Afghan Landraces: Nikolai Vavilov and the Indica Question

The greatest hashish-producing region in the world, both in terms of quantity and quality, was once Central Asia. This is where the innovation of dry-sieving hashish most likely originated, in Turkestan, a tract that stretches more than two thousand miles from the deserts of Xinjiang in Northwest China to the eastern shore of the Caspian. In its nineteenth-century hashish heyday, Turkestan’s ancient Silk Road centres such as Bukhara, Balkh, and Yengisar were renowned for the fine quality of their Cannabis resin. At the time, Xinjiang, known also as Chinese Turkestan, was widely believed to be the world’s largest hashish exporter.

On his 1924 expedition to Turkestan and Afghanistan, the Russian botanist and Cannabis expert Nikolai Vavilov observed that the landraces cultivated for hashish in Afghanistan were “evidently brought from Central Asia.” These strains were large-leaved and heavily branched from their base up, a morphology that Vavilov regarded as typically Turkestani. According to Vavilov, cultivation in 1920s Afghanistan was mainly found in the north, notably in Herat and Turkestan provinces, near Kabul and Charikar, and around Faizabad in Badakshan, though he also reported some production further south, around Achin and Kandahar. According to Vavilov, the Afghan landraces of this era were all “directly related” to Central Asian Cannabis. Crucially, their leaves were large due to the length of their leaflets, which were long, not broad.

[Edit: Please see the new study by McPartland and Small for accurate details on the morphology of Vavilov’s Afghan landrace accessions. It seems they in fact exhibited Indica-type leaves. (18/04/2020)]

On The Real Seed Company site, landraces collected in the northern region of Afghanistan once known as Afghan Turkestan are grouped in the Central Asian category, which currently puts them together with a landrace that’s likely of Kazakh origin. The morphology of this group of Afghan landraces appears to conform more closely to Vavilov’s concept of Turkestani types than to the stereotypical Indica-type plants widely believed by aficionados and experts to typify Cannabis from Afghanistan. Afghan Turkestan (known also as Turkestan province) centred on the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, nearby which is the ancient Silk Road centre of Balkh. The landrace known to Afghan farmers today as Mazari, Mazar-i-Sharif or Balkhi conforms nicely to Vavilov’s Turkestani type, as do the recent accessions from Balkh, Tashkurgan, and Sheberghan.

Volunteer Afghan landrace, Balkh Province, northern Afghanistan, early summer 2019