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Cannabis Used Recreationally in 1600s Italy, Study Finds

Narciso, Ca' Granda, Milan, Italy, next to the crypt where cannabis was found on bones dated back to the 1600s.
Narciso, the horse fitted with a mask and a glass unicorn in the Filarete courtyard of Ca’ Granda, Milan University’s main campus. credit: flickr/ Bosc d’Anjou ccby 2.0

Researchers in Italy have discovered traces of cannabis in bone samples from a crypt in modern day Milan dating back to the 1600s. These provide the first physical evidence of recreational use in our species’ history.

Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the study reports the research team’s toxicological analyses on human remains located in the Ca’ Granda Crypt under a church right next door to a hospital in Milan.

The researchers detected traces of Delta-9 THC and CBD, both from the cannabis plant, in the bone samples. “This study reports the first physical evidence of cannabis use in the Modern Age in Italy, but also in Europe,” wrote the study’s authors.

The team carried out the analyses using a mass spectrometer on nine human remains. The aim was to identify individual chemical compounds. They then carbon dated the bones to the seventeenth century and discovered cannabis in two of the nine bodies examined.

The researchers reported the presence of the chemical seemed to have no relation to demographics, as the bones of both a woman aged around fifty and a teenage boy were found to have DTC and CBD in them.

“The presence of these two alkaloids evidences the use of the cannabis plant in the Italian population during the 17th century,” wrote the researchers. Following close study of the hospital’s archived documentation, the researchers found that cannabis was not administered as a medical treatment during the 1600s in Italy.

“Thus, we hypothesize that the subjects under investigation used cannabis as a recreational substance,” the authors reported in the study, giving the caveat that they can’t rule out other sources of exposure associated with medical treatments outside of the hospital.

Cannabis Use Widespread in Italy and Europe Before and After 1600s

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the use of cannabis is well documented back to the Middle Ages in Europe. However, it fell out of favor as a medical treatment in 1484, when Pope Innocent VIII cast it down as an “unholy sacrament.”

“We know that cannabis has been used in the past, but this is the first study ever to find traces of it in human bones,” Gaia Giordano, a biologist and doctoral student at the University of Milan and a study author, told CBC.

Giordano added that “this is an important finding, because there are very few laboratories that can examine bones to find traces of drugs.”

Speaking to New Scientist about the efficacy of analytical techniques, Giordano said, “Molecules of medicinal plants can be detected by toxicological analysis even centuries after the death of an individual.”

Despite the ban on cannabis, people in Italy used hemp in the 1600s for a plethora of commercial activities, including for rope-making, textiles, feed for livestock, paper, and sails on ships.

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