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Study: Cannabis Evolution & Domestication Occurred in East Asia

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

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A 2021 study entitled "Large-scale Whole-genome Resequencing Unravels the Domestication History of Cannabis Sativa" that was published in the journal Science Advances investigated the "poorly known domestication history" of cannabis by utilizing the latest whole-genome resequencing technology and cannabis and hemp samples from throughout the world.

A map of China.
Cannabis evolved and was domesticated in East Asia

"Few crops have been under the spotlight of controversy as much as [cannabis]," reported the study. "As one of the first domesticated plants, [cannabis] has a long and fluctuating history interwoven with the economic, social, and cultural development of human societies."

Cannabis Evolution & Domestication Study

Cannabis Evolution & Domestication. The study explained that cannabis (and hemp) were at one time "a major source for textiles, food, and oilseed" but that the use of hemp for these purposes "declined in the 20th century [due to U.S. federal prohibition] while its use as a recreational drug...has broadened."

"It is currently widely accepted that the genus Cannabis comprises a single species, C. sativa L."

The study addressed the controversy over whether modern cannabis is a single species or multiple species. "It is currently widely accepted that the genus Cannabis comprises a single species, C. sativa L." Interestingly, the study also noted that the genome (DNA) data size for cannabis is about 830 MB (megabytes).

Cannabis Evolution & Domestication Results

Cannabis Evolution & Domestication. The study found that cannabis probably originally evolved and was domesticated not in Central Asia, as has been touted by many sources, but rather East Asia. "The results...indicate that some of the current Chinese landraces and feral [wild] plants represent the closest descendants of the ancestral gene pool from which hemp and marijuana landraces and cultivars have since [evolved]," observed the study.

The cover of Science Advances.
What are the origins of cannabis?

Interestingly, East Asia was also noted as being a "hot spot of domestication for several crop species" that included apricot, broomcorn, foxnut, foxtail millet, peach, rice, and soybean. The study reported that "archaeological and historical sources are...consistent with our [results]."

The study observed that the feral samples it tested "are not wild types, but historical escapes from domesticated forms." It reported that additional sampling of feral plants from certain "key geographical areas" is necessary and concluded that "pure wild progenitors of [modern cannabis] have gone extinct."

The study concluded that "pure wild progenitors of [modern cannabis] have gone extinct."

The study's authors claimed that their study supports existing "archaeobotanical, archaeological, and historical records" and, thus, provides a detailed and accurate description of the domestication path of cannabis.

New Insights

The scientists declared that their study "provides new insights into the domestication and global spread of a plant with divergent structural and biochemical products at a time in which there is a resurgence of interest in its use reflecting changing social attitudes and corresponding challenges to its legal status in many countries."

The results of this study describe an evolutionary path for cannabis "that accounts for the variability in cannabinoid composition among plants as a result [of] artificial selection by early farmers."

View the original study.

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