A biblical-era Israeli shrine shows signs of the earliest ritual use of marijuana

A limestone
altar from an Iron Age shrine in Israel contains remnants of the world’s earliest
known instance of burning cannabis plants in a ritual ceremony, a new study
finds.

This altar,
along with a second altar on which frankincense was burned, stood at the
entrance to a room where religious rites were presumably held inside a fortress
of the biblical kingdom of Judah. Previous analyses of recovered pottery and documented
historical events at the site indicate that the shrine was used from roughly
760 B.C. to 715 B.C.

Excavations
at Israel’s Tel Arad site in the 1960s uncovered the shrine amid the ruins of
two fortress cities, one built atop the other, that date from the ninth century
B.C. to the early sixth century B.C. Arad, about 45 kilometers west of the Dead
Sea, guarded Judah’s southern border.

Chemical
analyses of dark material on the two altars’ upper surfaces conducted in the
late 1960s proved inconclusive. Using modern laboratory devices, a team led by archaeologist
Eran Arie of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and bioarchaeologist Dvory Namdar of Israel’s
Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center in Bet-Dagan analyzed
chemical components of residues on each altar. 

Cannabis on the smaller of the two
altars
had been
mixed with animal dung so it could be burned at a low temperature, likely allowing
ritual specialists to inhale the plant’s mind-altering fumes, the researchers report
online May 29 in Tel Aviv, a journal
published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology. This cannabis
sample contained enough of the plant’s psychoactive compound THC to have
induced an altered state of consciousness by breathing in its fumes.

Frankincense,
a form of dried tree resin, was placed on the larger altar and mixed with
animal fats that enabled burning at temperatures high enough to release the
resin’s fragrance, the researchers say.

Biblical and
historical texts indicate that frankincense and another fragrant tree resin,
myrrh, reached the Iron Age Middle East and surrounding regions via trade from
southern Arabia.

“But
cannabis is completely new for understanding incense burning in this region,
and in Judah in particular,” Arie says. Earlier evidence had pointed to the use
of other mind-bending substances, such as opium, during religious rituals in
various parts of the ancient Middle East and southwest Asia.

Arie suspects
cannabis plants were cultivated far from Israel, in what’s now China or
southeastern Russia. Knowledge of cannabis, or marijuana, probably spread from eastern
and central Asia to Europe along early Silk Road trade routes, says
archaeobotanist Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of
Human History in Jena, Germany. Mourners at a cemetery in western China inhaled cannabis fumes around 2,500
years ago
(SN: 6/12/19).

It’s unclear
how Middle Easterners learned about and acquired potent forms of cannabis,
Spengler says. Discoveries at the Arad shrine, he says, “further complicate the
early story of cannabis.”

Many Iron
Age altars at Middle Eastern sites resemble the two at Tel Arad, says
archaeologist Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The
new report provides the first direct evidence that incense, sometimes including
cannabis, was burned on at least some of those altars, he suggests. “It’s
interesting to think of the priests officiating at these altars getting
‘high,’” Gibson muses.

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