Hill Tribe women lancing opium poppy pods in the Golden Triangle. Photo attribute: Al Jazeera News (2018)
This year in Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, farmers will plant 40,000-50,000 hectares of opium poppy which will produce about 500 metric tons of opium from which 50 metric tons of high-grade heroin will be refined and distributed worldwide. 1 Since the middle 19th Century, the Golden Triangle has played an outsized role in the world’s opium drama. Even today opium production and its refinement into heroin continues as a leading industry.
So let us ask a simple question: When did opium first come to the Golden Triangle and how? And an equally important question: When did opium first come to China?
To answer this simple question we must climb aboard our time machine and go back 12,000 years when humankind gave up its wild ways of nomadic hunting and gathering, and began planting crops and settling down in permanent villages. From there, we shall trace the path of opium across the ancient world to the Golden Triangle and China.
The Golden Triangle: Land of Between
Between two ancient civilizations, China and India, lies the Golden Triangle. From southern Yunnan Province of China down through Burma and Laos to northern Thailand, it’s a land of rivers, jungles, mountains, about the size of France.
The Golden Triangle should be understood as an economic corridor. Goods from Yunnan Province are brought south through Burma or Laos to Thailand for export around the world. Thailand exports goods north to Burma and Yunnan Province. The Mekong river, like a thick winding ribbon, ties the region together.
In ancient times, the Golden Triangle also functioned as an economic region. This trade corridor allowed Yunnan to be part of the Indian Ocean economy, and not part of the eastern seaboard Chinese economy. The ancient Silk Roads ran through the Golden Triangle connecting China, India and Southeast Asia.
But before we pass through the millennia of ages tracing the path of opium, we need some basic facts about this sticky, gooey substance. Why do humans so crave it? Why is the opium poppy unlike any other plant?
Opium: Gift of the Gods
The Greek Goddess Demeter bearing the opium poppy along with sheaves of wheat.
"Then Helen, daughter of Zeus...cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill." -Homer (800 B.C.) describing nepenthe, an opium elixir
Opium is a sticky, oozing latex that is produced by the opium poppy-papaver somnifera. This latex contains roughly 10% morphine, 1% codeine with smaller amounts of papaverine, thebaine, noscapine-all narcotics and all used today in our modern pharmacopoeia.
Everyone reading this has taken a cough syrup containing codeine or filled a doctor’s prescription containing morphine to ease pain. When you take these “modern” drugs, somewhere an opium poppy grew that produced these organic narcotics. There is no source for morphine other than the opium poppy. 2
Opium is not only a powerful painkiller, it can also soothe a troubled mind. It can change sadness to happiness. Loneliness to belonging. Despair to hope. Fear to calm. It is truly a gift from the Gods.
But it comes with strings attached. Opium is addictive. Morphine more so. Heroin extremely so. (Heroin is made from morphine.) Consume opium too long and you’re addicted. Consume too much and you’re dead.
A Golden Triangle poppy head, lanced and oozing opium latex. (2017) Attribution: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
No one is sure why the opium poppy produces a latex containing morphine and all its other narcotic alkaloids. The latex is produced in the seed pod, but only for a short period. The plant produces a beautiful flower and ten days after the petals fall away you can lance the pod and opium will ooze out. Lance it too early and you get nothing; lance it too late and the morphine will have broken down.
You can also simply cut the poppy pod off, store it dried, and when you want to use it, throw it in boiling water and drink the crude elixir. The ancient Greeks called this mekonion, meaning poppy juice. This will also dose you with morphine, but nowhere near the potency of the opium latex.
The seeds of the opium poppy are tiny black dots. You’ve eaten them on poppy seed & lemon muffins or poppy seed bagels. You can’t get high from the seeds as they contain only trace amounts narcotics; but you can fail a drug test after eating them.
Our Time Machine awaits. Let’s go.
The Dawn of Agriculture: Guess who’s there…
The striking beauty of the opium poppy certainly lured ancient people to its narcotic substance-opium.
Nearly 12,000 years ago, humans came to the realization that it was better to plant and cultivate crops than wander about gathering them. The age of farming with permanent homes and villages had begun-the Neolithic Age. And so Neolithic people began gathering up wild plants of wheat, barley, lentil, vetch, millet, peas and more, and began planting them in nearby fields. The domestication of crops had begun.
In southeast Turkey, near the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, lie the archaeological ruins of one of the first agricultural settlements of humankind-Kortik Tepe. It is here that we first pick up the trail of opium. In these ancient ruins, archaeobotanists have found many seeds of the opium poppy, dated to the 11th millennia B.C. 3 4 Yes, the opium poppy was being grown in one of the earliest known farming communities.
The opium trail then goes dark for several millennia before cropping up again and again near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
At the very beginning of the 6th Millennium B.C., a single seed of the opium poppy was found in southern France at Peiro Signato archaeological site. The seed was dated to 5900-5700 B.C. 5 6 More opium poppy seeds are found in what is today northern Israel at the ruins of Atlit-Yam dated to the first half of the 6th Millennia (6,000 B.C.-5500 B.C.) 7 Again, these seeds are found near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea which has led many botanists to believe that the Mediterranean Sea coast is the original native habitat of the opium poppy. 8
More Poppy-More Clues: La Marmotta
Important evidence of the opium poppy and its use was discovered in La Marmotta, Italy dated to 5,800 B.C. 9 10 Archaeobotanists not only found seeds, but also plant material and most importantly the opium-containing pods of papaver somnifera in this early Neolithic site. 11
But why did the farmers in this ancient village grow the opium poppy? For food or narcotics? For poppy seeds or morphine? An important clue pops up for the first time at the La Marmotta site: the opium poppy pods were found in a room used for religious ceremonies. 12 This evidence suggests that opium’s narcotic high was part of religious worship. This won’t be the only time that opium is found related to spiritual worship. In fact, it will become a common theme.
More opium poppy-the western Mediterranean region.
Opium poppy seeds are found at the archeological site of La Draga, located in northern Spain near the border with France and only 35 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. 13 These seeds are dated to the last third of the 6th Millennia B.C. (5,300-5,000 B.C.) 14
At a grave site at Cueva de Los Murcielagos in southern Spain dated circa 5,000 B.C., 15 poppy pods were discovered inside a small purse woven from esparto grass that was found buried with the dead . 16 As with the poppy pods found at La Marmotta, these poppy pods seem to also have a spiritual importance.
At the archaeological site of La Lampara, located 125 kilometers northeast of Madrid and nearly 300 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast, a single opium poppy seed was found and dated to the last third of the 6th Millennium B.C. (5,300-5001 B.C.). 17 This is an important find because it’s the earliest known time that the opium poppy has been found a significant distance from the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to this, all evidence of the opium poppy had been found near the shores of the Mediterranean. It’s likely that this opium poppy seed was brought to La Lampara via trade.
And it will be ancient trade that will carry opium around the world, to the far-off Golden Triangle and China.
“Wild Thang”: Papaver Setigerum
Archaeobotanists believe that papaver setigerum was the wild opium poppy that grew close to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The domesticated version became papaver somnifera. In other words, all of these early opium poppy discoveries happened near the Mediterranean Sea because that’s where the wild opium poppy grew.
The opium poppy seeds found at Kortik Tepe 12,000 years ago were probably the seeds of the wild opium poppy. Scientists can’t discern the difference between wild seeds and domesticated seeds. But we do know that all ancient seed crops transitioned from the wild to the domesticated. Therefore, when opium poppy seeds are found again at La Marmotta, Italy in the early 6th Millennium, archaeobotanists speculate that these are probably the domesticated papaver somnifera.
By the 5th Millennium onward, the opium poppy is being farmed throughout central Europe-Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and France. 18 It is being grown in dozens-too many to list-Neolithic European settlements. Botanists now consider the opium poppy to be a fully domesticated plant. It’s popularity is spreading outward from the Mediterranean coast.
Why Did Ancient People Grow the Opium Poppy?
The Minoan Poppy Goddess c. 1300 B.C. Three removable pins in the unmistakable shape of poppy pods are inserted in her head. Her soporific expression shows she’s under the influence of opium. This artwork leaves no doubt about opium and its intended use.
Archaeologists and their close cousins the archaeobotanists seem rather uncomfortable with such a question. They usually list the opium poppy as a “seed oil” plant. In other words, they suggest that the ancients domesticated and grew it for the purpose of collecting poppy seeds and crushing them into poppy seed oil. (Remember: Poppy seeds contain only trace amounts of narcotics.) But there is no evidence to support this, and to the contrary, logic and human needs would strongly suggest that the opium poppy was cultivated for its narcotic content, not its seeds.
To suggest the main purpose of the opium poppy was to produce seeds and oil can be jettisoned as naive with a simple scenario: A person in the 5th Millennium B.C. trips and breaks their arm. (as common back then as it is today) Tremendous pain ensues. If their village grows the opium poppy, they can choose between opium with a 10% morphine content, or eat poppy seeds that have almost no morphine. The morphine will drastically reduce their pain. The poppy seeds will do nothing.
But you say the ancients had no idea that the latex in the poppy head was a painkilling narcotic. Again, this is wholly naive in both underestimating the ancient mind (They basically had the same brain as we do.) and the power of narcotics.
The ancients learned the uses and applications of the first seed crops through trial and error. They were constantly sampling bits and bites of wild crops to see if they were edible. Poppy seeds are contained in the very pod where opium is found. Lance the pod and opium will flow after the poppy flowers fall away. The ancients would have known about this latex, especially if they were after the seeds as some archaeologists suggest. They would have sampled the latex and quickly realized it’s not poison. (At least not in small doses.) They would have sampled more. They would have gotten a euphoric buzz off the morphine. They then would have realized that the opium poppy is a very special plant-the only plant in the world that produces a “narcotic buzz”.
And remember, morphine not only relieves physical pain, but also mental pain and anguish. They would have felt euphoric after sampling a little opium which explains why opium elixirs were associated with religious ceremonies in the ancient world starting in the 6th Millennium B.C. at La Marmotta, Italy.
What makes the opium poppy special is not its seed oil, but its morphine content. The ancients had other seed oils they could use: flax, sesame, grape, olive and more. So if you claim that the opium poppies main use was for seed oil and its morphine content an afterthought, will you then say that the main use of grape or cotton crops was to “squeeze the seed” for the oil, and the pulpy fruit or cotton boles were secondary? Of course not. Then why do they attempt the same logic for the opium poppy?
The opium poppy, because it is a narcotic plant, has always been seen as a political hot potato. For many contemporary cultures saying that their ancestors used a narcotic drug for medicinal/recreational (religious) purposes is a truth best left unsaid. In fact, many Middle Eastern scholars claim opium is not even a subject worth study, even though many of these countries-Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan-historically and currently have produced massive amounts of opium. Unfortunately, the study of opium has been stunted by a “drug fiend” mentality.
Many archaeologists and archaeobotanists fail to understand that the discovery of opium was one of the most important discoveries of the ancient world. If you break your arm today and go to a modern hospital, you will be given morphine for the pain. In the roughly 13,000 years that the opium poppy was first found at Kortik Tepe in Turkey, not much has changed. An astounding fact in light of modern pharmaceuticals.
But an archaeological find around 4,000 B.C. will leave no doubt about how ancient people used the opium poppy. Hint: It wasn’t for the seeds.
Opium Revealed: The Variscite Mines of Can Tintorer
Near the azure waters of the Spanish Mediterranean near today’s Barcelona, the ancient miners of Gavá toiled for a semiprecious emerald gemstone coveted throughout the region-variscite. They were the variscite miners of Can Tintorer from the first half of the 4th Millennium B.C. 19
This Stone Age mining community used variscite to make beads, pendants and other jewelry which they would then trade to the regional community. But the mines had a dual purpose-they were also used to bury the dead.
Four bodies were exhumed: two men, presumably miners, one elderly female, and a female baby. One of the men had a double trapanation 20 to his skull. Surprisingly he survived both trapanations by at least six months as evidenced by the bone growth around the openings.21 Inside this man’s mouth, archaeobotanists made a startling find: he had debris and remains of a pod of the opium poppy…as if he’d been chewing one at the time of death. 22 His remains were exhumed and his bones tested positive for opiates. 23
The other male skeletal remains also tested positive for opiates. The female and baby tested negative.
There’s no doubt the man with a double trapanation (two holes in your head!) lived a life of great pain-whether as a result of the trapanations themselves or the reason why he was trapanated in the first place. (Trapanations were often used to allow evil spirits to escape, or to lessen pressure on the brain which was causing pain.) He was clearly dosing himself with morphine from the opium poppy to dull his pain.
Better proof of frequent opium use is the fact that narcotic opiates had seeped into the bones of these two men. This shows that they were frequently dosing themselves with opium’s morphine content. These two miners may well have been the first narcotic addicts ever.
The miners of Can Tintorer tell us that ancient peoples knew all about the opium poppy’s ability to kill pain and that it was used for this purpose. To persist in the fiction that the opium poppy was merely a “seed oil” is to deny clear evidence of narcotic usage.
The opium poppy stands alone as the only morphine producing plant in the world. Ask any modern-day heroin junkie and they will assure you of the power and seduction of this narcotic.
The Ancient Levant: The Magic Potions of Ebla
The ruins of ancient Ebla, located in today’s Syria. Photo Attribution: Klaus Wagensonner
The ancient Levant is the land of today’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. This region, specifically western Syria, played host to a sophisticated ancient culture called the Kingdom of Ebla. Ebla arose during the Bronze Age around the mid-4th Millennium B.C., reaching its peak power during the mid-3rd Millennium B.C. To the east of Ebla lived the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians. To the west, the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
Given such a strategic location, it shouldn’t surprise us that Ebla was a great trading kingdom acting as a middleman between the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. The people of Ebla also built a grand palace of brick architecture that rivaled their Sumerian and Babylonian neighbors.
The Ebla Palace encompassed nearly 4,500 square meters and had several parts: An administration area; a library of cuneiform tablets, quarters for the Royalty, a large public area named the Court of Audiences, a food kitchen, and a grand stairway which led to the public area. But it also had something else-Room L2890. Room L2890, as denoted by archaeologists, was a large, unique room that functioned as a “drug kitchen”. 24
Archaeologists nicknamed Room L2890 as the “Ebla Drug Kitchen” because of what was found inside. Within this large room were eight horseshoe shaped hearths, all in a single line, with pots that fit over the hearths to heat the contents. These containers were big enough to hold 15-30 gallons of liquid apiece. Archaeobotanists found plant remains of dozens of medicinal herbs, and also found remains of the opium poppy and euphorbia-a poisonous plant that if used in small amounts produces a mild hallucinogenic effect. 25
There was no evidence that this unusual kitchen was used for food preparation. No animal bones were found which are common in ancient kitchens, and only a small amount of non-medicinal plant material was found. Cuneiform tablets found at the Palace also suggested that these drug potions were mixed with alcohol (beer or wine), honey, or milk to make them more palatable. Cuneiform tablets also indicated that special priests were used in dispensing these potions. 26
The location of this drug kitchen also offers a clue. It is located very close, yet out of sight, to the public Court of Audiences. It appears that this kitchen prepared drug elixirs containing the opium poppy, euphorbia, possibly alcohol, and a variety of known medicinal plants over the eight built-in hearths. The 15-30 gallon jugs which the potions were kept, seems to indicated they were brewed for large groups-for people gathered at the Court of Audiences.
While we can’t say why the ancient Eblalites drank these potions, we can surmise that they were consumed in the Court of Audiences probably for religious purposes. In other words, recreational religious drug use not directly connected to any medicinal purpose.
This will not be the only time that the opium poppy will be found in an ancient “drug kitchen”. The opium poppy will appear again and yet again in these “kitchens”. The Palace of Ebla was only the first that archeologist have discovered.
Mesopotamia & The Hul-Gil Plant: A Myth?
Open almost any book about the history of opium and you will see it authoritatively stated the the Ancient Sumerians (c. 4th Millennium B.C.) grew the opium poppy and called it “Hul-Gil” or “Joy Plant”. This is a myth that has been debunked. 27 28
The error was made long ago by a researcher who had an imperfect knowledge of the Sumerian language and their cuneiform writing. He mistranslated a cuneiform to read “Joy Plant” where a more accurate translation is “Joy Cucumber”. He then jumped to the conclusion that the “Joy Plant” was the opium poppy. This error was repeated again and again by historians until it was accepted as fact. It wasn’t.
While it’s true that the Sumerian hul gil plant probably had nothing to do with the opium poppy, we can still ask the question if there is evidence of the opium poppy in ancient Sumer or Babylon.
There is no archaeobotanical evidence yet discovered of opium use by the Sumerians. Almost all the evidence I reference in this investigation is physical archaeobotanical and archaeological evidence. But in ancient Sumer, archaeologists and art historians have attempted to show opium use via art and sculpture-a difficult venture which probably creates more questions than answers.
The Mesopotamian relief sculpture below is a case in point. Some art historians will claim this king is holding in his hand opium poppies. Some archaeologists will say he is holding pomegranates. A brief discussion:
The crown of the plant being held is certainly far more like a pomegranate crown than an opium poppy crown. (Both have crowns.) The size of the bulb is perfect for a poppy head and rather small for a pomegranate. But ancient pomegranates were probably much smaller than today. The drooping stalks seem more representative of an opium poppy than the branches of a pomegranate tree. And lastly, the bulbs have linear marks on them. Pomegranates are smooth, but opium poppies are incised with similar cuts to extract the opium.
Poppies or pomegranates?
So does the above relief sculpture prove anything? Not really. It certainly is not proof of opium use by the Sumerians or Babylonians. And one other point: The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, like the Egyptians, were not great sculptures like the ancient Greeks. Mesopotamian art is highly stylized, while the ancient Greeks and Romans sought perfect reality. When the ancient Greeks or Romans depicted the opium poppy there is no mistaking it. (see photos below)
Photo top left: The Greek Goddess Demeter holding the opium poppy. Photo top right: Roman relief sculpture with animal god holding the opium poppy. Bottom Photo: The Goddess Demeter holding the opium poppy along with a sheaf of wheat.
With Roman or Greek ancient art, there is no doubt about the opium poppy being depicted. But with Mesopotamian art, it’s very much unclear.
There is no archaeobotanical evidence that the Sumerians cultivated opium poppies. But that may only mean that evidence such as plant remains or seeds have yet to be found. But plant remains and seeds are extremely difficult to find and verify, so what revelations scientists will bring in the future is unknown. Today’s archaeobotanists and chemists have brought us evidence about ancient crops that was impossible just twenty years ago. So stay tuned.
We can say with assuredness is that the Kingdom of Ebla did use opium in the mid-3rd Millennium B.C.; that they were a near neighbor to Ancient Sumer; and that Ebla specialized in trading throughout the region.
Opium Unleashed: The 2nd Millennium B.C.
In the 2nd Millennium B.C. (2000-1000 B.C.), opium accelerates across the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
In ancient Greece, the opium elixirs mekonion (poppy juice) and nepenthe (opium mixed in wine) were imbibed. 29Depictions of the Greek gods of sleep (Hypnos), dreams (Morpheus) and death (Thanos) were often adorned with opium poppies. 30 Even Demeter, Goddess of Mother Earth, is commonly depicted holding opium poppies. (See photos above in last section)
The ancient Egyptians were certainly using opium imported from Cyprus by c.1,500 B.C. 31 By 1,350 B.C., the legendary opium fields of Thebes were in full bloom for the pleasures of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. 32
The ancient trading mecca of Troy on the Anatolian Coast brought opium to all parts of the region. 33 The Trojans traded spices, perfumes, copper ingots, wine, olive oil and opium. 34
The ancient Minoans of Crete loved their opium and depicted lanced poppy heads on pottery. 35 And of course, nothing captures the character of opium more than the Minoan Poppy Queen, a statuette dated to c. 1300 B.C. (See above photo)
But the most ingenious ancient tradecraft in opium came from the small yet strategic Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It is not hyperbole in the least to describe the ancient Cypriots as the world’s first drug cartel. Not an indictment, simply a fact.
A Cypriot Narcotic Elixir: A Branded Opium Product
Photo left: an opium poppy pod. Photo right: Cypriot base-ring juglet c. 1500 B.C. Photo is from the original 1962 scientific article that hypothesized these juglets were modeled after the opium poppy and therefore contained opium. Chemical analysis has proved this to be true.
In 1962, a young, iconoclastic archaeologist, Robert Merrillees 36, published a scientific article in which he claimed that ancient Cyprus had imported an opium elixir into Egypt beginning c.1550 B.C. 37
Merrillees, an expert in ancient Cypriot pottery, noticed that a peculiar, small jug (a juglet) of Cypriot origins was being unearthed in Crete, ancient Greece, the Levant, and especially in the tombs of ancient Egypt. Several were also found in a “drug kitchen”, similar to the Ebla drug kitchen, in the ruins of an ancient palace in Tel Beth-Shemesh, Israel dated to c.1,400 B.C. 38
The diminutive size of these Cypriot juglets was an important clue for Merrillees. Many were approximately 14 centimeters tall by 7 centimeters wide. (5.5 inches x 2.5 inches) Merrillees correctly assumed that their tiny size meant that their contents was considered precious.
In his scientific paper he observed the obvious: These small Cypriot juglets were shaped to resemble the stem, pod and crown of the opium poppy. Merrillees went on the say that the juglets were so shaped to advertise their contents. Merrillees had discovered the first branded product in history! An opium elixir. These juglets have narrow necks so it would be impossible for the contents to be pure opium, a sticky substance with the consistency of putty. Merrillees theorized that the Cypriots, like the ancient Greeks with nepenthe and mekonion, were dissolving opium into a liquid to make an elixir that could be poured from the juglet.
It would take scientists 55 years to prove him right.
In the British Museum’s archaeological inventory of ancient Cypriot pottery there is the rarest of finds: a sealed Cypriot juglet (unopened) with its contents still inside. The very same juglet that Merrillees theorized held an opium elixir. In 2018, chemists from the University of York were given permission by the British Museum to tap this juglet to determine its contents. 39 40
In the past, empty juglettes had been tested for residual morphine 41, but morphine decomposes quickly and would never last 3,500 years. Others had scraped the interior of empty juglets and found no traces of narcotics. 42 But the York chemists were the first to sample the actual contents.
Through elaborate testing protocols, the York scientists found the opiates papaverine and thebaine inside the juglet. The contents were so badly degraded that the scientists could only give a qualitative result, not a quantitative result. In other words, they could unequivocally say that opium’s alkaloids were present, but they couldn’t say how much. Regardless, Robert Merrillees was proven right.
At roughly the same period that Cypriot juglets filled with an opium potion were being vigorously traded throughout the near Middle East, another opium discovery will take place far from the Mediterranean.
Margiana: Opium, Reefer, and Speed Balls
The ruins of Gonur Tepe in Margiana (today’s Turkmenistan).
No archaeologist personified the intrepid Indiana Jones more than Viktor Sarianidi (1929-2013). Adventurous, boastful, dedicated and despised, Sarianidi, born in Tashkent, held a faculty position at the University of Moscow, Department of Archaeology. It was Sarianidi who alone discovered the desolate ruins of Margiana located in Turkmenistan in 1972.
In the windswept, black sand desert of the Kara-Kum in today’s eastern Turkmenistan, lie the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Margiana. 43 A kingdom with grand palaces and temples that rivalled those of Sumer, Babylon and Ebla. Archaeologists have dated its heyday from c. 2,300 B.C. to c. 1,500 B.C. 44
Within the Margiana temples of Gonur (the capital), Togoluk-21, and Tememos Gonur, Sarianidi found kitchens similar to the “drug kitchen” of Ebla. 45 46 Rows of hearths with pots, strainers, cups, mortars & pestles, and cultish human and animal figurines were found in hidden rooms, plastered from floor to ceiling with white gypsum, just off from public courtyards.
The pots contained trace remains of cannabis, ephedra and opium. 47 48 49 Pots in the kitchen inside the Palace of Togoluk 21 tested positive for traces of both opium and ephedra. 50 Ephedrine is the active ingredient in making methamphetamine and comes from the ephedra plant. It seems these ancient denizens of Maargiana were cook’in up an original speedball.
A speedball is the mixture of heroin and cocaine which is then injected. Heroin users enjoy combining the effects of a depressant (heroin) with the effects of a stimulant (cocaine) When methamphetamines became available, heroin users combined heroin and meth for a more powerful “speedball.” This is exactly what the Temple priests were making in Margiana-an ancient speedball. Ask any junkie.
Also found in the areas of all three temple kitchens were narrow bone tubes (straws?), hollowed out and carved with strange motifs and eyes. 51 The interior of these bone tubes tested positive for trace remnants of opium. 52 Sarianidi thought these tubes were used as straws for drinking the drug cocktails. Similar bone tubes were found in Cyprus with similar motifs. 53 In 2015, a royal tomb at Gonur was excavated and more of these carved bone tubes were found. 54
The bone tubes that Sarianidi found in the drug kitchens of Margiana. Traces of the opium poppy were detected inside.
The Silk Roads & Ancient Commerce
Bactrian Camel: Beast of burden of the central Asian Silk Roads.
“Midnight at the OasisA song by Maria Muldaur
Send Your Camel to Bed”
Merv Oasis, Turkmenistan: The only thing tougher than the men of the ancient Silk Roads were their camels. And both had dispositions of piss and vinegar. Blinding sandstorms, scorched Earth, bandits, foul water, and always the chance of death just ahead… but the worries of an ancient caravanner were vanquished with a single thought-Merv Oasis.
Before Rome there was Merv-a bustling Silk Road oasis in the Kingdom of Margiana. Make it to Merv and your caravan was safe. Drink wine. Eat dates and roasted goat. Maybe smoke a bowl of opium to soothe aching bones. Exotic perfumes of musk and fragrant oils wafted in the market air. And the Mervan women-like a spring day in Paris.
Merv Oasis-crossroads of the ancient world.
We have now reached an important junction as we follow the opium trail to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. Opium has spread from the edges of the Mediterranean Sea-throughout northern Europe-Ancient Greece-Crete-Cyprus-Troy-the Levant-ancient Egypt, until we now gaze eastward on the Asian steppes of ancient Margiana in eastern Turkmenistan and Bactria (Afghanistan).
From eastern Turkmenistan, you can feel and sense China to the east. You are now in Asia. These Silk Roads could run eastward to Tibet and onward to Yunnan Province-the northern head of the Golden Triangle before going onward to ancient China. (Yunnan would not become part of China until well after 1,000 A.D.) These trading routes also had a northern route across the Taklamakan Desert to Xi’an, China. Regardless, Margiana lay at the Silk Roads that led directly to China.
David Christian, an expert on the ancient central Asian Silk Roads described their commercial importance.
“By the 2nd Millennium B.C. a trading route stretched clear across Asia; not a continuous road, to be traversed by any one person, but a chain of many trading links, connecting Western Asia and China over a distance of almost 5,000 miles.” 55
The Kingdoms of Margiana and Bactria lay at a crossroads of long-distance, ancient trade. The Silk Road(s) across central Asia connected Margiana and Bactria with China. Southwestward from Margiana and Bactria, the trading routes took you to ancient Persia, Egypt and Greece. Southeastward lies Ancient India. Margiana was a hub of world trade.
Turfan, Samarkand, Xingjiang, Bukara, Tashkent, Tashbulak, Merv…just a few of the stepping stone oases of the Silk Roads across the expanse of central Asia. From China came silks, tea, gunpowder, paper, millet, hemp and a panoply of high-end luxury goods such as gemstones, gold and silver. From the west through Margiana/Bactria the camels bore linens, wheat, grape wines, metals of tin and copper, fragrant oils, sesame, and more.
These central Asian Silk Roads were teaming with agricultural crops along with the plants and seeds themselves. 56 Plants and certainly seeds were easy to carry-far easier than a load of copper ingots or timber. And the crops grown in the Levant, Mesopotamia or Ancient Greece were of intense interest to the Chinese and vica-versa.
It’s even possible that Margiana/Bactria traded directly with ancient China. 57 Chinese silks were found in Bactria as long ago as 2,000 B.C. 58 and maybe earlier. 59 By 150 B.C., Chinese silk was commonly traded in ancient Greece. 60 The breadth and reach of Chinese trade in ancient times cannot be underestimated.
Was the opium poppy or even opium itself traded along these central Asian Silk Roads? The seeds are tiny dots, and opium latex leaves nothing to find. Archaeobotanists have found poppy seeds at ancient Tashbulak in today’s Uzbekistan and few other smaller oasis stepping stones, but it’s inconclusive as to whether it’s the opium poppy. 61
The Golden Triangle: A Part of the Silk Roads
Don’t underestimate the Silk Roads of Central Asia to carry trade items to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, even in a round-about manner. Bronze came to the Golden Triangle by such a route. Bronze was first trundled across the Central Asian Silk Road to China during the 2nd Millennium B.C. and then brought into Siam by Shang Dynasty (1,800 B.C.-200 B.C.) merchants. 62
But there is another Silk Road, maybe older than the Central Asian Silk Road, that leads directly through the Golden Triangle-the Southwest Silk Road. This Silk Road connected China and India, along with Southeast Asia. This trading route wound through northeastern India and Assam through today’s Bangladesh through Burma-the heart and soul of today’s Golden Triangle-then northward to Yunnan and onward to China.
This is the Silk Road that brought Buddhism to Siam. Did it also bring opium?
Opium & Ancient India
Harrapan ruins c. 3rd Millennium B.C.
The Harappan culture of the Indus Valley (northwestern India) is an ancient civilization that lasted from c. 3,000 B.C. until c. 1,200 B.C. 63 This civilization stretched from the Arabian Sea north to today’s Pakistan and as far east as Delhi. Its contemporaries and neighbors were Ebla of the Levant, Sumer and Babylon of Mesopotamia, and Margiana/Bactria of central Asia-all probable opium consumers.
Opium poppy seeds (papaver somnifera) have been recovered from the Harappan ruins of Sanghol dated to between 1,900 B.C. to 1,400 B.C. 64 More poppy seeds were found in ancient Kashmir (India’s most northern province which borders China.) and dated to c. 2,700 B.C.-c. 2,000 B.C. 65 The Kashmir poppy seeds can’t be positively identified, but it’s likely they are the opium poppy.
As an “opium detective” of the Golden Triangle, it brings a rye smile to my face to find the opium poppy in ancient Harappan society. If we fast forward our time machine from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 19th Century A.D., this same area will be the #1 producer of opium in the world. Indian opium will be forced upon China (the British Opium Wars) creating millions of addicts which in turn will spur the Golden Triangle to become the largest producer of opium for much of the latter 20th century. But I digress….
India Trades Opium with the Near East
Ancient India traded extensively with its neighbors across the Arabian Sea, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Bactria/Margiana. The Harappans were international traders second to none. 66Since the mid-2nd Millennium B.C., goods from the Mediterranean came eastward to India, while goods from China came through India and continued onward. 67
P.N. Chopra, Indian historian and author of many books about Indian history writes about the ancient trade between the Arabian Sea region, Mesopotamia and India :
“[Indian ships] carried such Indian products as perfumes and spices, cotton and silk, shawls and muslin, pearls and rubies, brocades of silver and gold to Arabia and Mesopotamia. Arabia, on its part, sent back coral, quick silver, vermillion, lead, gold, rose water, saffron, as well as opium of superior quality.” 68
So not only are opium poppy seeds found in ancient India, but that opium itself was being imported from the west and brought eastward into India and in all likelihood onward toward the Golden Triangle and China.
The Southwest Silk Road: India>the Golden Triangle>China
The Southwest Silk Roads between India and China ran through the Golden Triangle (red shaded area).
The Southwest Silk Roads encompassed a trading network from China, throughout Southeast Asia, and India. Many Chinese scholars believe that this well-worn warren of caravan routes predates the more famous Silk Roads of central Asia. 69
When Zhang Qian, the Han Chinese trade ambassador, reached Margiana/Bactria in 125 B.C., he was amazed to find fabric from southwest China (Szehuan) already there. When he asked his Bactrian hosts how did they get this fabric, they replied it came from Shendu, meaning India. In other words, this fabric was exported from China through the Southwest Silk Road to India, and from India it was sent northwestward to Margiana/Bactria.
The possibility that the Southwest Silk Roads were older and more robust than the central Asian Silk Roads should not surprise us. Stop a spinning globe on Myanmar (Burma) and you’ll appreciate the proximity of India and China. These two ancient civilizations were natural trading partners. China had silk and much more, while India had cotton along with all the other luxury goods from the Near East and Mediterranean. 70
Yunnan: The Northern Golden Triangle
Critical to the Southwest Silk Road is Yunnan. Today it is China’s most southern province and Yunnan’s southern half is an important part of the Golden Triangle. Even today, it’s demographics, commerce, cuisines, languages and trade have far more in common with Burma, Laos and northern Thailand than with the east coast of China. In ancient times, Yunnan was not part of China. For the Shang, Zhou and Han Dynasties (c. 1,600 B.C.- A.D. 200), Yunnan was the stepping stone to ancient India.
From Yunnan head south through Burma and cross into Assam to India and avoid the Himalayas. Or better yet, head south from Yunnan through Burma and follow the Salween River to the Gulf of Martaban on the Indian Ocean, where you join up with the Maritime Silk Road and an easy sailing to India. 71
From China by carravan, the best way to get to India is to first reach Yunnan and then turn south through the Golden Triangle.
Opium and the Southwest Silk Road
Opium was carried and traded along the Southwest Silk Road. 72 Bin Yang, an expert of the Southwest Silk Road wrote:
If time were omitted, commercial articles in the Southwest Silk Road included shell, jade, precious stones, elephant tusks, horses, lumber, cloth, herbs, spices, salt, tea, gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, cotton, silk, and opium.” 73
Although we can now say that opium from India travelled along the Southwestern Silk Road and therefore would have entered the Golden Triangle from a southerly direction, we still must discern when. A few critical facts will help give us a working timeline as to when opium first appeared in this region.
Critical facts: 1. Opium poppy seeds has been found in the Indus Valley dated to c. 2,000 B.C.-c. 1,400 B.C. 74 2. Opium itself, among many other luxuries goods, was traded between the ancient Middle East and India since at least c. 1st Millennium B.C. 75 3. The opium poppy has inexorably moved eastward after spreading throughout Europe in the 4th Millennium B.C. 4. Opium and/or its seeds would be considered a luxury trade item that would be very profitable and easy to transport thereby making it a desired trading commodity.
Given everything we know about the opium poppy and opium, it seems reasonable to surmise that opium/opium poppy was carried eastward along the Southwest Silk Road no later than the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.) while these trade routes were booming, and possibly a full millennium earlier.
Ancient Indian Trade to Siam: Buddhism-Seeds-Beads
Harappan carnelian beads from India. These beads began appearing in Siam c. 500 B.C. (Photo: The British Museum)
Chatuchak Market, Bangkok: Sprawling, crowded and smelly. You can find anything here, even an “antiques” area that offers purported ancient artifacts.
And here you’ll find the bead traders. While the sale of antiquities may violate Thai law, the bead traders don’t have to worry. Thai authorities consider ancient beads found in Thailand to be of minor archaeological importance and allow the trade.
Peruse through the trays of beads. Mostly cheap glass beads. But if you know the indicia of ancient drilling and polishing techniques, you can still get lucky and find a bead that is thousands of years old. From graverobber to you.
These ancient beads are the remnants of a robust trade dynamic between ancient India and Siam. A trade dynamic that brought Buddhism, cuisine and art and culture over the Southwest Silk Road.
Trade between ancient India and Siam goes back into prehistory and no one can specifically pinpoint when it began. But scholars do seem to roughly agree that trade between the two regions was in full swing by at at least the 4th Century B.C. if not earlier. 76
The best example of ancient trade between India and Siam is cotton. India domesticated cotton c. 2,500 B.C. 77 and by the 1st Millenium B.C. it was a coveted commodity everywhere. Cotton fabric remnants have been found at prehistoric sites throughout Siam including the Bronze Age village of Ban Chiang near Udon Thani. 78 Cotton has been dated in Siam as far back as c. 400 B.C. 79 India was probably exporting cotton textiles to China via the Golden Triangle far earlier.
Other agricultural crops imported into Siam via India in the Pre-Christian Era were rice80 , tamarind, sesame, horsegram (an ancient crop no longer cultivated), pigeon pea (still grown in the Golden Triangle by a few Hill Tribes), and the beloved mung bean of current Thai cuisine. 81 82
Archaeobotanists have traced an eastward flow of domesticated plants along the Southwest Silk Road from India to Thailand just as they have detected the movement of domesticated plants along the Central Asian Silk Roads. Therefore, wouldn’t the opium poppy or opium itself have travelled eastward through India into Siam just like cotton or mung beans?
Buddhism originated in India c. 600 B.C. 83 and poured over the Southwest Silk Road to Southeast Asia and China. Buddhism would become the state religion of China in the 3rd Century A.D. 84
In ancient Siam, the Dvaravati Kingdom of Mon origins rose in the first half of the 1st Millennium A.D. and they were a Buddhist culture. The Dvaravati spread through most of central Siam. Walk into any Thai Wat today and the artwork you see inside-paintings, statuary, architecture, even the Nagas that guard the entrances, are Indian in origin.
The state of Yonok of northern Siam began c. mid-1st Millennium B.C. and was preceded the Lanna Kingdom. Yonok was the first organized political entity within today’s Golden Triangle. They practiced Buddhism. 85
The flow of culture from India into Siam was so strong that by the Mid-1st Millennium, the early kingdoms of Siam were practicing Buddhism and creating religious art strongly influenced by Indian culture. The cultural current that flowed from India to Siam via the Southwest Silk Road was strong-strong enough to easily carry opium in its current..
Ancient Beads 86
Top photo: Harappan necklace c. 2500 B.C. Made of carnelian (red), lapis lazuli (purple), and gold. Bottom photo: carnelian beads c. 2500 B.C. (Photo attribution: British Museum) Harappan beads have been found all over Siam.
Ancient beads reveal the India/Siam cultural exchange better than any other example during the time that the opium poppy was moving across the world.
Thousands if not tens-of-thousands of beads, dated from roughly the 3rd Millennium B.C. to 500 B.C. have been found from Margiana to Mesopotamia to all across Southeast Asia including Siam. The Harappan of the Indus Valley made the vast majority. Archaeologists have even found the production sites in the Indus Valley. The carnelian stone in the area is the finest in the world.
The Harappan were the jewelers of the ancient world. Beads of carnelian, quartz, glass, agate, lapis, gold and silver were cut, chipped, shaped, heated and polished into pendants, tubes, spheres, ovals. Their bracelets and necklaces were admired from ancient Greece, to Siam and southeast Asia. And no coincidence, they were voracious traders.
In Siam, thousands of beads have been found at the Bronze Age site of Ban Don Ta Phet located west of Bangkok near Chantaburi. 87 The Harappan bead trade started c. mid-1st Millennium B.C. and lasted until about 500 A.D.
Again, India is exporting a form of art (jewelry) into Siam. Wouldn’t these ancient Indian traders have brought the opium poppy too? We know the ancient Indians had opium and traded opium with their Western neighbors. Wouldn’t the Indian opium trade have continued into Siam, following an eastward course as it had for 2,000 years prior?
Buddha, Seeds & Beads
These three commodities that represent religion, cuisine and a high-end status commodity (jewelry) tell us that trade between India and Siam was highly developed between 500 B.C.-500 A.D. Indian trade penetrated deep into Siamese Bronze Age culture.
Did the Harappan or other traders also bring opium or the opium poppy via India to ancient Siam also?
Opium: Siam & the Golden Triangle
Unlike India, no opium poppy seeds have been found in the Bronze Age sites of Thailand. There is no known indicia of opium being imported from India to Siam. The historical record is void until King Ramatibodi, first king of the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya banned opium use in 1360 A.D. 1360 A.D.! Remember, India had been growing and trading opium since c. 2,000 B.C. Did it really take over 3,300 years for opium to travel from India to Ayutthaya in Siam?
Although we have more than a 3,000 year gap between evidence of the opium poppy in India and its appearance in Siam, we nonetheless can venture a sound hypothesis as to when the opium poppy first came to Siam and the Golden Triangle. Let’s examine undisputed facts:
Opium: Opium latex is collected and formed into either balls or bricks of approximately 1 kilogram. A 1 kilogram ball is about 5 inches in diameter and it’s often wrapped in a plant leaf. That is how it is collected and transported today in the Golden Triangle and there’s no reason to believe that 5,000 years ago anything was greatly different.
Such a commodity as a small ball or brick of opium is tailor-made for transport along the ancient Silk Roads: much lighter than copper or iron; very compact and durable; opium does not spoil or lose its narcotic potency; it would be considered a luxury item, and as a luxury item would have brought “bartering power” to the traders that carried it.
Poppy Seeds: For all the reasons that opium would be a prized trading commodity, its seeds even more so. The seeds take up no cargo space. And given the transport of other seed crops from India to Siam, it is reasonable to consider that the opium poppy was part of the India-to-Siam agricultural trade.
Morphine: The opium poppy is a narcotic plant-the only one. There is no other plant that even comes close to its analgesic properties. Ancient civilizations knew opium abated pain and created eurphoria. The ancients of Ebla, Margiana, and probably Egypt used opium in religious ceremonies because of its morphine content. Papaver Somnifera was (is) a special plant that even today is one of the most important drugs in our pharmacopeia.
There is no doubt that opium/opium poppy would have been a desired commodity along the Silk roads. Its medicinal and religious uses would have made it a sought-after trade item. There is also no doubt that opium is a compact, easy to transport commodity. Add both these facts together and it’s easy to envision opium being a prized commodity along the Southwest Silk Roads.
The Golden Triangle and the “Cotton” Road to China
Ancient Siam, as well as the entire Southeast Asian region were interconnected with trading routes, both land and maritime. 88 These trading routes were part of the Southwest Silk Road network that connected China, Siam and the Golden Triangle, and India. 89Trade from India to China via the Southwest Silk Road was fully mature by c. 500 B.C. 90
From Bengal (northeast India), traders had choices on which routes to take to Siam or China. Overland from Bengal to Assam (extreme northeastern India) to Myanmar and then northeast to Yunnan. Or take a partial maritime route: from Bengal hug the coastline of the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Martaban (Myanmar), then proceed north overland following the Salween river to Yunnan. Yunnan is the stepping stone to ancient China. Both of these routes takes you through the Golden Triangle.
These are the very routes used by Indian traders to send cotton fabrics to China since at least the mid-1st Millennium B.C. 91 By 400 B.C. these trading routes were busy and lucrative.
The Opium Poppy Comes to Yunnan
Our journey with the opium poppy started at Kortik Tepe, near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea c. 12,000 B.C. In one of the first agricultural settlements of humankind, the opium poppy was present. We observed its spread across Europe in Neolithic times. In the 2nd Millennium B.C., opium trade explodes throughout Crete, Cyprus, Troy, Ancient Greece, Egypt, the Levant and Bractria/Margiana. The opium poppy shows up in India c. 2,000 B.C. Opium itself is brought to India by Arab traders and becomes a trading commodity c. 1st Millenium B.C. And finally we know that opium was carried along the Southwest Silk Road.
Given the above facts, it seems reasonable that the opium poppy from India continued eastward to China in a logical and predictable manner, especially since the trading routes were open and secure.
There are simply no facts to support a theory that the migration of the opium poppy eastward stalled in India (or Margiana) for at least a millenium before resuming its eastward journey to China.
The facts lead us to a high probability that the opium poppy or opium itself first came to Southeast Asia, the Golden Triangle and Yunnan no later than c. 500-400 B.C. The opium poppy simply followed a well-worn caravan route that connected India and China via the Golden Triangle.
Opium Comes to China
Many scholarly articles published in respected academic journals will repeat that opium first came to China in c. 700-900 A.D., brought by Arab traders sailing through the Straits of Molucca and then north to China’s east coast. These historians give no reasons as to why the Chinese opium trade started in the latter half of the 1st Millennium A.D. or why it followed this route. It’s merely stated with little or no explanation.
While I have no doubt that opium traded via the Moluccan Spice Road in the second half of the 1st Millennium A.D., it probably would have been Chinese mariners returning from the Moluccan Straits who brought opium to the east coast of China, not Arab traders.
But was the Moluccan Spice Road the first route by which opium came to China?
The Spice Road & Opium
The Spice Routes were the maritime routes that tied together the eastern Indian coast with Southeast Asia as far south as the Moluccan Straits where the Spice Islands are located. These maritime routes had been developed and expanded since c. 2nd Millennium B.C. and worked in unison with the older land routes known as the Silk Roads.
The maritime Spice Routes grew in importance for three reasons: 1. Demand. As the world developed a taste for spices-pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, saffron, mace, and cumin-demand became insatiable. 2. Technology. Sailing methods dramatically improved over the 1st Millennium A.D. making long distance sailing faster, safer, cheaper. 3. Spices are easy to transport and highly profitable (just like opium).
The Spice Routes did not suddenly appear in 700 A.D. These maritime routes had been established bit by bit as far back as at least a millennium before, and of course the Silk Roads (land routes) were established even earlier. Spices and other luxury goods had been carried along the more ancient Silk roads to China long before the Spice trade through the Moluccan Straits in the latter half of the 1st Millennium A.D.
So claiming opium first came to China circa 700 A.D. begs the question “why?” If opium was successfully traded to China in 700 A.D., then why wasn’t it traded earlier, much earlier?
700 A.D.: An Insignificant Date?
If you claim opium first came to China c. 700 A.D. by Arab traders then an explanation is needed. Why so late in time? Why was the opium poppy/opium not traded with China until the latter 1st Millennium A.D. when ancient India (the Harappan) and Bactria/Margiana had the opium poppy in the 2nd Millennium B.C.? India and Bactria/Margiana were trading partners with ancient China. All other commodities and luxury goods were traded freely. Why not opium?
The Silk Roads and many maritime routes were well established and busy by 500 B.C., if not 2,000 B.C. Opium was a well established trading commodity since the mid-2nd Millennium B.C. Why did the traders wait until 700 A.D. when they had the means to transport this lucrative commodity into China easily by c. 500 B.C. if not before? (That’s a 1,200 year gap!)
I have yet to find any scholarly studies that attempt to answer this basic question. Much like the hul gil plant of the ancient Sumerians that scholars erroneously claimed to be the opium poppy, the date of 700 A.D. for the introduction of opium into China seems to be based on merely repeating what someone wrote before, and not on any verified evidence or analysis.
Telltale Opium in China?
In the annals of ancient Chinese medicine, two doctors are credited with the first development of surgery: Pien Ch’iao who lived c. 255 B.C. and Hua T’o who lived c. 190 A.D.92 And of course to perform surgeries, these surgeons needed an anesthesia powerful enough to keep a patient fully sedated while the body is being cut open.
Pien Ch’iao is credited with successfully completing a heart transplant among other surgeries, and while the story of his successful heart transplant is no doubt apocryphal, the description of the anesthesia he commonly used for other surgeries sounds suspiciously like it contained morphine-the active ingredient of opium. He gave his patients a drugged wine (Remember the ancient Greek opium elixir nepenthe.) which made them appear dead during surgery, only to awaken a day or two later.
Surgeon Hua T’o picked up where Pien Ch’iao left off. He was a remarkable surgeon/scientist who kept accurate records of his patients, treatment, and importantly his recipe for the anesthesia he used. Unfortunately, his original records were destroyed. Later medical histories of Hua T’o and his surgeries were preserved in the Wei Annals written in the first half of the 1st Millennium A.D.
A passage from the Wei Annals about Hua T’o and the anesthesia he used:
“Sickness when culminated deep in the body, and its symptoms beyond the realm of medicinal treatment, those patients who need surgical operations, Hua T’o never failed to have dosed in almost all occasions a medicine called Ma Fei San. And after a little while, the patients appeared deceased and numb as if drunk and knew nothing. Accordingly the surgeon extracted by splitting open the suffered portions, the causality of the sickness.” 93
And more from the Wei Annals and Hua T’o:
“Sickness when its symptom being beyond the realm of medicinal treatment, Hua T’o made the patients imbibe with spirits a medicine called Ma Fei San, the patients grew in a second completely intoxicated and knew nothing.” 94
Was Ma Fei San an opiate based anesthesia? There is only one drug of the ancient pharmacopeia powerful enough to anesthetize a patient during surgery-morphine. And there is only one source for morphine then and now-opium.
Some scholars have attempted to explain Ma Fei San as a marijuana based anesthesia. 95 Such articles devolved into a naive “reefer madness” narrative and fail to understand the vast difference between marijuana and morphine. Marijuana is a mild eurphoric that has little to no analgesic properties. Marijuana and wine can not anesthetize a patient for the purposes of surgery, or anything else for that matter. Imagine going to a dentist for a root canal and being offered marijuana and wine as the only anesthesia.
Scientific knowledge about morphine and its properties along with logic suggest strongly the Hua T’o’s Ma Fei San was an opiate based anesthesia.
Ancient Roman Surgeons
At roughly the same time that Hua-T’o and Pien Ch’iao are performing surgeries in China, Roman surgeons are also performing surgeries and using opium as the active ingredient for their anesthesia. 96
Ancient Rome had a dire need for an anesthesia powerful enough to keep a patient sedated during surgery. Legions of Roman soldiers were maimed and injured yearly in military operations, and these soldiers needed to be “stitched up” and returned to active service. Rome actually had hospitals with surgical units dating at least (and probably before) to the 1st Century B.C. 97
Roman anesthesia used opium also mixed in wine. The fact that Chinese and Roman surgeons mixed a narcotic with wine is no coincidence. Alcohol increases the sedative effect of opium and makes it an even more powerful anesthesia.
The use by the Romans of opium as an anesthesia is fact. The use by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty is opinion. But given the interconnectivity of world trade by the time of the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.-200 A.D.) it seems apparent that Chinese surgeons knew what their Roman counterparts knew-that opium, and only opium, had the power to keep a patient sedated during surgery.
3rd Century B.C. or 700 A.D. ?
If you insist that opium first came to China c. 700 A.D., then you will be hard-pressed to explain why. But if you theorize that opium first came to China no later than the 3rd Century B.C. (and probably earlier) you will have a panoply of facts to support your theory-the maturation of both the maritime and land routes from Rome to China at this time; the opium trade in ancient India and Bactria/Margiana; and the fact that opium would be a luxury item highly suited to the caravan trade.
It seems highly likely that China knew of and used opium in the 3rd Century B.C. Maybe much earlier.
Conclusions, Thoughts & Opinions
The study of the ancient use of opium is unfortunately riven with a contemporary political correctness. Scholars, especially from authoritarian countries, seem reluctant to even touch the subject fearing that an admission of ancient opium use is morally derogatory to these ancient societies. Why else would scholars persist in claiming the opium poppy a seed oil crop when all evidence points to it being used as a narcotic?
Making matters worse is the chaotic state of archaeology. Early archaeologists had little interest in Neolithic or Bronze Age seeds or crops. They wanted to find pottery, jewelry, sculpture and graves and architecture. Many early archeological digs used bulldozers and heavy machinery to disassemble a pile of ruins. (Try finding a poppy seed with a bulldozer!) Critical botanical evidence was probably destroyed by the early archaeological digs.
The archaeobotanists are the heroes of this opium story. Through their painstaking and detailed work, they have recovered poppy seeds and plant material that is crucial in telling the true story of opium’s journey around the world. But far more work needs to be done. Only a small fraction of important sites have been excavated for the purpose of discovering ancient seed crops.
This whirlwind tour of opium through the ancient world relies mostly on archaeobotanical evidence. It has opened a door to ancient opium use that didn’t exist 25 years ago. I look forward to more botanical evidence coming forward in the years to come.
Chinese Archaeology and Scholarship
There is a wealth of evidence and findings by Chinese scholars and archaeologists that remain out of reach of almost everyone. Chinese scholars have researched and studied in depth the Silk Roads and what commodities were traded. But these studies remain untranslated and many unpublished. Researchers as myself, do not have access to these important studies.
There needs to be a concerted effort to translate and publish these Chinese scientific papers.
The “Just Stop” List
- Stop demonizing opium. It is probably the most important pharmaceutical discovery ever and has benefited mankind since antiquity until today.
- Stop claiming that the opium poppy’s primary purpose was as a seed oil crop. It wasn’t. The ancients knew of its narcotic properties and used opium as such.
- Stop claiming that the ancient Sumerians had cuneiform tablets which referenced the opium poppy as the hul gil plant in the 4th Millennium B.C. It’s a myth.
- Stop claiming that Alexander the Great brought opium to India in 330 B.C. Opium seeds have been found in India dating back to c. 2,000 B.C.
- Stop claiming that opium first came to China in 700-900 A.D. There is nothing to support this other than repeating what others have claimed.
When did the opium poppy first come to the Golden Triangle? Answer: Probably circa 400 B.C. when the Southwest Silk Roads were open and bustling between India and China. The latest arrival of opium would have been during the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.) and the earliest arrival could easily date back to 1,000 B.C.
This first opium/opium poppy would have gone to Yunnan and literally taken root. Through the ensuing centuries, the numerous ethnic groups of Yunnan migrated south into the Golden Triangle bringing the opium poppy with them.
When did the opium poppy/opium first come to China? Answer: Probably during the Han Dynasty by the latest, and possibly as early as the mid-2nd Millennium B.C. It is probable that Margiana and Bactria, both opium-using societies as early as the mid-2nd Millennium B.C.-traded opium along the central Asian Silk Roads that connected these Asian kingdoms with China.
India could have also traded the opium poppy/opium to China via the Southwest Silk Road with a time frame identical to the Golden Triangle and Yunnan: that is no later than the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.-200 A.D.) and possibly as early as the beginning of the 1st Millennium B.C.
The central Asian Silk Roads and the Southwest Silk Roads into China were bustling from 400 B.C. onward and there is no reason why opium/opium poppy were not one of the commodities traded.
- See: “Portrait of a Golden Triangle Opium Farmer“
- Papaver bracteatum will produce thebaine and trace amounts of morphine; but only papaver somnifera produces morphine in quantity.
- Aytac Coskun, et al, “New Results on the Younger Dryas Occupation at Kortik Tepe” Neolithics 1/12, The Newsletter of S.W. Asian Neolithic Research, page 29
- M. Benz, et al “Prelude to Village Life Environmental Data and Building Traditions of the Settlement at Kortik Tepe in S.E. Turkey” Paleorient (Annee, 2015) Page 16
- Laurent Bouby, et. al., “Early Neolithic Agricultural Diffusion in Western Mediterranean: An Update of Archaeobotanical data in S.W. France” PLoS ONE 15(4), e0230731
- Science Magazine, Vol. 360 Issue 6386 (April 20, 2018
- Mordechai Kislev, el. al., “Archaeobotanical and archaeoentomological evidence from a well at Atlit-Yam indicates coast during the PPNC period”, Journal of Archeological Science, Vol. 31, Issue 9 (Sept., 2004)
- Lydia Zapata, et. al., “Early Neolithic Agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula”, Journal of World Prehistory, Vol 18 No 4, (Dec. 2004)
- M.D. Merlin, “Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World”, Economic Botany, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003)
- See also: Aurelie Salavert, et. al., “Direct dating reveals the early history of opium poppy in Western Europe”, Scientific Reports #10, Article No. 20263 (2020) This study dates the La Marmotta find at 5,500 B.C., although most studies use the date 5800 B.C.
- Sue Colledge and James Connolly, “The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in S.W. Asia and Europe” (Routlege, 2016)
- Merlin, “Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World”, Page 302
- David Hollander and Timothy Howe, A Companion to Ancient Agriculture, Page 481 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020)
- Marian Berihuete-Azorin, et. al., “Punk’s not dead. Fungi for tinder at the Neolithic site of La Draga”, PLOS ONE (April 25, 2018)
- Elisa Guerra Doce, “The Origins of Inebriation: Archeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia” Journal of Archeological Method and Theory (March, 2014)
- Merlin, “Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use n the Old World”
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