Category Archives: CHINA

The Atacama Giant: The Largest Prehistoric Anthropomorphic Geoglyph in the World

The Atacama Giant: The Largest Prehistoric Anthropomorphic Geoglyph in the World

The Atacama Giant is a large anthropomorphic geoglyph in the Atacama Desert, Chile. The Atacama Giant is one out of nearly 5,000 geoglyphs – ancient artwork that is drawn into the landscape – that have been discovered in the Atacama in the last three decades.

The Atacama Giant: The Largest Prehistoric Anthropomorphic Geoglyph in the World
The Atacama Giant in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

It is the largest prehistoric representation of a human figure in the world with a height of 119 metres (390 ft). Its location is about 497 miles (800 kilometres) south of Peru’s Nazca lines – the best-known geoglyphs in the world.

The Atacama Giant lies in the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert on Earth. The desert plateau stretches almost 1,000 miles along the coast of Chile and Peru. Scattered over the desert in hills, valleys, and plains, these motifs are found alongside tracks that pre-Hispanic civilizations built and used for llama caravans.

In fact, llama caravans are depicted in geoglyphs across the Atacama, suggesting the images were somehow deeply linked to the nearby trade routes.

Moon Valley, Atacama Desert, Chile.

The geoglyphs include geometric designs such as stepped rhombuses, concentric circles, and arrows. Figures resembling people (or perhaps gods) are also represented performing different activities—for example, hunting. Animals, too, are found among the figures. Llamas, lizards, and monkeys are just a few examples.

Scholars believe some animals may correspond to divine rites, such as amphibians being used in water rituals. Modern flight and drone abilities have enabled closer study and better photography of such ancient creations around the world.

Geoglyphs are generally categorized into three types. The first is additive, or positive, meaning that rocks and other materials are strategically piled on top of the ground to create the desired shape.

A second type is considered extractive, or negative. In this case, topsoil and other materials are scraped away to reveal differently coloured subsoil.

The third type of geoglyph is a combination of both styles. While it may seem like these ancient creations would be very ephemeral, a shocking number have survived to modern times.

In the Atacama desert, the dry climate likely contributed to the preservation of the thousands of ancient designs still visible today. However, even in wetter climates such as the United Kingdom, geoglyphs such as the Uffington Horse still survive.

Other geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

The Atacama geoglyphs are thought to have been created by a succession of cultures, including the Inca. However, the purpose of many of the images remains a mystery. Some may have been intended as guiding information for the ancient llama caravans. Others may have been devoted to deities or used in religious practices.

The Atacama giant—notable for its size and hillside position on the hill Cerro Unitas—has been assumed to be an astronomical guide. The rays emanating from the figure’s head may have represented a headdress, but they align with the moon to tell the time in a way that was probably quite practical. By gauging the seasons, the ancients who crafted the hill figure sometime between 1000 and 1400 CE could better predict the rainy season.

READ ALSO: ANCIENT WALL PAINTING IN THE NUBIAN PYRAMIDS DEPICTING A GIANT CARRYING TWO ELEPHANTS

Hill figures are often thought to have been intended to view from some distance, suggesting the giant may have been strategically placed.

Another giant figural geoglyph; part of the Nazca Lines UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru.

Another famous set of geoglyphs are the Nazca Lines, located in the Nazca Desert in Peru. Created earlier than the Atacama images, the Nazca Lines date from about 500 BCE to 500 CE. They draw their name from the heavy use of long lines, created in an extractive style.

These lines surround or compose shapes and animals. Spiders, humans, hummingbirds, and more are depicted in the dry soil. Over the years, experts have suggested a variety of explanations for the geoglyphs. Ritual use, representations of constellations, and other astronomical purposes have all been hypothesized. Still, others have suggested the lines, in part, performed an important irrigation function.

While the true function of the Nazca Lines remains a mystery, much the same can be said of geoglyphs around the world. The clear importance of the sites—and the fascination they hold for modern audiences—suggest that the Atacama Giant and others of its stature will remain the focus of research for years to come.

Spider geoglyph; part of the Nazca Lines UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru.

Gold mask among 3,000-year-old relics unearthed in southwest China

Gold mask among 3,000-year-old relics unearthed in southwest China

Earlier this year, archaeologists were awed when they discovered the partial remains of a 3,000-year-old gold mask at the Sanxingdui dig in China’s Sichuan province.

A bronze mask was discovered in one of the eight sacrificial pits discovered at the Sanxingdui ruins site
A bronze mask was discovered in one of the eight sacrificial pits discovered at the Sanxingdui ruins site

Weighing in at half a pound, the mask was considered unprecedented. But, this month, experts’ expectations were bested once again when another gold-mask was found at the same site—this one far more complete.

Last Thursday, the mask was excavated in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdui, which have yielded numerous artefacts since they were initially found in 1929.

An archaeologist at work in one of the sacrificial pits.

According to the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, the mask is more than one foot long and was crafted by ancient people. While many objects found at Sanxingdui are known to be thousands of years old, archaeologists have not yet said when the mask was made.

“The new discoveries demonstrate once again that imagination and creativity of the ancient Chinese far surpassed what people today had expected,” Tang Fei, chief of the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, told Xinhua.

The mask was discovered this month as part of a cache of more than 500 pieces that also includes a jade knife, a bronze head, and a zun, or an urn that would have held wine used in rituals in ancient China.

sacrificial
An artefact found at Sanxingdui.

There are also some bronze objects that have not yet been identified because they are “so unique that even we don’t know how to name them,” Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University, told Xinhua.

The new trove brings the total number of objects found at Sanxingdui to around 2,000.

Some experts within China have regarded the sacrificial pits there as being of extreme archaeological importance—even more significant, perhaps, than the Terracotta Army, which was buried Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, sometime around 210 B.C.E. in Shaanxi.

Ancient 520 million-year-old sea monster with 18 TENTACLES around its mouth discovered

Ancient 520 million-year-old sea monster with 18 TENTACLES around its mouth discovered

The discovery of a fossil showing an ancient sea creature with 18 tentacles surrounding its mouth has helped to solve a modern-day mystery about the origins of a gelatinous carnivore called a comb jelly, a new study finds.

The previously unknown “sea monster,” which scientists dubbed Daihua sanqiong, lived a whopping 518 million years ago in what is now China. And the extinct animal shares a number of anatomical characteristics with the modern comb jelly, a little sea creature that uses so-called comb rows full of loads of hair-like cilia to swim through the oceans.

The discovery suggests that this newfound species may be the comb jelly’s distant relative, said study lead researcher Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at Bristol University in the United Kingdom.

“With fossils, we have been able to find out what the bizarre comb jellies originated from,” Vinther told Live Science. “Even though we now can show they came from a very sensible place, it doesn’t make them any less weird.”

This finding, however, has sparked a debate. While the discovery of D. sanqiong is impressive, it’s hard to say whether this ancient creature is part of the lineage that produced comb jellies, said Casey Dunn, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, who was not involved with the study.

“I am highly skeptical of the conclusions they draw,” Dunn told Live Science.

A magnified shot of the rows of cilia on Daihua sanqiong, which suggest that it might be a distant relative of the modern comb jelly.

18 incredible tentacles

Vinther came across the D. sanqiong fossil while visiting colleagues at Yunnan University in China.

The scientists there showed him a number of fossils in their collection, including the mysterious creature they later named Daihua sanqiong, which was discovered by study co-researcher Xianguang Hou, a paleobiologist at Yunnan University. The genus name honors the Dai tribe in Yunnan; “hua” means flower in Mandarin, and refers to the critter’s flower-like shape.

On each of D. sanqiong’s tentacles are fine, feather-like branches with rows of large ciliary hairs, which likely helped it catch prey. These hairs, according to Vinther, grabbed his attention “because we only find big cilia on comb jellies.” To swim, comb jellies move their cilia, which then flicker in beautiful iridescent colors.

A living comb jelly, known as Euplokamis. The creature’s rainbow iridescence is caused by the movement of the ciliary comb bands on the animal’s body.

Moreover, the D. sanqiong fossil bears an intriguing resemblance to other known ancient animals, including Xianguangia, another ancient creature with 18 tentacles, and the tulip-like sea creatures Dinomischus and Siphusauctum.

“To make a long story short, we were able to reconstruct the whole [early] lineage of comb jellies,” by doing anatomical comparisons, Vinther said.

This is a big deal, because some scientists argue that these swimming carnivores were among the first animals to evolve on Earth, based on family trees analyses and genetic modeling of modern comb jellies. But now, this international team has possibly shown that comb jellies have a long lineage that precedes them, Vinther said.

This newly described lineage suggests that some of the ancestors of comb jellies had skeletons and that their ancient tentacles evolved into the combs with the densely packed cilia seen on comb jellies today.

An artist’s illustration of Daihua sanqiong.

The discovery also sheds light on where these ancient animals likely sat on the tree of life. For instance, researchers previously thought that Xianguangia was a sea anemone, but it “is actually part of the comb jelly branch,” study co-researcher Peiyun Cong , a professor of paleobiology at Yunnan University, said in a statement.

These findings also make a strong case that comb jellies are related to corals, sea anemones and jellyfish, the researchers said. “Those [ancient] tentacles are the same tentacles that you see on corals and sea anemones,” Vinther said. “We can trace comb jellies to these flower-like animals that lived more than half a billion years ago.” 

But not everyone agrees with this analysis. While Dunn commended the researchers for their detailed description of D. sanqiong and its proposed relatives, some of these creatures have such different body shapes that it’s challenging to see how they could be related, he said. It’s possible that the tulip-looking Dinomischus and Siphusayctum creatures are related to each other. But Siphusauctum has ciliary rows on the inside of its body, and the animal purported to come after it, Galeactena, has these rows on the outside of its body.

It’s hard to see how this animal would, in effect, turn inside out as it evolved, Dunn said. Given that some of these claims are tenuous, the burden of proof is higher, and the researchers don’t quite get there, Dunn said.

“These are exciting animals no matter how they’re related to each other,” Dunn said. “Even though I’m skeptical that tentacles and comb rows are homologous [evolutionarily related], I think that as we describe more diversity from these deposits, certainly we’re going to learn a lot more about animal evolution.”

A treasure trove of antiquities has been discovered in southwest China at one of the world’s most remarkable archaeological sites

A treasure trove of antiquities has been discovered in southwest China at one of the world’s most remarkable archaeological sites

A treasure trove of antiquities has been discovered in southwest China at one of the world's most remarkable archaeological sites
Some scholars have said the Sanxingdui ruins in southwest China’s Sichuan Province are more important than the Terracotta Army in Xian.

Scientists at one of China’s most important archaeological sites continue to unearth remarkable artefacts from an ancient Chinese civilisation that dates back over 3,000 years. Researchers on Thursday revealed over 500 artefacts discovered at the Sanxingdui ruins in southwest China’s Sichuan province

The findings included extremely detailed bronze statues, jade and ivory artefacts as well as a fully preserved gold mask. The new gold mask was reminiscent of one that awed the world back in March, which was far more damaged than the latest revelation. The first mask was so unique it had some people speculating that aliens once inhabited the area

Scientists told China Daily that the mask was found in June and it is consistent with the hypothesis that gold was important to people of the area, called the Shu kingdom. The gold mask is the largest, and most well preserved, of similar golden artefacts discovered at the site. It stands at 37.2cm wide and 16.5cm tall.

A head-turned kneeling bronze figure was discovered at the Sanxingdui ruins over the summer.
A well preserved gold mask was the pièce de résistance of the recent announcement at Sanxingdui.

Scientists believe that the masks were manually shaped by ancient people and had not been melted down and poured into a cast. The mask has similar facial features to bronze statues discovered in the area. It has large eyes covering much of the face, a big nose, gigantic ears and a flat, wide, mouth.

The strange facial features led some people to suggest they were representatives of extraterrestrials, an idea thoroughly debunked by Wang Wei, the director of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“There is no chance that Sanxingdui belongs to an alien civilisation. These wide-eyed masks look exaggerated because the makers want to emulate the look of deities. They shouldn’t be interpreted as the look of everyday people,” Wang said in March.

This bronze statue discovered in Sanxingdui shares the same facial structure as the gold mask.

Besides the mask, other discoveries included bronze statues, a knife made out of jade and a series of artefacts made of ivory, among many others.

Scientists said the artefacts discovered at Sanxingdui had transformed the perception of the creativity and ingenuity of the people who lived in China thousands of years ago.

A jade knife that might be thousands of years old looks like it could be used to spread butter today.

While scientists are confident that the pits are not the remnants of an alien civilisation, they do not know what they are. The most common hypothesis is that it was an ancient burial ground, but that idea has not been sufficiently confirmed.

One scientist, Lei Yu, a leader of the Sanxingdui dig, told the South China Morning Post in June that he hopes to find ancient text.

“Because these people could create advanced and developed bronze, there must be text in such a high level of civilisation. We need to find it,” he said.

Scientists said the bronze statues found in Sanxingdui are unique to other discoveries in the country.

Many of the bronze artefacts are brand new discoveries and unique to anything found before in China. They are highly detailed, with statues showcasing facial features that bear a striking resemblance to the gold mask.

The artefacts give insights into the ancient Shu kingdom, home to a mysterious civilisation that was the source of legend until the recent discoveries proved its existence. One of the artefacts revealed this week was a vessel called a zun, which is commonly found across ancient Chinese culture. It was used to hold wine.

The archaeology site is providing insight into a culture that was relegated to legend until recently.

The Sanxingdui zun features detailed birds halfway down the vase and large spirals along the base engraved with smaller spirals to add detail.

Zuns come in all shapes and sizes and are sometimes built to appear like animals. Zuns were commonly used during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), and can be found in Chinese cultures as late as the end of the northern Song dynasty in 1126.

Scientists believe this piece of pottery was a zun, a vessel used to hold wine by many Chinese cultures across the millennia.

Artefacts near Sanxingdui were first discovered in 1929 by a farmer who found jade artefacts while digging a well. But the first professional excavation did not happen until 1986 after kiln workers accidentally uncovered more artefacts.

That original excavation in the 1980s was a low-budget affair, with scientists using simple shovels to dig. They shared one camera to gather evidence and used bicycles to transport their discoveries.

Lei, who was also part of those original digs in the 1980s, said in June that, “Archaeology was difficult at that time because it was salvage excavation due to the many brick factories around. Farmers dug up soil to make bricks and we did our excavation wherever they dug.”

Inscriptions were found on the outside of a cong made of jade. A cong is a cylindrical piece of pottery but scientists do not know what it was used for.

Today, the ruins at Sanxingdui leverage the best technology has to offer. Workers surrounded the pits with transparent walls and built a sterilised room that maintains an environment of 80 per cent humidity and 20 degrees Celsius.

Semi-permanent laboratories were built at the site so archaeologists can quickly analyse both organic and inorganic material. The rooms were designed so that scientists have minimal contact with the artefacts when they move around. The site hosts dozens of teams from across China working to uncover the latest remarkable discovery.

Workers cover themselves in protective gear to make sure they do not contaminate the artefacts.

Chinese scientists told Xinhua they are entering a “critical stage” and expect to find an array of artefacts that change how archaeologists think about ancient China. The site is about 60km from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and some scholars have said it is more important than the Terracotta Army further north in Xian.

Scientists said the public should expect more revelations in the near future.

Traces of Beer Detected in 9,000-Year-Old Vessels in China

Traces of Beer Detected in 9,000-Year-Old Vessels in China

Alcoholic beverages have long been known to serve an important socio-cultural function in ancient societies, including ritual feasts. A new study finds evidence of beer drinking 9,000 years ago in southern China, which was likely part of a ritual to honour the dead.

The findings are based on an analysis of ancient pots found at a burial site at Qiaotou, making the site among the oldest in the world for early beer drinking. The results are reported in PLOS ONE.

The ancient pots were discovered in a platform mound (80 m x 50 m wide, with an elevation of 3 m above ground level), which was surrounded by a human-made ditch (10-15 m wide and 1.5-2 m deep), based on ongoing excavations at Qiaotou. No residential structures were found at the site.

Painted pottery vessels for serving drinks and food.

The mound contained two human skeletons and multiple pottery pits with high-quality pottery vessels, many of which were complete vessels. The pottery was painted with white slip and some of the vessels were decorated with abstract designs. As the study reports, these artefacts are probably some of “the earliest known painted pottery in the world.” No pottery of this kind has been found at any other sites dating to this time period.

The research team analyzed different types of pottery found at Qiaotou, which were of varying sizes. Some of the pottery vessels were relatively small and similar in size to drinking vessels used today, and to those found in other parts of the world.

Each of the pots could basically be held in one hand like a cup unlike storage vessels, which are much larger in size. Seven of the 20 vessels, which were part of their analysis, appeared to be long-necked Hu pots, which were used to drink alcohol in the later historical periods.

To confirm that the vessels were used for drinking alcohol, the research team analyzed microfossil residues— starch, phytolith (fossilized plant residue), and fungi, extracted from the interior surfaces of the pots. The residues were compared with control samples obtained from the soil surrounding the vessels.

The team identified micro botanical (starch granules and phytoliths) and microbial (mould and yeast) residues in the pots that were consistent with residues from beer fermentation and are not found naturally in soil or in other artefacts unless they had contained alcohol.

“Through a residue analysis of pots from Qiaotou, our results revealed that the pottery vessels were used to hold beer, in its most general sense— a fermented beverage made of rice (Oryza sp.), a grain called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and unidentified tubers,” says co-author Jiajing Wang, an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth.

“This ancient beer though would not have been like the IPA that we have today. Instead, it was likely a slightly fermented and sweet beverage, which was probably cloudy in colour.”

The results also showed that phytoliths of rice husks and other plants were also present in the residue from the pots. They may have been added to the beer as a fermentation agent.

Although the Yangtze River Valley of southern China is known today as the country’s rice heartland, the domestication of rice occurred gradually between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, so 9,000 years ago, rice was still in the early stage of domestication.

At that time, most communities were hunter-gatherers who relied primarily on foraging. As the researchers explain in the study, given that rice harvesting and processing was labour-intensive, the beer at Qiaotou was probably a ritually significant drink/beverage.

The residue analysis of the pots also showed traces of mould, which was used in the beermaking process. The mould found in the pots at Qiaotou was very similar to the mould present in koji, which is used to make sake and other fermented rice beverages in East Asia. The results predate earlier research, which found that mould had been used in fermentation processes 8,000 years ago in China.

Beer is technically any fermented beverage made from crops through a two-stage transformation process. In the first phase, enzymes transform starch into sugar (saccharification). In the second phase, the yeasts convert the sugar into alcohol and other states like carbon dioxide (fermentation).

As the researchers explain in the study, mould acts kind of like an agent for both processes, by serving as a saccharification-fermentation starter.

“We don’t know how people made the mould 9,000 years ago, as fermentation can happen naturally,” says Wang. “If people had some leftover rice and the grains became mouldy, they may have noticed that the grains became sweeter and alcoholic with age. While people may not have known the biochemistry associated with grains that became mouldy, they probably observed the fermentation process and leveraged it through trial and error.”

Given that the pottery at Qiaotou was found near the burials in a non-residential area, the researchers conclude that the pots of beer were likely used in ritualistic ceremonies relating to the burial of the dead.

They speculate that ritualized drinking may have been integral to forging social relationships and cooperation, which served as a precursor to complex rice farming societies that emerged 4,000 years later.

Archaeologists Discover 1,500-year-old Skeletons Of Couple Buried Together In China

Archaeologists Discover 1,500-year-old Skeletons Of Couple Buried Together In China

Archaeologists in China have discovered a rare double burial, or “lovers’ tomb,” featuring the skeletons of a man and woman locked in an eternal embrace.

This ancient Chinese couple buried embracing, dates to the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534).

Though the grave is 1,500 years old, she still wears a plain silver band on her ring finger.

“The message was clear—husband and wife lay together, embracing each other for eternal love during the afterlife,” a group of ten scholars wrote in a study published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

“This joint burial could be direct evidence of a full display of love and the ­importance of the rings in love.”

The tomb was one of 600 found in an ancient cemetery unearthed at a construction site in Datong, in Shanxi province. The excavation was carried out in 2020.

An illustration of the ancient Chinese couple buried embracing during ​the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534).

The couple likely lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), a politically turbulent time. Buddhism was spreading rapidly, with cultural diffusion helping shape ideas about death and the afterlife.

“This discovery is a unique display of the human emotion of love in a burial,” Qun Zhang, an associate professor at the Institute of Anthropology at Xiamen University, told the South China Morning Post.

“[It] offer[s] a rare glimpse of concepts of love, life, death, and the afterlife in northern China during a time of intense cultural and ethnic exchange.”

Pathological and trauma signs on the lovers’ skeletons: (a) An unhealed ulnar fracture and missing part of the fourth digit on the right hand of the male individual. Slight development of the marginal osteophytes on the lumbar vertebrae could be detected in the female skeleton; (b) Osteophytosis on the distal end of the lower limbs of the male individual; (c) Antemortem tooth loss in the female individual.

Researchers believe it is likely that the man—whose body showed signs of an unhealed traumatic injury on his right arm—died, and that the woman died by suicide to be buried with him.

Other possibilities include a double death by suicide, or that they both died of illness at the same time.

This is the first known double burial from Chinese antiquity.

Another famous dual grave, Italy’s Lovers of Modena of two skeletons holding hands, was discovered to be two men, rather than a man and a woman, as previously believed.

World’s oldest-known coin mint identified in China

World’s oldest-known coin mint identified in China

A team of researchers from Zhengzhou University, the Modern Analysis and Computer Center of Zhengzhou University and Peking University, all in China, has found evidence of what appears to be the oldest coin-minting operation ever uncovered.

Spatial distribution of the minting remains in the foundry’s excavation area: red dots: deposit with clay molds; green dots: deposits with fragments of finished spade coins (drone photograph by Z. Qu; figure by H. Zhao).

In their paper published on the Cambridge University site Antiquity, the group describes their discovery and study of coins and minting molds found at a dig site in Henan Province, China, and what they have learned about it.

Up until now, researchers have believed that the use of coins as a form of currency was first developed in Greece or Turkey.

Coins dug up in what is now modern Turkey, created and used by people of the Lydian Empire, have been dated as far back as 630 B.C. But there is still debate as to their true age due to the dating techniques used.

In this new effort, the researchers found coins in China in the same location as a minting facility, which left behind ashes that could be used for carbon dating—a very accurate means of dating the minting operation.

The coins and molds were found at a site identified as the ancient city of Guanzhuang, which was founded around 800 B.C.

Items found by the researchers included multiple bronze, spade-shaped coins and the clay molds that were used to make them.

Testing of the ashes left by the fires used to melt the metal showed them to be approximately 2,600 years old, which would mean the facility was used to make coins as recently as 550 B.C. and as long ago as 640 B.C., making it the oldest known coin-making facility ever discovered.

Coin SP-1 (pictured) was found in such an excellent state of preservation that its complete shape could be reconstructed. Restored, it has a full length of 143mm, a thickness of 0.9mm, and an original weight of no less than 31g. It bears no inscriptions of its face value or where it was cast – as is typical of the earliest spade coins. Of the second spade coin discovered (Coin SP-2), only the handle and clay core survive.

The researchers suggest the facility was first used to make tools, weapons and other objects as early as 770 B.C. It took another century for the people there to start using their technology to create coins.

They also note that historians have still not agreed on the reason for the creation of currency in the form of coins; some suggest it made buying and selling things easier, while others believe it came about as a way for governments to collect taxes.

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals

People feeling the effects of marijuana are prone to what scientists call “divergent thinking,” the process of searching for solutions to a loosely defined question. Here is one to ponder: Where did the weed come from? No, not where it was bought, but where and when was the plant first domesticated.

Many botanists believe that the Cannabis sativa plant was first domesticated in Central Asia. But a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that East Asia is the more likely source and that all existing strains of the plant come from an “ancestral gene pool” represented by wild and cultivated varieties growing in China today.

The study’s authors found that the plant was a “primarily multipurpose crop” grown about 12,000 years ago during the early Neolithic period, probably for fibre and medicinal uses.

Farmers began breeding the plant specifically for its mind-altering properties about 4,000 years ago, as cannabis began to spread into Europe and the Middle East, the authors of the study said.

Cannabis originated in China, genetic analysis reveals
Cannabis landraces in Qinghai province, central China have been determined as the forerunners of cannabis domestication. A landrace refers to a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time.

Michael Purugganan, a professor of biology at New York University who read the study, said the usual assumption about early humans was that they domesticated plants for food.

“That seems to be the most pressing problem for humans then: How to get food,” said Purugganan, who was not involved in the research. “The suggestion that even early on they were also very concerned with fibre and even intoxicants is interesting. It would bring to question what were the priorities of these Neolithic societies.

A 2016 study by other scientists said that the earliest records for cannabis were mostly from China and Japan, but most botanists believe that it was probably first domesticated in the eastern part of Central Asia, where wild varieties of the plant are widespread.

Gene study

Genetic sequencing for the latest study suggests that the species has a “single domestication origin” in East Asia, the researchers wrote. By sequencing genetic samples of the plant, they found that the species had most likely been domesticated by the early Neolithic period. They said their conclusion was supported by pottery and other archaeological evidence from the same period that was discovered in present-day China, Japan and Taiwan.

But Purugganan said he was sceptical about conclusions that the plant was developed for drug or fibre use 12,000 years ago since archaeological evidence show the consistent use or presence of cannabis for those purposes began about 7,500 years ago. “I would like to see a much larger study with a larger sampling,” he said.

Luca Fumagalli, an author of the study and a biologist in Switzerland who specialises in conservation genetics, said the theory of a Central Asian origin was largely based on observational data of wild samples in that region. “It’s easy to find feral samples, but these are not wild types,” Fumagalli said. “These are plants that escaped captivity and readapted to the wild environment. “By the way, that’s the reason you call it to weed, because it grows anywhere,” he added.

Wild agricultural hemp growing in the countryside.

The study was led by Ren Guangpeng, a botanist at Lanzhou University in the western Chinese province of Gansu. Ren said in an interview that the original site of cannabis domestication was most likely northwestern China and that the finding could help with current efforts in the country to breed new types of hemp.

Hemp was likely the first stage in cannabis domestication as a food source and for making rope.

To conduct the study, Ren and his colleagues collected 82 samples, either seeds or leaves, from around the world. The samples included strains that had been selected for fibre production and others from Europe and North America that were bred to produce high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s most mood-altering compound.

Fumagalli and his colleagues then extracted genomic DNA from the samples and sequenced them in a lab in Switzerland. They also downloaded and reanalyzed sequencing data from 28 other samples. The results showed that the wild varieties they analyzed were in fact “historical escapes from domesticated forms,” and that existing strains in China — cultivated and wild — were their closest descendants of the ancestral gene pool.

“Although additional sampling of feral plants in these key geographical areas is still needed, our results, which are based on very broad sampling already, would suggest that pure wild progenitors of C. Sativa have gone extinct,” they wrote As hemp’s function as a global source for textiles, food and oilseed dried up in the 20th century, the use of cannabis as a recreational drug increased, the new study noted. But there are still “large gaps” in knowledge about its domestication history, it said, in large part because the plant is illegal in many countries.

It can also be hard to understand precisely how plant species are domesticated in the first place, said Catherine Rushworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies plant evolution.

Although scientists can make some basic predictions about how a given plant species will diverge in nature, she added, such predictions “go out the window” when a natural selection process is driven by humans. “So, for example, we might think that species would diverge when they’re adapting to different habitats, or to different pollinators,” she said. “But people are often the pollinators and people have created those habitats.