By / November 13, 2023

Cannabis in the Crypt: Milanese Study Discovers THC in 17th Century Remains

People have long consumed cannabis, as evidenced by the recent discovery of THC and CBD in human bones dating to the 17th century. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about psychotropic flowers in 440 B.C., and medieval European medical records show that cannabis was commonly used to treat various ailments, from gout, urinary tract infections, and labor pains, to weight loss, as well as an anesthetic.

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Early Cannabis Prohibition in the Middle Ages

However, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree, calling cannabis an “unsacred sacrament” and forbidding its use among the faithful. During the Inquisition, medicinal and hallucinogenic herbs were associated with magic and witchcraft.

For the following centuries, there was no evidence of its use – until now, when a team of scientists from Milan, Italy, discovered traces of CBD and THC in the remains of two 17th century skeletons.

“We know that cannabis was used in the past, but this is the first study that found its traces in human bones,” said biologist and doctoral candidate Gaia Giordano from the University of Milan, Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology (LABANOF), and the Laboratory of Toxicological Research.

Breakthrough in Cannabis Research

“This is an important discovery, as there are few laboratories that can test bones for traces of psychoactive substances.” The study was published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal “Journal of Archaeological Science.”

In the study, the team of scientists examined nine femur bone samples from people who lived in Milan in the 17th century and were buried in the Crypt of Ca’ Granda, under the church adjoining Ospedale Maggiore, the main hospital for the poor at that time.

The aim of the study was to find traces of plants used for medicinal or recreational purposes in the general population. (This refers to Giordano’s earlier study, which found traces of opium in skull bones and well-preserved brain tissue.)

In the study, two of the bones – one belonging to a woman about 50 years old and the other to a teenage boy – showed the presence of two types of cannabinoids: Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, today commonly known as THC and CBD.

The researchers claim that the discovery suggests that cannabis was consumed by all age groups and genders, and that it was used recreationally, most likely prepared in the form of cakes and infusions, says Giordano.

Historical Context of Cannabis Use in Milan

The team reviewed the medical records of Ospedale Maggiore and found no mention of cannabis in the detailed records concerning medicinal plants, medicines, and mixtures given to patients in all Milanese hospitals in the 17th century.

The absence in the pharmacopeia list led researchers to speculate that the cannabis found in the two individuals was probably used for the same reasons as today – for relaxation, calming, or self-medication.

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

Cannabis Use in the Context of European History

Three centuries after the Catholic Church’s ban on cannabis, Napoleon banned its consumption due to causing mental disturbances and violent delirium among his soldiers in Egypt; he hoped the ban would stop them from bringing it to France.

For centuries, Italy was a major producer of cannabis, the fiber of the cannabis plant, which was used to produce paper, ropes, and textiles – including in the sails on Christopher Columbus’s ship – as well as cattle feed and fertilizer.

Modern Perspectives on Cannabis

Marco Perduca, former Italian senator and founder of Science for Democracy, who led a referendum on cannabis legalization in 2021, says that the ubiquity of cannabis in Italy makes it likely that it was also consumed for its intoxicating effect.

“People smoked and made ‘decotto,’ or boiled water, from various leaves, so it is very difficult to identify what the custom was at that time,” said Perduca. “But since cannabis was used in so many industries, it’s possible that people knew that these plants could also be smoked or drunk.”

Changing Perceptions and Legal Status of Cannabis

While there are written references that the plant was administered as a home remedy or by healers for various ailments over the past centuries, bans on its use spread towards the end of the 19th century, and stigmatization continues to this day.

Perduca says that social shame is associated with the idea that a substance perceived as causing loss of mind or transporting you into a narcotic state is in conflict with obedience to oneself – and more importantly, to the Catholic Church, until recently a powerful secular and political institution.

Current Debate and Research in Italy

“Anything related to an unchristian set of rules… was to be associated with 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 to it continues, and the current and previous Italian government is aiming to classify CBD, a non-psychoactive molecule, as a narcotic substance.

While the debate over cannabis legalization in Italy continues, scientists debate whether the presence of the substance discovered in bones reflects high and frequent cannabis use – and whether cannabis was used just before death.

To get a clearer picture, they plan to continue research on other human remains, and under the crypt of Ca’ Granda, there are about 10,000 bones.

(Featured image by Ouael Ben Salah via Unsplash)

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