Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Proto-Sticky-Icky: Ancient Cannabis

    I mentioned in my last post that Indo-European speakers might have become rich through selling horses, and recruitment to Indo-European-speaking groups might have seemed like a good prospect for members of other groups.  But it's possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling other products, including, perhaps, intoxicants.

    Studies of modern cannabis plants show that the plant originated in what is now Kazakhstan, an area that was probably colonised by speakers of some variant of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) before the arrival of the modern-day Turkic population.  PIE speakers were probably aware of the plant.  The etymology of the word cannabis is a little confused (and so is that article - given the subject matter, maybe that's to be expected), but several academics have suggested that the name goes back to PIE.  Indo-European-speaking people on the steppes, like the Scythians, were definitely partaking in Herodotus' time (ca. 5th century BCE).  In The Histories 4:73-75, Herodotus gives an account of what is probably the earliest attested example of hotboxing:
Now, hemp grows in Scythia, a plant resembling flax, but much coarser and taller.  It grows wild as well as under cultivation, and the Thracians make clothes from it very like linen ones... [The Scythians] take some hemp seeds, creep into the [sealed tent], and throw the seed on to the hot stones.  At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour-bath one could find in Greece.  The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure.  This is their substitute for an ordinary bath in water, which they never use.
    The Scythians also liked to get drunk on wine poured from the skulls of their defeated enemies - there's hedonism, and then there's Scythian hedonism.

    Andrew Sherratt has suggested that Indo-European speakers might have traded pot with the Near East.  The Sumerian name for the herb is kunibu.  The Greek is kannabis (from which Latin cannabis), and the proto-Germanic is *hanapiz/*hanipiz - whence "hemp".  The Greek and Germanic names are clearly related, and the Sumerian one seems too close to be coincidental (as do the Assyrian and even Hebrew names, which make most sense as loans from Sumerian, but maybe it was also in the other direction).  So there was probably a connection, but it's uncertain whether it was a loan from PIE to Sumerian or vice versa - and if it was the former, then it's also uncertain as to whether or not it's a loan from the Uralic languages.

    Finnish, Saami, and Hungarian are examples of extant Uralic languages.  The Proto-Uralic homeland (in the Urals, obviously) was geographically adjacent to the Indo-European homeland, and the the two families developed at around the same time.  They influenced each other, and there are quite a few clear loans from PIE into Uralic (and a few possible ones in the other direction).  To give an example of this from David Anthony's book, the Proto-Uralic word for water is *wete, from PIE *wed-er/en.  Maybe Uralic speakers, whose homeland is east of the Ural mountains and therefore closer to the home of cannabis than the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, gave the plant to the speakers of PIE, and gave them their word as well - *kéne ('hemp') combined with *piš ('nettle, to burn').  Maybe.

    Either way, Anthony thinks that Sherratt might be onto something in suggesting that Indo-European-speaking people traded THC-laden hemp from the steppes all the way down into the Near Eastern cities, which were naturally a major centre for trade from all over Eurasia.  Anthony notes that Sumerian was a dead language by 1700 BCE (although it continued to be commonly used in rituals in Babylonia for at least another thousand years); if the terms are related, then Indo-European-speaking traders must have been in contact with the Near East before this.  And if they did bring marijuana down from the Eurasian steppes into the urban cities of Babylonia, then they did it riding on horses and fast-moving chariots, both new to Near-Easterners.

    If this scenario is right, then to the people of Babylon the arrival of Indo-European speakers must have seemed like one crazy dream

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    This post has been featured in a book by Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis - The Indo-European Controversy, CUP 2015. I posted my thoughts on its inclusion here.

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