The PRC genomics study on origins marks a new era in the racialization of Cannabis
TLDR: The dubious received wisdom that “Cannabis comes from China” has very effectively taken root among aficionados and the wider public since a new PRC genomics paper on the origin of Cannabis.
Plants and seeds are increasingly getting coopted for political agendas. In Erdoğan’s Turkey or Xi Jinping’s PRC, ‘Ancestral Seed’ projects or dodgy genomics studies such as this put bad science to work in the service of the very worst autocracies, the aim being to legitimize 21st Century ethnonationalist police states through concocted ‘scientific’ fantasies of cultural continuity into the deep past.
“Our civilization belongs here and has been here since time immemorial” is the message. For “us” read Han Chinese ethnonationalists and for “here” read colonized frontiers such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, all of which happen to be crucial to the evolution of Cannabis. Under the cover of a plant genomics study, using manipulation of selective data and sampling, distortion of secondary material, and even worse geography, ‘science’ constructs a grand narrative of ‘China’. Implicit in this tale of plants, people, and place is that Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are the true guardians of Chinese civilization and that the PRC has an essentially timeless right to its colonies. A brutal modern regime is validated by imaginary ties to the primordial past, rooting the totalitarian state in place – “naturally” – through a plant.
The Ren genomics study – on the face of it simply about the origin of Cannabis – is Party propaganda as much as science. Heavily promoted, its overriding aim was not to advance science but get headlines. It got them, everywhere from Nature to CNN, all of which cheerfully and uncritically reported its deeply politicized and baseless claim that “Cannabis comes from China, not Central Asia.”
That ‘fact’ is getting taken at face value by aficionados. Subtle massaging of popular consciousness such as this is very effective propaganda, gently shifting public perception and priming it for assimilation and acceptance of the Party’s desired views, not least of which is the absolute centrality of China – the PRC – to the world. Central Asia quietly vanishes into China. The Uyghurs quietly vanish into the concentration camps. Cannabis is once again hijacked to justify murderous racism, though in a far more subtle way that, for now at least, is largely escaping the conscious attention of progressive Westerners.
Incremental shifts in perception – barely noticed by the target, if at all – are pivotal to propaganda in the 21st Century. Without their even realizing, tokers across the West received a strong dose of Xi Jinping Thought.
Politics doesn’t stop at people. Watch as plants and seeds rapidly get caught up in the dangerous wave of ethnonationalism sweeping the globe.
Before we get to the People’s Republic of China, take another police state – Turkey. Seeds of species far less charismatic than Cannabis were until last year held in a publicly accessible archaeobotanical collection at the British Institute in Ankara. But the morning of September 3rd a letter dated September 17th arrived at the Institute announcing the collection would be “removed the same day.” Government officials marched in that afternoon and out again with 108 boxes of archaeobotanical specimens and four cupboards of modern reference accessions. All were summarily declared property of the Turkish state.
“What they have done is they’ve removed this research resource from the wider Turkish and international community of researchers. It was a nice, small research facility, open to anyone who wanted to use it. Now it’s all gone,” commented renowned professor of archaeobotany, Dorian Fuller. Brexit Britain itself said nothing, of course, because too busy on its knees with ‘cap’ in hand, begging Ankara for business.
The ‘Ancestral Seed’ project – ‘Ata Tohum’ – was proclaimed days later by Turkey’s porcelain first lady, Emine Erdoğan. For the fanfare, the usual spectres were invoked and cursed. Down with the demons of ‘the West’. Down with American archaeobotanist Jack Harlan especially, apparently.
The Ata Tohum ‘Ancestral Seed’ project is a “classic nationalist move to dig deeper and deeper into the past for justification of the policies that you are currently putting in place” noted Dr. James Ryan. “You have these genetic ties to the land through these seeds as proof that our civilization belongs here and has been here since time immemorial. To want to have these [seeds] in the first place is part of the nationalist framework.”
Another lover of the deep ancestral connection, the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, expounded grand nationalist visions in which there was plenty of space for the Phrygians and Hittites of ancient Anatolia. For the Armenians or Greeks then actually living in Anatolia and Istanbul, not so much. Imaginary Phrygians and Hittites are useful. They confer legitimacy on the state. Living Armenians, Jews, and Greeks who can point to forebears in Turkey a thousand years or more before the Oghuz Turks are by contrast a threat best eradicated. But regardless, Atatürk’s secular Turkey is now as dead and buried as the victims of his genocides. Over the pits, Emine Erdoğan raises up her herbal remedies and phytotherapies, and her husband his Islamo-nationalist autocracy.
No surprise, strongman President Erdoğan’s muscular Turkish sentiments don’t extend to doing or saying anything about the ongoing genocide of Muslim Turks in Xinjiang. Across China, the roundups of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz – all of them Turks – continue in silence. As Turkey, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan, so too Imran Khan’s Pakistan turns its back quietly. So much for ethnic solidarity. So much for the ummah. The mange-ridden bazaar dog that is the modern Islamo-nationalist strongman very willingly rolls over – for his favoured master.
Xinjiang. Tibet. The outer reaches of Gansu or Qinghai. The Central Asian colonies and frontiers of the modern political entity we know as ‘China’ are very likely crucial to the evolution and ancient history of Cannabis sativa. Everyone with an interest in the origins of our plant should know these places. Everyone with any interest in anything whatever – their own freedom included – should pay attention to them. Xinjiang is one possible future in store for all of us.
‘Absolutely No Mercy’ was how The New York Times broke 400 pages of leaked internal documents from the Communist Party of China. After ‘The Xinjiang Papers’, witness accounts, satellite imagery, and further leaks followed. ‘Show absolutely no mercy’ is straight from Chairman Xi Jinping, whose concentration camps, ‘re-education’ programs, extreme mass surveillance, torture through gang rape, and forced sterilizations are now objectively verified fact. Across Xinjiang, birth rates among Uyghurs continue to plummet.
The Turks of eastern Central Asia – China, if you like – are being erased.
At who or what Xi Jinping will stop is not obvious. Christians, ethnic Mongolians, Hui Muslims, followers of Yiguandao and Falun Gong, and now even Chinese Buddhists – if they or their friends are not already in the camps, they fear the knock. Meaningful trades unions were long ago crushed, like activists, lawyers, journalists, and any form of civil society outside the Party. Welcome to the ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’ as undertaken by that excrescence of the European Enlightenment, Marxist–Leninism. Unlike the Coronavirus, Communism is very definitely a disease of Western origin, whatever ‘Chinese characteristics’ it has since excreted. Meanwhile, Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola lobby the Senate against the Xinjiang slave labour bill – ‘forced’ labour bill….
This small study is about Cannabis in the same way Ata Tohum is about seeds. This is science in the service of politics, genomics in the service of ethnonationalists, the overriding purpose to serve as one more cog in the machinery of a genocidal state, a falsified story about Cannabis and ‘China’ cooked up to prove that “our civilization belongs here and has been here since time immemorial.”
‘Where Does Weed Come From?’ asks the braindead headline in The New York Times. Its less than savvy answer, ‘A New Study Suggests East Asia’.
‘Suggests’ indeed. New Scientist reported this ‘suggestion’ as fact: “Early humans domesticated cannabis about 12,000 years ago in what is now China — not in Central Asia, as had been widely thought.”
“Many botanists believe that the cannabis sativa plant was first domesticated in Central Asia,” burbled on Mike Ives for the NY Times. “But a new study published on Friday in the journal Science Advances suggests that East Asia is the more likely source, and that all existing strains of the plant come from an ‘ancestral gene pool’ represented by wild and cultivated varieties growing in China today.”
As ‘the cannabis sativa plant’ would tell you, if it could talk, Mike Ives is not a science writer. Read the paper carefully and – contrary to the authors’ assertions – its data actually point to two centres of domestication, one in Xinjiang (Central Asia) and one in Chifeng (NE Asia, Inner Mongolia).
Where does weed come from? Analysis of fossil pollen suggests Northeast Tibet may be where the plant speciated. That’s also Central Asia. For an alternative take on Ren’s paper try ‘Welcome to a New Era in the Politicization of Cannabis.’ Racialization, if you want to follow that thought further.
For the NY Times and other liberal publications to be swept along by this laughably forced distinction between China and Central Asia tells you plenty. This is just a small study on Cannabis by a handful of second-tier Chinese and Swiss universities. Liberal media such as CNN or New Scientist do not comprise some grand top-hatted North Atlantic capitalist conspiracy à la Noam Chomsky. There is no ‘The Media’. ‘The Media’ is a phrase that conveys nothing more than fair warning that the ill-informed or unthinking are spouting off. Institutions such as CNN are as pliable and easily manipulated as the rest of us, and no less clueless. Bombard them with press releases – whether you’re the Israeli government or a Chinese college department – and you may sway them. That’s the problem. Everything bends to power. But bending to power is all-together different from total submission to top-down single-minded political manipulation. In our dangerous new world, there does exist the Chomskyean fantasy made flesh. But to encounter those smoke-filled rooms and sinister machinations, the day-to-day collusion between press, television, and the highest echelons of government, look to Putin’s Russia or the People’s Republic of China.
The new nationalist strongmen and their followers will ignore science and as far as feasible shape it to their will. Days after the terrifying 2021 report from the IPCC, the implementation of 43 new coal-fired power stations was announced by the Party. Beside that, this small study from Ren and fellow travellers is just a pathetic example of what happens when data and sources are pushed and stretched to the limit for a racist agenda, in this case Han ethnonationalism.
“We show that C. sativa was first domesticated in early Neolithic times in East Asia,” assert the authors. By that they mean just one domestication event c. 10,000 BCE, in China. But with so few wild-type samples, there is no way that multiple domestications can be ruled out. They have no accessions whatsoever from Afghanistan, southern Xinjiang, Russia, or Japan. Add to that, they use material from the Vavilov Institute which, tragically, is known to be introgressed because carelessly maintained. Yet they claim their sampling is “exhaustive”.…
Genetic analyses err on the side of single origins all too often, as is well-known. Simulation work by Allaby et al. has shown this will be true even for crops with multiple origins, whether due to gene flow or pruning of lost branches – i.e., unsampled or extinct populations. And as the authors themselves even acknowledge, wild-type populations can be heavily inundated with gene flow from crops over millennia, which makes establishing their true origins in modern genomes difficult at best.
To their empty assertions add inaccuracy. Their claimed domestication dates have error margins of 6000 years. What exactly they’re dating isn’t even clear. Equivalent genomic dates for domestication of Asian rice would be ca. 18,000 BP, when the most probable date is some 10,000 years later. Whether the ‘suggested’ source is Xinjiang or Chifeng is fudged, of course. Chifeng is in the far northeast – i.e., Inner Mongolia. All this extreme imprecision is a necessary outcome of subordinating science to their predetermined aims, namely Han-centric headlines in which ‘Everything Comes from China’. Either origin – Central or Northeast Asia – begs what relevance there is to the early cord-marked pottery of which the authors make so much. The pottery is from far-distant Taiwan. This is Xi Jingping Thought.
Dodgy use of secondary sources makes the bad faith and politics at play still plainer. Cord-marked ceramics cannot be claimed definitively as hemp-marked ceramics, as is doubly obvious to any native speakers of Mandarin even if they haven’t read the text(s) in question, in which Western aficionados base their over-the-top claims about ‘hemp’ on basic mistranslations. ‘Má’ is a generic term for fibre and oilseed crops: zhùmá (ramie), huángmá (jute or Cannabis), zhīma (sesame), húmá (flax, sesame, or Cannabis). All that can be said about these ceramic markings is that they appear to not be from silk or wool but some kind of plant fibre. A more accurate translation would be ‘bast-fibre cord-marking’. Analogous is old British authors writing about ancient Egyptian ‘corn’ (i.e., wheat) and the lunatic fringe across the pond taking this to mean maize and ancient contact with the Americas.
Ironically, the oldest directly dated archaeological Cannabis does indicate some form of domestication was underway in East Asia as early as c. 8000 BCE. The problem for the present authors is those finds are from Japan. The Jomon seeds from Okinoshima already exhibit loss of wild syndrome, namely no abcission zone or extended base to facilitate shedding. Cannabis was certainly in use by Asian hunter-gatherer bands as food and maybe as a drug. Perhaps it was even cultivated. More conservatively, this transition to domestication syndrome is explained by the ‘rubbish heap’ or ‘dump heap’ hypothesis. Cannabis is a camp-follower. Plants with favoured traits such as pleasing aromas, abundant inflorescences, or larger seeds are brought back to habitations, where they find their ideal environment, namely disturbed nitrogen-rich soils (e.g., kitchen middens). Utilization thereby initiates domestication. None of which excludes the possibility that Cannabis was also domesticated as a multipurpose crop by early millet cultivators beginning around 6000–5000 BCE on the Ordos Plateau of northern China.
Here, through the Ordos and into Inner Mongolia, some four to five thousand years later, early urban agrarian states such as the Shang (c. 1700 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1100 BCE) encountered the hordes of Central Eurasia. Bronze-Age riders from the distant frontiers of Europe had roamed the eastern grasslands long before even these nascent stirrings of what could very loosely be called Chinese civilization. As far back as c. 2500 BCE, the opening of the Steppe Corridor initiated eastward movements of nomadic horse-tribes, believed by some experts to be early Indo-Europeans, who were followed by early northern Iranians. In the deserts of Xinjiang, the bodies of their descendants – often blonde or red-haired with so-called ‘Europoid’ features – were preserved in astonishingly pristine condition. Yet, unavoidably, their corpses are also infested by the racialized politics of a modern totalitarian state. They caused such unease to the Communist Party of China that researchers and the public were once forbidden from viewing them. The earliest evidence for use of cannabis as a drug – smoked through fumigation, sacramentally – comes from the Iron Age graves of northern Iranian peoples of Xinjiang, in this case Scythians, often known as ‘Saka’. Late in the Scythian era, dynasties such as the Qin and Zhao began to build rammed-earth ‘long walls’ along the steppe and desert frontiers of the Ordos and Inner Mongolia, ostensibly to keep at bay rampaging nomads such as those they knew as the ‘Sak’ (*Sək).
To reduce this study’s ethnonationalist notions of ‘China’ and ‘Central Asia’ to their full anachronistic absurdity: Behold ‘The Great Wall of China’ erected to protect the civilized people of China from the savage foreign barbarians of… China….
Ironically, that may in a sense be true. The essential purpose of the so-called ‘Great Wall’ may not have been to keep the rampaging nomads out but to keep the settled farmers and townsfolk of China in. Escape to the hordes of the Xiongnu, Asvin, or Saka and the labouring classes of these early Chinese states could enjoy better everything – greater freedoms, superior diet, and improved life expectancy. Kept in, they could be exploited for their labour, grain surpluses, and tax….
Plus ça change…
Beyond the walls, the elites of the ethnolinguistically Iranian and Indo-European nations of China’s desert and steppe frontiers knew themselves as ‘Aryans’. ‘Nobles’, in other words. European fascism and its deranged fantasies of race belong to another time and place entirely, note. To the ancient Chinese, these peoples to their north and west were ‘hú’. Barbarians or foreigners. Come the opening of the ‘Silk Road’ in the Han Dynasty (c. 200 BCE) and there was talk of ‘húmá’, a word for western fibre and oilseed crops like sesame and flax that could also serve to distinguish intoxicating Cannabis from the seed and fibre type cultivated in China. ‘Hànmá’ for Han civilization. ‘Húmá’ for the peoples of the Central Asian beyond, with their strange ways and rites.
But there is nothing inherently ‘Chinese’ about any of this divisiveness. The Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) and the court of Emperor Ling of the Western Han were both obsessed with Central Asia, in a good way. Few things were more fashionable among Tang sophisticates than the customs or products of the true ‘Hú’, the Sogdians: their foods, music, dances, robes, incenses, and philosophies were embraced and treasured.
Far back in time, a still deeper irony: during the Warring States period (476–221 BCE), the first ever name to mean ‘the Chinese’ was inspired by the Aryan Central Eurasians of the kingdom of Zhao, who the fragmented states of the Central Chinese Plain rubbed shoulders with along the edge of the Ordos and eastwards. The names these now unifying nations chose for their newly self-conscious collective ethnic identity were ‘Huá’ and ‘Xià’ – meaning ‘the Chinese’ – both of which originate from Ārya.
In other words, the connection between China’s early polities and the ‘barbarians’ of their steppe and desert frontiers is far closer than any imaginary link between ancient Chinese civilizations and Xi Jinping’s anxious twenty-first century autocracy. But again, let’s indulge this modern ethnonationalist fantasy of a deep and meaningful connection with the distant past. In another irony, the etymology of ‘Huá’ would render Chairman Xi’s race-based policy of expansion and genocide as ‘The Great Rejuvenation of the Central Aryan Nation’….
Plus ça change indeed…
Our plant – Cannabis – was more than likely domesticated at multiple times and places across Eurasia, anywhere from what is now Romania to Japan. It belongs to everyone and to no one. As for where it originated as a species, the best guess yet is Qinghai in northeast Tibet, a region of Central Asia also named Amdo and perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
Was His Holiness the Dalai Lama born in China?
To that, there is only one sensible answer….
For further and far more restrained debunking of this dreadful study see John McPartland’s comment, ‘Was Cannabis First Grown in Eastern China?’