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Hemp in Ancient and Modern History: An Introduction

The story of hemp is a story of both liberation and prohibition. It is certainly interesting to note that, in modern times, the mere mention of hemp or cannabis elicited a volatile response from people on both the pro and con side of the isle. Why is that? 

This is an introduction to a blog mini series that will examine the history of hemp and cannabis from ancient to modern times. Rather than a chronological history, let’s take a look at vignettes from the cannabis sativa story and how it has impacted our lives, both positively and negatively. It is a remarkable story of how a plant has played a dynamic role in human life throughout time, until the present. So, we begin.

A Modern Quote About Cannabis and Civilization

In 1977 Carl Sagan proposes that marijuana may have been the world’s first agricultural crop, leading to the development of civilization itself: “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.” Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence p 191 footnote.  

This quote by Carl Sagan is very compelling. If we entertain the idea that human history might be intricately intertwined with the cultivation of cannabis/hemp that would certainly put a ‘spin on the narrative’ of both cannabis and civilization itself!

Ancient Recorded History of Medicinal and Sacred Use Of Hemp

The Ancient Chinese used hemp from around 6,000 BCE on; it had multiple uses in tools, clothing, shoes and food. There are also archeological and historical indications that hemp oil and seeds were used as food in 6,000 BC. Also, in 4,000 AC that hemp/cannabis was used for fiber in textiles.  However, 2,737 BCE is the first written evidence of hemp as medicine.

Emperor Shen-Nung wrote his findings of developing topical hemp oils and teas in the first editions of the Pen Ts’ao Ching. He used the topical hemp oils and tea to treat pain. As time passed, there were other pharmacopoeias that had lists of the medical effects of the flowers, leaves and seeds of the cannabis plant. 

Hua Tuo, in the 2Nd Century, was the first to record that cannabis could be used as an anesthetic. Also, he concluded that cannabis could be used to treat hair loss, tapeworms and blood clots. 

In 2,000 to 800 BCE the Hindu sacred text Arthavaveda (Science and Charms) refers to Bhang (dried cannabis leaves seeds and stems) as “Sacred Grass”, and one of the five sacred plants of India. It is still used medicinally and ritually as an offering to Lord Shiva.

From 700-600 BCE The Zoroastrian Zendavesta, an ancient Persian religious text, consisting of several hundred volumes, refers to Bhang as the “good narcotic.”

Between 700 and 300 BCE the Scythian tribes left cannabis seeds as offerings in Royal tombs, again demonstrating that cannabis seeds were considered sacred.

In 430 BCE Herodotus records in The Histories (430 B.C. trans, G. Rawlinson) that the Scythians used cannabis both recreationally and ritually. 

In 100 to 0 BCE the new edition of the herbal Pen Ts’ao Ching mentions the psychotropic properties of cannabis.

In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder, a Roman navy and army commander, an author, naturalist and natural philosopher, mentioned hemp for pain relief. He also mentioned the use of it to remove insects from ears! 

Was Hemp The First Cultivated Crop?

The above sampling of ancient recorded history demonstrates the use of cannabis or hemp, which actually refers to the same plant, played an active role in medicine and ritual over centuries. In addition to the medicinal use, hemp played a very important role in the development of basic goods such as paper, clothing, tools, food and more. 

The documentation of the use of cannabis, over extensive periods of human history, indicates that cultivation of cannabis was practiced in cultures throughout the world. There are various indications that cannabis might be the first cultivated crop, as proposed by Carl Sagan above. It is notable that the extensive use of cannabis across cultures and the original evolvement of the plant from central Asia, which led to the introduction to other countries and continents, is a strong indication of cultivation.  It is not reasonable to assume that the varied uses and geographic importation was accomplished by gathering hemp from the wild.

Researchers suggest that evidence seems to indicate that it was in China and India that humans first grew cannabis. It is also suggested that this cultivation activity was initiated somewhere around 10,000 to 12,000 BCE. 

As cannabis spread, through trade and travel, through the centuries, other cultures embraced this plant for its many uses. The Scythians are credited with bringing cannabis into the Middle East and Russia in around 2,000 BC, while Zoroaster already classified it as a most important medicinal plant in 700 BC. Around that same time cannabis was brought into both Africa and Europe. In 1,150 the Moors in Spain built the first paper mill in Europe. Most of the paper manufactured over the subsequent 850 years was made of hemp fiber. 

It was during the 16th Century that the Spaniards took cannabis to Chile, in 1545 and to Peru in 1554. In the 17th Century the Britons brought hemp to Canada and then began farming it in Virginia in that same period. This was the beginning of the cultivating of hemp in the American colonies. It is well documented that hemp was an essential part of the American colonies that continued through centuries.


In our next episode we will look at the history of hemp and cannabis in the Americas and Canada. If you have any further information or questions on the ancient history of hemp or cannabis, please share in the comment section below. We love to hear from you!


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