Central Asians were smoking cannabis by 500 BCE! Archaeologists have found traces of cannabinol, an oxidative metabolite of tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) in incense burners recovered from the ancient Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau in western China. It appears that cannabis plants were placed in the incense burners, then hot stones placed on top, to create a mind-bending smoke.
There is archaeological evidence that cannabis has been grown and cultivated since around 4000 BCE, but because those plants had very low THC content, they were likely being grown for their fiber and oil.
The new discovery at Pamir Plateau is the first clear evidence of cannabis being used for its psychoactive properties. Especially interesting: the charred remains had higher THC concentrations than are found in wild plants, suggesting they had deliberately been cultivated to enhance their psychoactive properties, or that the Jirzankal people sought out wild plants with especially high THC content.
One man, Kumarajiva, is responsible for revolutionizing Chinese Buddhism. He lived from 334 to 413 CE during China’s Sixteen Kingdoms Era, and was tasked by the Later Qin emperor with translating key Buddhist texts into Chinese from Sanskrit. This is harder than mere literal translation. Sanskrit and Chinese are very different, linguistically, and Kumarajiva complained that the translation work was like having to eat rice after someone else had already chewed it!
Kumarajiva was able to translate many key Buddhist texts. In China today, millions of Chinese speak the words of Kumarajiva every day.
In 1927, China was shocked by a sensational new character: Sophie, a woman wracked by sexual longing who was determined to torment her reliable if dull boyfriend, while consumed with lust for a man she could not have.
Sophie was the protagonist of Miss Sophie’s Diary, a short story by Jiang Bingzhi, who went by the pen name Ding Ling. It was published during a brief period in Chinese history, the New Culture movement, which was liberal intellectual movement centered in China’s cities. Ding Ling was part of the left-leaning literary scenes in Beijing and Shanghai.
But she soon found herself on the run from the nationalist political authorities. Ding Ling and literarti like her were dangerously subversive to the China the nationalists wanted to build. She joined the communists by the 1940s, but ended up in internal exile, living in a remote rural area. Ding Ling’s work was too “bourgeouis” and “individualistic” and “rightist” now.
In the 1970s, in her seventies, Ding Ling was rehabilitated. Today she is remembered as one of China’s most important feminist authors.
individual living in the Chinese city of Luoyang during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE to 8 CE) was buried with an
assortment of fine bronze, jade, and ceramic objects. Among their burial goods
was a jar containing a yellow liquid which smelled alcoholic. Amazingly, it had survived over 2,000 years without seeping away.
Although initially thought to be rice wine, a chemical analysis has
revealed the liquid to be a mixture of potassium nitrate and alunite. These minerals are the main ingredients of the
legendary “elixir of immortality” mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. Given that it was found as part of a burial, the elixir did not work.
Still, this is a major find. It is the first hard evidence that one of the various “immortality medicines” written about in ancient texts were actually made. And presumably tried out, too.
Han purple was an ancient Chinese pigment which is thought to have been created as early as 800 BCE, but the most famous examples of its use date back to around 220 BCE when it was used to paint the Terracotta Army and murals in the tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang at Xi’an.
Han purple peaked during the Han Dynasty, then declined, and then vanished from the historical record entirely – along with knowledge of how to make the color.
It was not until the 1990s that scientists were able to replicate it. The process to make the copper barium silicate pigment was extremely intricate. For one thing, it involved the grinding of precise quantities of various materials. And for another, it required heating to between 900 and 1,100 degrees Celsius. Amazing that the process was discovered so long ago!
The Dulong people are a minority group in China who live in a historically inaccessible area in the Yunnan Province. (A highway built in late 1999 now makes it reachable to the outside world.) It was a tradition for Dulong girls to get a face tattoo when they began puberty, a tradition called “Hua Lian” (“painting the face”) or “Wen Mian” (“tattooing the face").
In the areas along the upper and middle reaches of the Dulong River, the tattoos were a complex pattern of connecting diamonds down the bridge of the nose and across the cheeks and mouth. In the lower reaches, the designs were much simpler. All tattoos were butterfly shaped as they believed that the dead turned into butterflies when they passed.
How the Dulong tradition began is unknown. Some speculate that it was so that Dulong women were less attractive as slaves, as Tibetan landlords used to demand families who could not pay taxes would pay in daughters instead.
Unfortunately, the tradition is dying. It almost completely ended after 1949 and the founding of the communist state. Today, there are fewer than 30 women alive with traditional Dulong tattoos.
Chinese laborers were brought to Peru in the mid-1800s, to harvest cotton and sugar after slavery was ended in 1854. While some laborers traveled back home, many more stayed. Even today Peru has a distinct Chinese cuisine developed by the laborers and their descendants.
Recently, archaeologists in the Peruvian capital of Lima excavated the bodies of three workers, buried with a number of Chinese artifacts. The men were wrapped in blankets and then placed either directly in the earth, or in simple wooden coffins. The bodies were well-preserved. They were either intentionally mummified before burial, or accidentally mummified by the arid climate. Whether on purpose or accidental, their preservation is a boon to archaeologists.
One of the laborers was buried naked, with his clothing folded on his torso, alongside an opium pipe and tarot cards. The two other laborers were buried in typical tunics and sandals. One was sporting a straw hat. The men apparently wished to be buried with the artifacts they had used when alive.
And like in life, they were foreigners in a foreign land: Chinese immigrants were excluded from Catholic cemeteries in Peru hence the three men being discovered buried alone, away from a larger burial ground.
The Neolithic Revolution, also known as the Agricultural Revolution, occurred about 12,000 years ago. For those, like me, who are not the best at math, that is around 10,000 BCE. There was a global trend away from nomadic hunting and gathering and towards sedentary farming. It appears to have arisen independently in multiple places in the Middle East, as well as in China and Papua New Guinea. Egypt and the Indus River Valley may have independently developed agriculture as well, or gotten the idea and the seeds from the Middle East or China.
Cereals, like barley in the Middle East and rice in China, were likely the first to be domesticated, eventually supplemented by protein-rice plants like peas and lentils. As people began to settle down they also domesticated animals. The earliest archaeological evidence of sheep and goat herding comes from around 10,000 BCE in the Iraq and Anatolia. Animals could be used as labor in the fields, or as sources of additional nutrients and calories to supplement the new cereal-heavy diet.
The Neolithic Revolution did not happen everywhere, and not all at once. And there remain a variety of hypotheses as to why humans stopped foraging and started farming. Population pressure may have caused increased competition for food and the need to cultivate new foods; people may have shifted to farming in order to involve elders and children in food production; humans may have learned to depend on plants they modified in early domestication attempts and in turn, those plants may have become dependent on humans. Whatever the reason, the Neolithic Revolution changed humanity – and our world – for good.