These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road

Jennifer Conerly - February 3, 2018

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
At a tomb in Turpan, northwestern China, a man was found buried with well-preserved cannabis leaves serving as a shroud. Photographed by Hongen Jiang.

Merchants on the Silk Road Traded Marijuana

Some of the primary items traded along the Silk Road were silk and spices, but a discovery in the northwestern Chinese city of Turpan proves that another commodity was making its way through the trade highway. Turpan was a very popular stop along the Silk Road for travelers and traders before they made their journey west. Over 200 graves have been excavated there to learn about this city’s inhabitants and the city’s significance to the Silk Road. In 2016, evidence from the Jiayi gravesite indicated that marijuana was a precious commodity along the trade routes of the Silk Road.

In the tomb dated to about 2,500 years ago, a young man’s body was covered with thirteen well-preserved cannabis plants, covering his body from his pelvis to his face, with his head resting on reeds in the shape of a pillow. He may have been part of the Subexi people who lived in the area in the first millennium BCE. Archaeologists have never found whole leaves in a tomb, nor have they found them in the shape of a burial shroud. The plants were about three feet in length, and they covered his body diagonally from below his waist on the right to his face on the left.

The marijuana was in whole leaf form with buds still attached, which means it was probably locally harvested at the end of the summer specifically for this particular burial. Cannabis plants were highly valuable in the ancient world; their fibers were woven into cloth items, and their seeds were highly nutritious and served many medical purposes. As researchers haven’t recovered any clothing or potions using marijuana products from the graves, they believe that the people of Turpan used cannabis plants for medicinal purposes or its mind-altering qualities. Other marijuana products, such as cannabis seeds and powder, have also been recovered from other grave sites along the Silk Road, so marijuana was possibly a high-demand trade item.

These 10 Crazy Discoveries Will Change Everything You Thought You Knew About the Silk Road
The Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, Xinjiang, China. Photographed by Rolfmueller, October 1, 2006. Wikipedia.

Religion Also Spread Along Silk Road Trade Routes

There is much evidence that shows the spread of material culture along the Silk Road, but the trading network also contributed to the movement of ideas and religion. There are many Buddhist temples along the path of the Silk Road, including the Kizil Thousand-Buddhas cave in Xinjiang, China. The Kizil location is considered to be the earliest Buddhist temple complex, dating back to between the third and eighth century.

Buddhism spread from India into China through trade contacts between the first and second century. By the end of the second century, Buddhist monks from India traveled to major Chinese cities where they worked to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. By the fourth century, the Chinese government sent Buddhist monks to India to study the religion more closely at its source, and they helped facilitate the spread of Buddhism throughout China.

Built by the Tocharians, an Indo-European people who lived in the oasis cities near Xinjiang, the temple complex has 236 cave temples carved into the sides of the cliff. Most of the temples were looted, but many of the wall paintings remain intact. Some of the images were removed to museums all over Europe and Asia in the twentieth century. Historians have divided the paintings into categories, based on their influences.

The earliest paintings have Greek and Indian artistic influences, while later paintings have Persian artistic influences. The latest dated paintings, closer to the seventh and eighth centuries, are the only ones that include elements of Chinese artistic techniques. The Kizil Cave Complex provides evidence of the spread of Buddhism along the routes of the Silk Road and analyzing the paintings completed over multiple centuries can also help historians and archaeologists understand the movement of cultural and artistic ideas into China via the trade routes.