Curious findings from a 17th-century hospital crypt in Milan, Italy, have unveiled a groundbreaking revelation in archaeology and toxicology: the earliest evidence of cannabis usage by humans, as identified in their skeletal remains.
The ancient bones of individuals buried beneath a Milanese hospital have revealed a historic first: the presence of psychoactive cannabis components. This remarkable discovery offers a unique glimpse into the use of cannabis in Italy during the 17th century.
Leading the research, Gaia Giordano and her team from the University of Milan conducted exhaustive analyses on these remains. They found traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the principal psychoactive elements in cannabis, in the thigh bones of both a young male and a middle-aged female, dating back to between 1638 and 1697. The detection of these molecules, preserved within the bone tissue, signifies their absorption into the bloodstream, highlighting the historical use of cannabis.
Giordano’s team meticulously extracted bone samples from nine individuals buried in the Ca’ Granda hospital’s crypt. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the 17th-century origin of these remains. Following this, a sophisticated toxicology analysis was conducted. The team powdered the bone samples and prepared them in a liquid solution, enabling the use of mass spectrometry to accurately identify the chemical components.
Interestingly, the Ca’ Granda hospital records from that era make no mention of cannabis in their list of medicinal compounds. This absence suggests that the individuals might have used cannabis either for self-medication or recreational purposes, rather than as a prescribed treatment. The finding challenges our understanding of cannabis use in historical contexts, as it was not officially recognized or prescribed for medical use in that period and location.
Yimin Yang, a researcher from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, commends this study for its innovative approach in archaeological toxicology. He believes this research could open new avenues for understanding ancient cannabis consumption.
The study not only illuminates the historical use of cannabis but also marks the advent of archaeotoxicology as a distinct scientific discipline. It builds upon previous findings of cannabis traces in wooden braziers in tombs dating back 2,500 years and complements our knowledge of cannabis’s domestication approximately 12,000 years ago.
Expanding their scope, Giordano and her team are now exploring the presence of other substances, such as cocaine, in more modern human remains. This exploration into the toxicological history could provide invaluable insights into the habits and lifestyles of past civilizations.
This groundbreaking discovery, detailed in a study titled “Forensic toxicological analyses reveal the use of cannabis in Milano (Italy) in the 1600’s,” signifies the first physical evidence of cannabis use in the Modern Age not only in Italy but across Europe. Authored by a team of experts including Gaia Giordano, Mirko Mattia, Michele Boracchi, and others, the study was published under a Creative Commons license and is accessible via the DOI link https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2023.105873.
In their research, the team focused on nine femoral bone samples, employing Solid-Phase Extraction and Thermo Scientific™ TSQ Fortis™ II Triple-Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer for analysis. The results were startling: two out of the nine samples (22%) contained Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), indicating likely recreational cannabis use in the 1600s. This hypothesis is supported by the absence of cannabis in the Ca’ Granda hospital’s pharmacopeia, suggesting it wasn’t a medically prescribed treatment at the time.
The study delves into the history of cannabis, highlighting its use as a textile fiber in Greco-Roman times and as a medicinal plant for its analgesic effects. Despite a decrease in interest during the Middle Ages, the study notes that cannabis was still used for various treatments. Interestingly, despite ecclesiastical repression and bans in Europe during the 15th century, the plant remained prevalent in Northern and Eastern Europe for medicinal and therapeutic uses.
The authors also outline the limitations of toxicological investigations in historical and archaeological contexts. Previously, such studies were constrained to a few biological matrices and a limited range of molecules. This research, therefore, marks a significant contribution to archaeotoxicology, offering new insights into the medical and recreational use of plants in the past.
This comprehensive study sheds light on the intricate relationship between historical societies and their use of plants like cannabis. It offers a profound understanding of how substances like THC and CBD have been part of human life for centuries, providing a richer context to the historical narrative of cannabis use.
Significance of the Discovery
This discovery is not just a milestone in archaeology but also in the broader fields of history and medicine. It challenges preconceived notions about the historical use of cannabis and opens up new discussions on its role in past societies. This could lead to a reevaluation of how we view ancient medical practices and recreational habits.
Furthermore, by using advanced toxicological methods to analyze ancient remains, this research demonstrates the potential of modern science to unravel historical mysteries. It also underscores the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in uncovering the complexities of our past.
In conclusion, the detection of cannabis compounds in 17th-century human bones in Milan is a historic finding that enriches our understanding of past human behaviors and societal norms. It not only highlights the historical use of cannabis but also exemplifies the growing capabilities of archaeotoxicology as a field. This research is a testament to the enduring curiosity of scientists in uncovering the secrets of our past and the ever-evolving nature of our understanding of history.