Study claims cannabis likely originated in northwest China

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Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

Researchers believe that the Cannabis sativa plant species likely originated in China during the Neolithic times (10,000-3,000 BC).

This is according to a study featured in the journal Science Advances, which claims that cannabis was a “much beloved and maligned plant” that was most commonly enjoyed as a recreational drug.

Previously published studies, such as this one, have also pinpointed cannabis’ ancient origins to Asia. Fast-forward to today and the plant’s legalization is being embraced across much of Southeast Asia.

Thailand, where medical cannabis use and research was legalized in 2017, is a prime example.

Researchers in Switzerland and China led study on cannabis’ origins

In order to discover the origins of cannabis, 110 whole genomes were compiled by a team of researchers in China and Switzerland. A broad range of wild-growing feral plants were assessed for the study on cannabis’ origins, as well as psychoactive THC-containing varieties of cannabis, domesticated forms of the plant and modern hemp hybrids.

Researchers say that the cannabis plant was one of the first to be domesticated by humans. Throughout history, its uses have included food, hemp oilseed and textiles. However, due to modern legal limitations into cannabis research, there is likely more that we don’t know about the popular plant’s historical uses.

Hemp and cannabis descended from basal cannabis 12,000 years ago

Four main groups highlighted the team’s genomic analysis, one of which was “basal cannabis.” This type of cannabis is commonly found in China and across much of the United States.

The findings indicate that early domesticated ancestors of hemp and cannabis – two of the other primary groups featured in the study – emerged from basal cannabis approximately 12,000 years ago; thus suggesting that the species might have already been domesticated at that point.

“Our genome-wide analyses corroborate the existing archaeobotanical, archaeological and historical record, and provide a detailed picture of the domestication of Cannabis and its consequences on the genetic makeup of the species,” said the study authors, who added that modern Chinese landraces and feral cannabis plants are now the closest offspring of hemp and cannabis’ ancestors.

The study on cannabis’ origins also pinpoints the first recorded use of Cannabis sativa to approximately 3,000 years ago in India, at which point it was probably introduced along with other agricultural crops from China. Archaeological evidence implies that, following its domestication in the Neolithic period, cannabis’ use and cultivation gradually spread across Europe and the Middle East in the Bronze Age.