Scientists believe the plant grew widespread in Europe during the Stone Age before a warming climate caused the plant to temporarily disappear from the continent.
Europe used to have swaths of cannabis growing wild, according to a new study published in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. A team of researchers from the University of Vermont, led by John McPartland, have collected evidence indicating that cannabis grew wild in Europe during the Stone Age before the plant disappeared as the continent warmed.
To try and figure out what pre-civilization vegetation might have been, McPartland and his colleagues sampled pollen collected from Stone Age fossils at more than 470 locations throughout Europe.
Researchers have struggled in the past distinguishing between hop pollen and cannabis pollen. McPartland and his team believe they solved this problem by taking into account that the two plants flourish in different environments. While hop prefers a warmer, woodier climate, cannabis thrives in cold, grassy steppes. The samples collected allowed the scientists to examine both the climate and what types of plants grew during the time.
The general consensus of the history of cannabis had been that the plant evolved somewhere in Central Asia in what is now Mongolia and Southern Siberia. Previous research had discovered that cannabis was harvested in Asia thousands of years ago to be used for medical and spiritual purposes. It then spread through Africa and Europe.
The new study’s findings contradict this history. The sampled pollen revealed that cannabis was at one time present on dry tundra landscapes of Europe during the Stone Age.
McPartland believes that communities likely experimented with the plants for recreational purposes, as alcohol at the time was not commonplace.
“Even muted psychoactivity would have been appreciated by people who did not yet have alcohol,” he said.
Disappearance and Reintroduction
Evidence collected by the researchers indicates that cannabis began to disappear from Europe at the dawn of the Neolithic era, about 9,000 years ago, just as farmers from the Middle East made their way to Europe.
The warming climate in Europe, the researchers claim, made the environment no longer suitable for ancient cannabis and the plant was killed off. As a result, there’s little evidence that early farmers ever cultivated the plants.
“If it wasn’t there they couldn’t domesticate it,” McPartland told the New Scientist.
Around 4,500 years ago during the Bronze Age, the researchers believe, cannabis returned to Europe when pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe brought the plant with them. McPartland said he believes when the plant was reintroduced, it was likely harvested for its fibers to make textiles.
The entire study, “Cannabis is indigenous to Europe and cultivation began during the Copper or Bronze age: a probabilistic synthesis of fossil pollen studies,” is available to access through Springer Link.
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