A new study suggests that cannabis was first domesticated in East Asia during the Neolithic Era—from 3900-1700 BC—and was a “multipurpose crop” likely used for both industrial and medical purposes. The researchers indicated that “all current hemp and drug cultivars diverged from an ancestral gene pool currently represented by feral plants and landraces in China.”
“We identified candidate genes associated with traits differentiating hemp and drug cultivars, including branching pattern and cellulose/lignin biosynthesis. We also found evidence for loss of function of genes involved in the synthesis of the two major biochemically competing cannabinoids during selection for increased fiber production or psychoactive properties.” — “Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa,” July 16, 2021, Science Advances
Luca Fumagalli, an author of the study, said the hypothesis is largely based on observational data of wild examples in the region, noting that the “feral samples” found in East Asia “are not wild types.”
“These are plants that escaped captivity and readapted to the wild environment,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “By the way, that’s the reason you call it weed, because it grows anywhere.”
The researchers—from six countries—collected 82 samples, either seeds or leaves, from around the world, which included strains that had been selected for fiber production, and others from Europe and North America that were bred to produce high amounts of THC. The plants’ DNA was extracted and sequenced. The researchers also downloaded and reanalyzed sequencing data from 28 other samples.
The result was that the wild varieties analyzed were in fact “historical escapes from domesticated forms,” and that current strains in China—both cultivated and wild—were the closest descendants of the ancestral gene pool. The researchers conclude that “pure wild progenitors of C. sativa have gone extinct.”
A 2019 study by University of Vermont researchers suggests that cannabis evolved 28 million years ago on a Tibetan plateau around Qinghai Lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level. That research notes that many biogeographers believe that cannabis first grew in Central Asia due to its pollen first appearing in India more than 32,000 years ago and in Japan in 10,000 BCE.
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