Fossilized Cannabis Reveals The Plant is 27.8 Million Years Old

Philip Ghezelbash June 12, 2019 30 comments

Is this the fascinating evolution of the original land race cannabis plant? 

The cannabis market has exploded, and as growers learn more about using genetics to their advantage, a wide variety of strains have emerged. With just a quick look online or at your local dispensary, you’ll find hundreds of modified breeds for every possible occasion.

But all this variety has its origins somewhere. Actually, we can trace all cannabis strains to a small number of original cannabis plants known as landrace strains.

What Exactly is a Landrace Strain?

A landrace strain is essentially an isolated plant that has not been crossbred with other cannabis varieties. They tend to be indigenous to specific regions, and developed their particular qualities as the strain adapted to their unique environment.

As such, landrace strains are often named in accordance with their region: Pure Afghan, Durban Poison, Panama Red, and so on.

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Cannabis historians believed landrace strains originated in Asia.

Landrace really only refers to the genetic purity of a cannabis strain. Landrace strains won’t necessarily produce a better product. In fact, the reason there are so many crossbred strains on the market is that breeding a plant for a specific trait ensures a specific, quality finished product.

Being genetically closer to the original wild cannabis species is really the main drawcard for landrace strains. They hold particular intrigue for historians, scientists, and purists.

“Clocking” the Age of Cannabis

Scientists have long searched for the origins of cannabis. Or, at the very least, for the original wild landrace strain of this infamous medicinal plant. Common thought placed the original plant in locations across Asia. However, scientists weren’t so sure of the precise original location.

That was until recently when a study of fossilized pollen found the location of the first cannabis species.

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Accurately determining when and where cannabis evolved was extremely difficult due to the lack of a strong print fossil record – impression of leaves or fruits in rocks. For a plant, like cannabis, that lacks a good fossil record, paleobotanists can use a “molecular clock”. This allows them to estimate when cannabis and its sister species Humulus (hops) diverged from a common ancestor. The molecular clock uses DNA to measure time, and calibrates the clock with fossil dates of related plants.

Using this method, they estimated that cannabis first diverged from a common ancestor 27.8 million years ago.

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Hops and cannabis derive from the same common ancestor.

Once researchers had figured out when cannabis first diverged from a common ancestor, the question of where still remained. Paleobotanists then turned to microfossils, such as fossilized pollen, to fill in the records. They found that pollen from the closely related cannabis and hop plants are almost indistinguishable.

To overcome this problem, scientists realized that because cannabis typically grows in open grasslands, and hops grow in forests, the pollen could be classified by identifying other plants that commonly occur alongside it. Researchers used plants that are typically seen in open grasslands to identify the fossilized pollen as cannabis.

How Scientists Dated and Located Fossilized Cannabis Pollen

Fossilized pollen is usually used to date the layer in which it is found, which tells a lot about the environment at the time. However, in this case, the pollen was the unknown. Researchers aged it with radiocarbon dating.

Radiocarbon dating measures the amount of radiocarbon (C14) left in a fossilized animal or plant. C14 degrades at a known rate, and so by testing the amount of C14 left in a fossil, its age can be accurately calculated.

By using this analysis, the oldest fossilized cannabis pollen was located in the Ningxia Province, China. Researchers dated the pollen at 19.6 million years old. But with cannabis diverging 27.8 million years ago, this date wasn’t close enough.

Further research of the region and tracking of a plant called Artemisia, which has a close alliance and parallel evolutionary pattern to cannabis, pinpointed the northeastern Tibetan Plateau as the cannabis center of origin. At the time, the Tibetan Plateau created an environment that supports the theory that cannabinoids developed to protect the plant from UV rays and herbivores. These are both issues in the high altitude, open grassland Tibetan Plateau.

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Cannabis stems from a single location on the Tibetan Plateau.

Movement of Landrace Strains?

Fossil pollen records tell us that cannabis dispersed into Europe 6 million years ago. Then later East into China 1.2 million years ago. By mapping the distribution of pollen over time, scientists were able to see that European cannabis went through repeated genetic bottlenecks.

Following the warm and wet Holocene period, forests replaced open grasslands. Cannabis retreated to the small pockets of open space that it could inhabit. In these small and isolated areas, the population of cannabis shrank. These separated cannabis populations then evolved differently, eventually creating the separate and distinct landrace strains of the European-evolved sativa and the Asian-evolved indica.

By tracing cannabis evolution back to a single location on the Tibetan Plateau millions of years ago, we have uncovered the site of the original cannabis landrace strain. Over thousands of years, the original cannabis strain moved across continents, becoming isolated in certain areas.

The original landrace strain had to then develop to new conditions, eventually leading to a variety of landrace strains. Each developed unique geno-phenotypical characteristics reflective of adaptations provoked by their local environment. And these ancient strains have become the mythologized landrace strains that we idolize today.

Author avatar

Philip Ghezelbash
Philip Ghezelbash is an ex-personal trainer with a science background who currently operates New Zealand's only health specialized writing studio. He is passionate about presenting complex science in an easy to digest manner and is a firm believer that cannabis has substantial potential to be used as a medicine for degenerative disease.

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  1. ” . . . the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture; especially a bread grain, next in value to bread, is oil.”, Thomas Jefferson, 3.sup.rd President of the United States of America, Memorandum of Services to My Country, 1800, Charlottesville, Va. USA.

    “Damn it Charles, no damn good will ever come of this cannabis crap! Plus, it’s illegal!” Excited utterance of Frank G. Ankner, father of instant inventor, 1978, Lake Worth, Fla. USA.

    It is known in the field of plant husbandry, and in many related fields of endeavor, that a shoot to root temperature differential causes physiological ontogenic changes in plants (i.e. a shoot to root temperature differential during plant development causes physical changes in plant characteristics). Depending upon the plant species or variety, purposeful and selected changes in plant characteristics during development caused by providing shoot to root temperature differentials may be exploited for industrial, scientific, and medical uses.

    Referring to FIG. 1, which depicts a phylogenetic diagram (100) of the Cannabaceae sensu lato (110) plant family, Cannabaceae sensu lato (s.l.) is a small family of flowering plants of about one-hundred-and-seventy species grouped in about eleven genera, including by their common names: hemp, hops, and hackberries.

    C. celtis L. (the “hackberries”) is the largest genus, containing about one-hundred species. Hackberries have also been scientifically classified as the plant family Celtidaceae (130).

    The genus C. humulus L. (“hops”) and C. cannabis L. (“hemp”) each contain only three species. The C. humulus L. and C. cannabis L. genus plants have also been scientifically classified as the plant family Cannabaceae sensu stricto (120).

    All Celtidaceae varieties are dioecious perennials (i.e. male and female flowering plants living longer than two growing seasons).

    The Cannabaceae sensu stricto (“s.s.”) family are all dioecious having either twining or erect stems. C. humulus L. genera plants have “bines” and are perennials, while C. cannabis L. genera plants have erect stems and are annuals (i.e. living only one growing season).

    Referring again to FIG. 1, the genus Cannabis was formerly placed in the Nettle or Urticaceae (140) genus; or the Mulberry or Moraceae (150) genus. Later, along with the Humulus genus, Cannabis was placed in a separate family–Cannabaceae s.s. (120), as illustrated in FIG. 1.

    Recent phylogenetic studies strongly suggest that the Cannabaceae s.s. family arose from within the former Celtidaceae family, and that the two families should be merged to form a single monophyletic family, the family Cannabaceae s.l. In layperson’s terms, C. humulus L. and C. cannabis L. genera varieties are genetically like “little trees”.

    Being genetically related to, and arising from, the former Celtidaceae family, some varieties of family Cannabaceae s.s. share the trait of root systems which can tolerate temperatures well below F. for long periods of time.

    C. humulus L. varieties are perennials as are former Celtidaceae family plants (trees). Being perennials, the plant shoot dies back to the root crown every growing season; that is, the plant goes dormant each growing season and “re-sprouts” at the start of the next growing season.

    In a related way, C. cannabis L. varieties share some common traits with Celtidaceae trees, although all C. cannabis L. varieties are annuals. One trait some C. cannabis L. varieties share with Celtidaceae trees and some C. humulus L. varieties, is a root system tolerant of temperatures approaching or below F. for long periods of time.

    However, most Cannabaceae s.s. varieties possessing this “low temperature root tolerance” are typically and errantly thought to be intolerant overall of temperatures below approximately 50 to F.

    In fact, some C. cannabis L. varieties can tolerate low root system temperatures throughout development. Additionally, some C. cannabis L. varieties can tolerate increasingly lower root system temperatures when the plant shoot is maintained at known “optimal” temperatures for a particular varietal strain.

    This Cannabaceae s.s. low temperature root tolerance trait coupled with known physiological ontogenic changes caused by shoot to root temperature differentials during plant growth, may be exploited to modify the plant’s physiological ontogeny, and thus improve desired plant organ development for industrial, scientific, and medical purposes.

    In known horticultural and agricultural systems, the temperature of the growing medium, such as soil, soil replacements, liquids, air-misting, aquaponic reservoirs, and the like, maintain the plant root system temperature within a few degrees of the air/gas mixture about the plant shoot. In other words, in known systems, “the roots are as hot as the shoot”.

    However, by maintaining a plant shoot to root temperature differential by lowering the root temperature, the dissolved oxygen saturation level of the nutrient solution within the growth medium may be increased which in turn increases the oxygen and nutrient uptake of the plant. In basic terms; the lower the growth medium nutrient solution temperature, the more oxygen may be dissolved within the solution. This increased dissolved oxygen increases the permeability of the plant roots to water and minerals, which increases plant nutrient uptake, thus increasing the growth rate and overall health of the plant.

  2. Albert W Johnson

    I’ve got prostrate cancer I need the right combination help me please thank you for your time

    • Jason Z. Smith

      1 Gram of RSO daily is recommended…. Prostate is close to rectum… so, I’d use cannabis suppositories also.
      These can all be bought online Legally.

  3. Great article 🙂 I find it more and more amusing to read about the history of cannabis/hemp, because there are tons of CBD/THC related articles (not that they aren’t interesting) and to find something like this is almost a rarity.

  4. Benard Galiavo


  5. Phoenix22


  6. Xochinysius the Blue

    This is actually a very informative and helpful article! However….
    Not a single source is cited. No researchers from any recognized institutions are named. And also,the title is misleading.
    It’s not that cannabis has been around for 27.8 million years, but that genetic markers from the (rather shaky) “genetic clock” technique suggest a split between cannabis and its relative Hops, or hummulus. That’s their last common ancestor, not cannabis in its present form per se, just its ancient ancestor from which cannabis and hummulus derive from.
    But the real humdinger of this article is the claim that radio carbon dating is used on fossil remains older that are 27 million years old. Radio carbon dating is a powerful tool, but it is limited to fairly recent fossils. I’m not one hundred percent sure when the cut off is, but anything more than 60,000 years old or so and the carbon-14 ratios are really too low to make any accurate predictions.
    Also, you gotta have carbon to radiocarbon date. That means whatever you’re dating is not completely fossilized.
    Cite me some sources, or I’m gonna have an aneurysm. Punk ass mother fucker think we don’t got scientific literacy up in this bitch!!!

    • Jennifer Grant

      You can check on the sources at any link point. All of the studies are linked. Look for green text. Some of these will be internal links (needed to maximize SEO) but anytime it says ‘study’ or ‘research’ AND it is green text, you’ll be brought to the source material. Thanks

      • Jerri Cardona

        The reluctance of many people to accept that cannabis has many medicinal benefits is because of the lies of reefer madness that have been spread by our government for more than 8 decades. With all the benefits of cannabis that have been proven I would much rather use a natural healing plant for medication than toxic chemicals created by big pharmaceutical companies that poison us and cause many bad side effects including death. Cannabis has never caused a single death in the thousands of years people have been consuming it. Politicians receive large contributions from big pharmaceutical companies every year. As long as this is allowed cannabis will probably remain illegal at the federal level for some time. Also the fact that some states have medical and recreational cannabis and it remains completely illegal in other states makes ABSOLUTELY no sense at all! If cannabis is legal in some states it should be legal in all states no matter the position of elected politicians in illegal states!

      • Diana Ang

        I don’t see any green text for the links. I’d like to see a list of references at the end of the article. I know that much of the information in this article is from a paper that John McPartland presented at an ICRS conference in Leiden several years ago.

    • Wow you know much
      And ???? at your ending comment.

  7. Shera Winings

    It has taken far too many yrs to finally arrive where we are today. Well ‘better late than never’, but not always. The medical applications for cannabis are almost endless, & not only is cannabis a successful treatment for physical & mental disorders, it’s 100% natural, it dates back cuple million yrs. It’s obviously obvious that cannabis was always meant for the medical/recreational uses & treatments that are currently being made available for an unlimited number of patients with wide variety of physical & mental symptoms
    I know this well as I receive cannabis therapy for my Epilepsy with Grand Mol seizures. The fossils only reinforce the theory that it has always been here waiting to be discovered.

  8. With all the other garbage that is sold and pushed to people for ills. I just do not for the life of me understand the reluctance of any one on this. I also don’t understand the governments classification of it. They are not so smart really.

  9. The link S are not defined sufficiently …may be they could be made red….. also they are actually slightly easier to see if the Facebook page is opened in safari or another browser.

  10. Heather Alexander

    This very interesting

  11. If you are writing a scientific article, please use scientific terminology.
    The term “strain” is used for microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. the proper term for plants is cultivar if it is cultivated variety and simply variety if the mutation occurs naturally.
    This is very important if you are to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

    • Jennifer Grant

      The different types of cannabis (genetically created hybrids) are called strains in common language, which we use to reach as many people as possible. In addition, cultivar is a relatively recent term in the history of cannabis consumers and growers…which tend to be the real experts.

      • Diana Ang

        I agree with Swami Chaitanya. The word Cultivar should be used instead of strain. Just as many people used to refer to resin in common language as pollen. Just because it is a widely used term doesn’t mean that it’s correct. Cannabis consumers and growers are intelligent enough to learn to use correct terminology.

  12. Really think your writing style suits the subject matter really well, such a complex subject delivered in a relatable and informative manner. Thanks for being part of the ongoing campaign to educate the world on Cannabis, would be great if you could do a piece on the harms of prohibition,, love your work brother keep it up. Ancient Jay

  13. m

    this article makes no sense. A “landrace strain” is a plant that develops from human agriculture defined as such: A landrace is a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species.

    There can’t be a “landrace” strain from a million years ago. Human agriculture has been around for 20,000 years tops.

    • Jennifer Grant

      Thanks for the feedback, Matt. The article looks at this story of finding the oldest bit of fossilized cannabis pollen AND adds onto that how landrace strain develop. Based on other records of cannabis pollen movement, the writer comments on how genetics have flowed and how landrace strains may have been created. I modified the final subtitle (based on your feedback) for better clarity. Thank you!

  14. Rex

    Horrible article. They say they used carbon 14 to get that date. Carbon 14 cant be used on things older than 50,000 years.

    Must be the same scientists that say pot cures cancer, fyi there are no peer reviewed medicine studies that says it does. Just because it was atudied does not mean it did what the study was trying to prove.

  15. rhiannon edge

    im just being curious but…..why use a photo of oxen. why not use a photo of cannabis or actual people of tibet?

    • Jennifer Grant

      I’ll have to bring that question up with the photo editor. Thank you for considering the whole piece. Photos matter.

  16. J. R Joseph

    Very informative information