The History of Hemp, Part 1: 12,000 BCE-1553 CE
We’re trying something a little different with the Apotheca blog. While Apotheca is typically your source for the latest CBD research and hemp industry news, over the next few months we’re going to look back on the history of the cannabis plant [ed note: the division between hemp and marijuana is a relatively new concept given the scope of this project, which is something we’ll address in a later installment. When the type of plant isn’t known, we’ll use “cannabis” as a catch-all term]. We’re going to track how its use and regulation evolved over time from its first recorded use 12,000 years ago to today.
The reason we’re taking the time to do this is twofold: one, we’re going to show you how the oil tinctures you take every day are part of a tradition that stretches from prehistoric Asia to today. Second, we believe that knowing history gives us an important perspective on the future and a valuable reflection on the successes and mistakes of people before us. The United States cannabis industry appears to be at a crucial turning point that makes understanding context crucial as we take a collective step forward.
In this first blog, we’ll cover some ancient history and track Cannabis sativa as it spread from Asia to Europe. In part two we’ll explore the influence hemp had on early American history. Part three sees the rise of “Reefer Madness,” leading to prohibition in the United States. Finally, part four will show how grassroots movements have pushed back against harsh regulation to open the door for the thriving hemp industry we know today. We’re putting a special emphasis on US history because of the country’s interesting recent history with hemp and because it’s the place we call home (if you’re interested in a look at other parts of the world, email us and let us know).
While this is by no means a comprehensive guide, our goal is to give a little perspective on how we got where we are today and show why so many people are passionately advocating for one plant.
The Origins of Cannabis
Cannabis plants most likely originated in the steppes of Central Asia, in what is now modern Mongolia and the southern portion of Siberia. Author Barney Warf says the plant likely thrived in nutrient-rich dump sites left by prehistoric hunters and gatherers.
All available evidence shows cannabis cultivation occurred right around the beginning of civilization as we know it. Findings from archaeological digs show cannabis use in Asia dates back to the Neolithic era (12,000 years ago). This is about the same time when societies in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East established early communities and practices like grinding grains. We can safely say that cannabis was present from the very beginning of human civilization as we know it.
Cannabis in Ancient China
Hemp was the first fiber plant to be cultivated, predating cotton by thousands of years. Most of our evidence for early hemp comes from burial pits in China, where it was commonly left behind. A site unearthed in modern Taiwan included pottery covered in hempen cord marks.
In China we see some of the earliest uses of woven hemp (around 4,000 B.C.E) and paper made from blended hemp and mulberry bark (made during the Han Dynasty, 207 B.C.E-220 C.E.). Although there is evidence for earlier medicinal use, the earliest Chinese medicine texts on cannabis come from the Han Dynasty as well. Chinese medicine texts record uses of every part of the Cannabis sativa L.plant, from the achenes (seeds) to roots, flowers, and cortex of the stalk.
Cannabis Across Ancient Asia, The Middle East, and Africa
Cannabis uses evolved along similar lines in other cultures in the region. Hemp cloth dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. was recovered from Catal Huyuk in Mesopotamia. Assyrian texts from the same region call the plant “a drug for grief,” and provide formulas using cannabis as a stomachic, aphrodisiac, and a way to reduce swelling.
Egyptian hemp use is recorded beginning around 3,000 B.C.E., and hemp ropes were used to make the pyramids. Elsewhere in Northern Africa, the Punics (also known as the Carthaginians) used hemp in building ships, and evidence from a warship suggests sailors chewed hemp stems for relief from fatigue.
In India Bhang, a paste made from ground cannabis buds and leaves, has been mixed into food and drinks since at least 1,000 B.C.E. It is an integral part of the Hindu religion. As an appendix in the Indian Drugs Commission Report of 1893-1894 says, “he who drinks bhang drinks Shiva.” Cannabis use is seen in religions around the world throughout history, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and African traditions. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church—part of an Ethiopian Christian tradition that predates the Catholic Church—still uses a cannabis-based Eucharist that is traced to before the time of Christ.
Cannabis Heads West
Nature, trading, and conquest spread marijuana and hemp into Europe. Like coconuts in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, birds likely carried hemp seeds across long distances. The plant’s highly adaptable nature meant it began growing everywhere it was dropped—whether by the machinations of nature or the movement of people, both through voluntary migration and slavery.
The Scythians (a group of Eurasian nomads who lived along the steppe from 9thcentury B.C.E. through around 300 C.E.) brought hemp from Asia through Greece and Russia into the rest of modern Europe. Later, Arabs brought hemp from Africa into ports along the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain.
Hemp growing practices in Europe were carried through the dawn of Common Era largely by the Roman Empire. Hemp products continued on long past the end of the empire, supported by peoples in modern Germany, France, and Spain. The first hemp paper factory in Europe was founded in Spain by the Moors around 1150 C.E.
European Hemp Traditions
The northern strains of hemp that survived in Europe’s cooler climate differed from their contemporaries in Africa, India, and the Middle East in that they were generally much lower in THC. Even without the euphoric properties, European folk traditions still viewed the plant as a magical and medicinal herb. Folk remedies dating back hundreds of years include hemp in recipes meant to do everything from soothe burns to quell fevers.
Hemp festivals were common in Europe through the early 1,000s. Farmers planted hemp on days associated with saints, and peasants cavorted in hemp fields to inspire a bountiful harvest. Hemp was commonly administered during childbirth by midwives in Germany. As such, it was associated with Freya, the goddess of fertility in Norse and Germanic pagan traditions, and it was custom to offer hemp as a sacrament to her.
These folk traditions drew the ire of the church, and hemp was declared heretical under a papal decree in 1484 C.E. While the intention was to quash all pre-Christian traditions, it had little effect on people’s actual use of the plant, a pattern that seems quite common throughout history.
While the common people in Europe found use for hemp in remedies and ceremonies, the plant was coveted by those in power not for its perceived medicinal or spiritual uses, but rather as a resilient fiber that could carry the movement of empire across rugged seas and unforgiving terrain.
On the Seas to the New World
Hemp was a crucial crop for sea-faring peoples across the world. It doesn’t rot when exposed to salty seawater and is incredibly versatile. The Vikings used hemp in rope, sailcloth, fishline, nets, and caulking on their ships, which makes it likely that Vikings introduced hemp to the east coast of North America when they sailed there in 9thcentury C.E.
Hemp products like canvas sails and thick ropes made it possible for European trading vessels to make the treacherous journey to Asia. The rugged fibers could stand against any trial the sea could throw at them.
These plants, what we would likely call industrial hemp today, made their way to every corner of the globe that the European trade empire could reach. To keep the machine functioning properly, kings and queens made hemp a required crop. King Henry VIII was one of those leaders who levied a fine against any farmer who did not grow hemp, an order enacted in 1533 C.E. Given its essential nature, it’s only natural that when explorers colonized the New World they brought hemp seeds with them.
The Collision Course
That’s only part of the story, of course. If industrial hemp grown for manufacturing ropes and paper were the only plant given the name cannabis, we would likely be telling a much shorter, less interesting tale.
The European variety of non-psychoactive plant and its close relative of many names—most commonly marijuana—were set on a collision course by the force of empire, and its odious legacy: the African slave trade.
Those ships that sailed the seas propelled by sails of woven hemp carried in their belly people in bondage, clutching cannabis seeds from their native land as they were taken to North and South America.
We’ll explore the impact hemp and marijuana had on the early settlements in America in our next post, a story that weaves together the lives of slave laborers, South American dock workers, and the Founding Fathers.