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Where Did Cannabis Originate? New Research Points to China

cannabis from china
Written by Sarah Friedman
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Cannabis has had an interesting world history in just the past few hundred years, going from a staple crop, to an outlawed plant, and then reemerging in the medical and recreational scenes. But where did cannabis originate, and what were its plant ancestors before it? New research points to China. Which may explain China’s rich history of cannabis use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and as being the biggest worldwide producer of hemp.

Sure, we all want to know, where did cannabis originate, but that’s a huge question requiring years of research. And luckily, we don’t need that answer to enjoy the plant today. In fact, whether we ever know it’s origins, we still have great products like standard cannabis, delta-8 THC, and a load of other compounds that can be extracted for your pleasure or medicinal needs. So check out our array of deals including great cbd, delta 10, thcv, thco, hhc & delta-8 THC offerings, and just be glad that somewhere along the way, humans realized how great cannabis is.

The study

I guess the first question that could be asked in terms of where did cannabis originate, is why does this matter? In our world of expanding research, we seem to need to know everything from what’s out in space, to what’s under the sea, and this makes the idea of researching the ancestors of our favorite smokable plant, a question of interest in our cannabis world. Due to a recent study, more and new light has been shed on this topic.

In July 2021, a study was put out that sought to answer the question of where did cannabis originate. The study, entitled: Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa, investigated the history of cannabis sativa domestication. This was done by resequencing the whole genome of 110 varieties from different places in the world. The results of the investigation showed that the first domestication of Cannabis sativa was in early Neolithic times in the area of East Asia. They went on to show that all current hemp and cultivars came from the same gene pool before diverging off, and that this gene pool currently contains feral plants and landraces that can be found in China today.

The study investigators used data from 82 genomes, as well as an additional 28 hemp varieties and drugs. And it was found that the first domestication took place in the area of China somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 years ago. Before this study, it had been thought that this process had begun in Central Asia. As a means of comparison for different genomes, the researchers gathered plant material from wild fields in a variety of countries like Switzerland, China, India, Pakistan and Peru. They also used collected samples and even commercial samples.

where cannabis originate

Using what they had, they harvested 12 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), which are a particular location within a genome, which varies compared to its reference genome. These SNPs can show variation within a species. This is quite a large number to work with, as other studies have generally not had more than in the thousands at their disposal. It was found that feral plants currently in East Asia, are more closely related to the world ancestors of today’s cannabis, than the strains out today, whether hemp (no more than .3% THC) or marijuana (above .3% THC).

In the study, by looking at these genes, the investigators also found ‘candidate genes’ linked to traits which distinguish hemp from drug cultivars (plants specifically cultivated to have certain characteristics). A ‘candidate gene’, is a gene with a chromosomal location which is associated with a specific phenotype or disease. The phenotype/disease is expected to be triggered by the location of the gene.

These differences included the biosynthesis of cellulose/lignin, and branching patterns. The study found another interesting thing, that there was a loss of gene function as a part of how the two main cannabinoids (THC and CBD) are synthesized within the plant, with this creating differentiation as to whether the plant would be more fiber rich, or more cannabinoid rich.

What it means

The study investigators found that these original base genetics split off at about the 12,000 years-ago mark to form the basis for the plants we associate with cannabis today. What they also found, was that differentiation in plants – in terms of being fibrous over producing cannabinoids, didn’t become a thing until only 4,000 years ago. This means that prior to this time, cannabis ancestors were not differentiated by high fiber content vs high psychoactive content. It also implies that early cultivators might have been looking at it for medicinal value and fibers, while breeding it for psychoactive effects would be more recent, starting approximately 4,000 years ago.

An interesting point about this was brought up by Michael Purugganan, a New York University professor of biology, who reminds us that early humans generally (to our understanding) domesticated plants for food. Upon reading the study, he brought this up, which questions whether it would even be relevant to assume that fibers or psychoactive properties would’ve been of value, or even understood:

“That seems to be the most pressing problem for humans then: How to get food… The suggestion that even early on they were also very concerned with fiber and even intoxicants is interesting. It would bring to question what were the priorities of these Neolithic societies.”

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And it’s a good point. It implies that perhaps early populations weren’t doing what we thought or for the reasons we thought, or that they knew different things then we attribute them knowing. We make a lot of assumptions about past populations based on what we’ve found, but a study like this one reminds that sometimes we don’t have all the information in front of us. Maybe ancient people knew more than we thought they did. Or maybe we’re wrong about how they used different things. And maybe its because we simply never found the evidence. On the other hand, maybe Purugganan is correct, and these early moves had more to do with food consumption than anything else, and how they domesticated cannabis could have been purely based on that.

The Third line

This third line that was found was actually surprising to the study authors who had not expected to find this convergence. They had expected to find two distinct lines that went back separately relating to high fiber (hemp) and high cannabinoid (marijuana). According to one of the investigators Luca Fumagalli, a University Switzerland at Lausanne evolutionary biologist, “We didn’t expect to find this third independent and basal lineage among the samples from East Asia.”

The two main lines that we’re all familiar with at this point, are high THC ‘marijuana’, and high CBD ‘hemp’. Marijuana has legal definitions that vary, in the US, it’s more than .3% THC by dry weight, while in Europe it’s more than .2%. Hemp is on the other end, being defined by having no more than .3% THC in the US, or .2% for Europe. Hemp is more related to being high fiber, and marijuana is more related to being high THC. The legal definitions make it a little more confusing by putting in limitations for THC as a differentiator.

The converged third line found is more closely related to the actual ancestors of cannabis, which the study investigators, sadly, think is extinct at this point, finding that third lineage to have been mainly feral and not actually wild, indicating humans were at least partly responsible for the evolution of the plant. On top of this, the huge number of sequenced genomes, makes them believe the original ancestor is no longer around. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page with definitions, these are important:

  • Domestic: Living near or about human habitations, being affected by humans.
  • Feral: In a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication (for an animal), or simply going back to the wild after being domesticated.
  • Wild: Living or growing in a natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated.

So domestic means being a part of human culture, feral means it was a part of human culture before returning to the wild. And wild means its in its natural environment, and has not been messed with by humans. The indication in the study is that even when the two main lines we’re familiar with – hemp and marijuana – are traced back to their common third line, that third line wasn’t actually a wild plant, but a feral one, which is why its indicated that humans were already involved with changing the plant, even before it diverged off into two separate lines.

cannabis genome

Can more be found?

Whether other researchers will try their luck rummaging through East Asia to find missing plant links to even better answer the question of where did cannabis originate, right now, the best and most recent and updated information about cannabis’s ancestry, comes from the study’s 82 newly sequenced genomes. These have been made publicly available as well. As pointed out by University of Colorado plant geneticist, Nolan Kane,

“These additional genomic data are a phenomenal resource that adds a huge amount to our existing knowledge… There really hadn’t been much in the way of publicly available sequences from many of the countries they sampled—I’ll certainly be downloading their data and reanalyzing it.”

My guess is that going to East Asia to study these plants will become more popular, with every botanist trying to find missing links, or other, so-far undetected species, in places like Afghanistan. In this way, it’s like trying to track down missing links in human evolution.

Possible detractions of the study

Even a great study can sometimes have a few detractions, or places where there are gaps in information, or general weaknesses, and this study is no different. One of the main detractions is an absence of Afghan samples, as Afghanistan is known for its large and varied amount of cannabis strains. Plenty of answers to the question of where did cannabis originate could possibly be found in that region. Russia also wasn’t sampled, which brings up another interesting point because Russia hasn’t been a country with a big history of cannabis cultivation, but it is a country which covers a wide expanse of land. All of this could mean that Russia is actually a great place to find wild cannabis, with the potential to shed more light on its genetic history.

Another issue is that the study only used living samples. There are, in actuality, a lot of samples of dried plants that have been preserved over the years in different places like universities, botanical gardens, museums, arboreta, and research facilities. It is quite possible that hidden within these collections are old or rare varieties that could change the narrative. Especially if it means being able to find relevant examples that are extinct in nature, but survive as dried specimens. When asking a question like, where did cannabis originate, it’s important to remember that in order to really trace it back, much like with human evolution, it helps to have examples of the different stages through history.

Conclusion

Does all this really matter? Will it really affect us to answer the question, where did cannabis originate? Would it make a difference if something else was found which changed the story of what happened so long ago that we can barely realistically conceive of the history? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just about knowing more information and filling in gaps of understanding, particularly for those who study these things.

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But, at the same time, you never know. Maybe going back to genetic ancestors will unveil something wholly different than expected, maybe stronger, or better in some way. To assume that what grows now is uniformly the best version possible, makes the very strong assumption that nothing better could have existed, and with it looking like a 12,000-year span of interest, by building a genetic roadmap, we might find that the best aspects of cannabis might be missing from today’s plants, but can be revived from the past.

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DisclaimerHi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.

About the author

Sarah Friedman

I am a US born writer, travelling the world and doing the digital nomad thing.

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