Traces of cannabis in human bones suggest XNUMXth-century Italians used weed recreationally

traces of cannabis in human bones

Scientists examined 9 femoral bone samples from people living in Milan in the XNUMXth century

Forensic doctors from the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology at the University of Milan took samples of human bones buried near the Ospedale Maggiore in the XNUMXth century. Among the samples from nine different skeletons, two showed traces of cannabis. (Forensic Anthropology and Odontology Laboratory of the University of Milan)

The Greek historian Herodotus spoke of flowers having psychotropic effects in 440 BC. AD, and the files Medieval medical studies in Europe show that cannabis was widely administered to treat everything from gout and urinary tract infections to childbirth pains and weight loss, and was also used as an anesthetic.

People have been using weed for a very long time!

But in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII passed a bull, or decree, calling cannabis an “unholy sacrament” and prohibiting its use by the faithful. During the time of the Inquisition, medicinal and hallucinogenic herbs were associated with magic and witchcraft.

In the centuries since, there has been no hard evidence of its use: until today, with the discovery by a team of forensic doctors from Milan, Italy, of traces of cannabis in remains of two skeletons dating from the XNUMXth century.

the crypt of ca granda
The crypt of Ca' Granda lies beneath a church which annexed the Ospedale Maggiore, Milan's most important free hospital in the XNUMXth century which cared for the city's poor. (Forensic Anthropology and Odontology Laboratory of the University of Milan)

We know that cannabis has been used in the past, but this is the first study to find traces of it in human bones,” said Gaia Giordano, biologist and doctoral student at the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology (LABANOF ) and at the Toxicological Investigation Laboratory of the University of Milan. This is an important discovery, because there are very few laboratories capable of examining bones for traces of drugs.

Signs of recreational use

The study was published in the December issue of Journal of Archaeological Science, peer-reviewed journal.

The team of scientists examined nine samples of femoral bones from people who lived in Milan in the 1600s and were buried in the Ca' Granda crypt, located under a church annexed to the Ospedale Maggiore, the hospital for the poor. the largest in the city at the time.

WATCH | Italian researcher explains importance of cannabis discovery : Gaia Giordano, biologist and doctoral student at the University of Milan, talks about the first study to find traces of cannabis in human bones.

The aim of the study was to find traces of plants used for medicinal or recreational purposes in the general population. (It follows an earlier study by Giordano who found traces of opium in well-preserved cranial bones and brain tissue).

In this study, two of the bones – one belonging to a woman around 50 years old and the other to a teenager – revealed the presence of two types of cannabinoids: Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, commonly known as today DTC and CBD.

According to the researchers, this discovery suggests not only that cannabis was consumed by people of all ages and genders, but also that it was used recreationally, most likely in the form of cakes and infusions, Giordano says.

The team analyzed medical records from Ospedale Maggiore and found no mention of cannabis in its detailed medical records. medicinal plants, the remedies and potions administered to patients throughout Milan's hospitals in the 1600s.

crypt of milan ca granda
Some 10 skeletons are buried in Milan's Ca' Granda crypt, where researchers Domenico Di Candia and Gaia Giordano found traces of opium in the cranial bones and brain tissue of 000th-century human remains, before discovering with other Milanese researchers the first traces of cannabis. in the bones. (Forensic Anthropology and Odontology Laboratory of the University of Milan)

Questions about frequency

Its absence from the pharmacopoeia list led researchers to speculate that the cannabis found in both individuals was probably used for the same reasons as today, namely to relax, escape or self-medicate. .

“Life was particularly difficult in Milan in the 17th century,” archaeotoxicologist Domenico di Candia, who led the study, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “Famine, disease, poverty and almost non-existent hygiene were commonplace.

Three centuries after the Catholic Church banned cannabis, Napoleon banned its consumption because it caused psychological disorders and violent delusions among his soldiers in Egypt; he hoped that the ban would prevent them from bringing it back to France.

For centuries, Italy has been a major producer of hemp, the fiber of cannabis plant, which was used to make paper, rope and textiles – including the sails of Christopher Columbus' ship – as well as to feed livestock and serve as fertilizer.

Marco Perduca, a former Italian senator and founder of Science for Democracy, who led a referendum to legalize weed in 2021, says the ubiquity of hemp in Italy makes it likely it was also consumed to obtain a feeling of well-being.

People smoked and made “decotto”, boiled water, with all kinds of leaves, so it is very difficult to identify what the custom was at the time,” Mr Perduca said. “But since hemp was used in many industries, it is possible that people knew that these plants could also be smoked or drunk.

Social shame

Although there are written references that the plant was administered as a home remedy or by healers for various ailments in past centuries, by the end of the XNUMXth century prohibitions multiplied and the stigmatization continued until 'until today.

According to Perduca, social shame is linked to the idea that a substance perceived to make one lose one's mind or transport one into a narcotic state goes against obedience to oneself and, more importantly, to oneself. the Catholic Church, which until recently was a powerful temporal and political institution.

traces of cannabis were found in the femur bones
Traces of cannabis were found in the femur bones of a woman in her fifties and a teenager, who lived in the XNUMXth century and were buried under the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. (Forensic Anthropology and Odontology Laboratory of the University of Milan)

A person holds up old human bones.

“It was a plant belonging to another culture and another tradition, linked to religion,” explains Mr. Perduca, who specifies that it arrived in Italy several centuries ago, from the is the Mediterranean.

“So anything that had to do with a non-purely Christian set of rules was supposed to be linked to paganism and movements not only against the Church, but also against the Holy Roman Empire.

Today in Italy, cannabis is legal for medical purposes, but opposition continues, with both the current and previous Italian governments pushing to include CBD, a non-psychoactive molecule, in the list of narcotic substances.

As the debate over the legalization of cannabis continues in Italy, scientists are questioning whether or not the presence of the substance found in the bones reflects high and frequent use of the drug – and use just before death.

To see more clearly, they plan to continue their research on other human remains from a collection of some 10000 bones buried under the crypt of Ca' Granda.

LABANOF also has 10000 other skeletons dating from Roman times.

Its lead scientist, Cristina Cattaneo, who studied at McGill University, has gained international fame in recent years for her work identifying the bodies of recently deceased migrants and other unclaimed – often marginalized – people and for her fight for their right to a name.

Tags : DiscoveriesHistory and EvolutionResearch and Scientific Advancement
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