archaeological record of this pre-Silk Road culture.

Indications it was used for psychotropic effect mentioned in the paper included…

Importantly, no obvious male cannabis plant parts (e.g. staminate flowers, not infrequently observed in Indian herbal cannabis, or bhang (Russo, 2007) were evident, implying their exclusion or possible removal by human intervention, as these are pharmacologically less psychoactive.

This plant material is therefore conclusively cannabis derived from a population of plants within which THC was the dominant cannabinoid.  By contrast, a sample taken from a mix of wild-type Cannabis sativa would customarily harbour a more equal mixture of THC and CBD (de Meijer et al., 2003).  It would appear, therefore, that humans selected the material from plants on the basis of their higher than average THC content.

Are there any older examples of selective breeding (apart possibly from progeny of a mutant almond, because the wild variety is loaded with cyanide)?

See Also/Notes


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