Hemp's Ancient History: The One You Won't Get From a Text Book
Cannabis is emerging from it's dark ages in history. A plant that for millennia had been utilized for thousands of textiles, clothing & rope to name a few; in food production for it's seed, leaves, and oils; medicinally to treat numerous ailments like arthritis, gout, epilepsy, headaches, and bronchitis; and even rooted in some of the worlds oldest spiritual practices; is known to many today as a dangerous and useless illicit drug. Most do not know the real history and value of the plant. Now that it is being re-introduced into society, we aim to give you some historical reference, in hopes that it will create a more confident and informed consumer.
While academia argues that humanity migrated out of the central regions of Africa, cannabis use most popularly appears in Asia around 8,000 B.C. Archeological findings place hemp cordage among the tools used to make pottery at the Neolithic site at Yuan-Shan (on the island of Taiwan). Hemp fiber was also used to make fishing nets, ropes, and clothing. Placing hemp at this location, in this time period makes it one of the first known agricultural crops, one that some experts believe led to the formation of civilization itself. By 4,000 B.C. hemp was revered in the Pan-P'o village (near the Yellow River in Northern China) as one of the sacred "five grains" and farmed as a major food crop. The people also used it for textiles such as rope, paper, and oil for lamps. Cannabis plants, seeds, and flowers have been found in burial mounds along the Yellow River and Silk road as well as near the Siberian border. The grave of the Siberian "Ice Maiden", princess of Ukok, contained a pouch of cannabis, which she most likely used to alleviate her symptoms of breast cancer, next to her mummified remains.
From there, cannabis use is based on legend for a period of time. Before the written word arrived in China, three legendary deities reigned over the land. The first of these "celestial emperors", Fu Hsi, or "The Great Bright One", ruled around 2900 B.C. He is responsible for the introduction of divination, marriage, written word, domestication of animals, fishing & hunting, cooking, as well as iron work. Legend also claims Fu-Hsi developed the well known concept of yin and yang. He references "ma" or cannabis, as being a medicinal plant that contained both male (yang) and female (yin) characteristics. The ancient Chinese symbol for "ma" even depicts two drying cannabis plants placed under a roof.
The second of these mystical emperors, ruling sometime around 2700 B.C. was Shen-Nung. His name translates to "The Divine Farmer." He is credited for introducing the science of irrigation, agriculture (to avoid killing animals), acupuncture, and traditional Chinese medicine. Supposed author of the original copy of the The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica, Shen-Nung is said to have tasted 365 different herbs, sampling their medical properties, only to die of a toxic overdose. Heralded as The Father of Medicine in China, it is in his text that he notes the value of "ma" in treating gout, rheumatism, menstrual cramps, malaria, absent-mindedness, along with 100 other uses. Modern versions of his text are still in use by physicians today.
The Yellow River region of China is home to some of the oldest cultures on the planet. Due to their antiquity, much of their history is based on myth and legend. Historians cannot confirm many of their claims. While ancient Egyptians and Sumerians developed an official form of written language around 3,000 B.C., it isn't said to have been developed in China until circa 1,500. These stories were perhaps, not intended, to be taken literally. They were created in a thoughtful and specific way, crafted to never be forgotten. They were shared in such a way as to be remembered through the ages, thus ensuring the important details of their people's history would never be lost. Ultimately, who cares how the Chinese came to find silk, it simply matters that they did. Do not let their unique culture detract from the importance of their history. Cannabis is so rooted in ancient Chinese culture that it was known then as "the land of hemp and mulberries". From what we know of ancient cultures, the Chinese celebrated the plant more than any other. Confucius continued to mention it throughout his writings one thousand years later.
What is troubling about this scenario though, is the distance between the Yuan-Shan site and central Africa. The historical record proves that middle eastern societies such as the Assyrian, Scythian, Arab, and Persian also used cannabis for a host of reasons. Both Egypt and Greece provide evidence of cannabis use dating back to early B.C. times. If humanity emerged from somewhere near Ethiopia, did it truly take until reaching the rivers and shores of Asia for man to finally discover and cultivate cannabis?
An alternative picture emerges thanks to research out of Germany. Tengwen Long and Pavel Tarasov at the Free University of Berlin, along with their colleagues, have compiled a database of the archaeological literature citing cannabis use, in order to identify trends and patterns in it's prehistoric use. They hypothesize that cannabis was a common wild plant native to a vast region of Eurasia. The researchers do recognize cannabis' use in early Chinese society, but believe that it was used more commonly, in Europe, before it's popularity in China.
While recognizing it's use is evident in ancient China, Long asserts that cannabis is used too sporadically throughout the country as a whole, in those early days, to have originated there. During the Bronze Age of human history, nomadic pastoral peoples, who had mastered horse rearing and riding, and had access to wheels and wagons, established trade routes along what later became the famed Silk Road. It is along these routes that Long and Tarasov claim that cannabis made it's way, originally, from the region of the Yamnaya people in central Europe.
According to Tarasov and Long's database, there is an older, and more consistent archeological record of cannabis use in the Yamnaya region dating back 10,000 years. It has been hypothesized that these nomadic peoples utilized hemp not only for it's psychoactive properties, but also for various textiles, and medicines. Burned hemp seeds have been found in burial sites throughout the region, as well as pieces of pottery featuring fibrous materials (just like those found at Yuan-Shan).
Thanks to a landmark DNA study published in Nature in 2015, historians have documented the influence the of the Yamnaya people on European and Asian heritage. While this study, and others like it, raise more questions than they answer, they do provide powerful insight. For a currently unknown reason (famine, trade, curiosity, war), these people left their homeland (nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas) to venture into the unknown lands of the continent. They sprawled across all of Eurasia, reaching as far west as the Atlantic shores of Europe, and to the East, reaching coastal Asia. Due to cannabis' plethora of uses, it can safely be assumed that it was a "cash crop before cash", and taken regularly along these trade routes.
Origins in the Yamnaya region make the most logical argument for the birth of cannabis culture. The nomadic Scythian society, located near the Caspian Sea, is one of the most famed groups to have used cannabis. Greek historian Herodotus documents his Northeastern neighbor's use of it during burial ceremonies around 450 B.C.
"the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud".
The Scythian bloodline contains a great deal of Yamnaya DNA. Well-known and feared throughout the land, thanks to their mastery of horsemanship and battle, their empire encompassed the entire area once known to be Yamna territory, and more (what is modern day Kazakhstan). Yamna culture essentially became the Scythian civilization. Literature by Herodotus' is supported by numerous burial discoveries throughout the region.
What is believed to be hemp fiber cordage was found in clay floors at a site to the west in Czechoslovakia. The fragments were dated to be from 26,980 B.C. To the far East, in the Altai Mountains, a Scythian burial trench containing human and horse skeletons, as well as a gold cauldron with cannabis seeds inside were discovered. The cauldron was found to be quite similar to those written about by the Greek historian, and also described in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Hemp shirts, fibers, and paraphernalia were also found near the trench. Researchers conclude that the site is evidence of a casual use of cannabis, as no sign of a ritual was present. It is their belief that both men and women alike enjoyed the social activity side by side.
Furthermore, inside a kurgan located in the Caucasus Mountains (between the Black and Caspian Seas), golden artifacts with opium and cannabis resin were identified. The aforementioned Princess of Ukok was even of Scythian decent, as a member of the Pazyryk culture. Scythian shamans, referred to by the Grecians as "Enarees", also used cannabis for spiritual enlightenment. Revered as magical gods, these transgender leaders were a topic of discussion for both Herodotus and Hippocrates alike. Clearly the Scythian culture enjoyed the herb both for it's intoxicating properties, and it's textile uses.
The connection between Greece and the Scythian empire should at this point be stressed. During the time of Herodotus, the royal Scythian family commonly married into Grecian ones. Many wealthy and influential Grecian citizens, likewise traveled to Scythian lands. As the Scythian empire began to crumble under the pressure of expanding Greek culture (under Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great), the Scythian people imbued themselves into nearby societies. A large portion of the police force in ancient Greece was said to be comprised of the famed archers of the Scythian army. But before we enter the Mediterranean and look at Greece's historic use of cannabis, we must look to the lands of India and Egypt for history's next advent of its use.
Hinduism exists as one of the oldest, if not the oldest known religious practices. The holy texts of the religion, known as the Vedas, quite possibly written as early as 2,000 B.C., are the first to mention the properties of cannabis. Written in Vedic Sanskrit, the Vedas make mention of "vijaya", hailing it one of the five sacred herbs. The Vedas refer to cannabis as the source of happiness, a joy-giver, and liberator. According to these texts, the gods created cannabis by dropping "amrita" (sacred nectar) from the heavens, onto the peak of Mount Mandara.
From there, after a stressful dispute with his family, the god Shiva is said to have hiked up the mountain. Fatigued, he chooses a spot of shade provided by the cannabis canopy as a place to nap. Upon waking, he smelled the terpene rich aroma and tasted of it's leaves. Immediately rejuvenated, he touted the plant as his favorite food and brought it down from the mountains as a gift to humanity. Other legends say, that while churning the oceans in search of an immortal elixir, Shiva was poisoned by halahala (black mass). He then traveled to the Mandaras mountains in search of amrita. Finding the cannabis plant and eating of it, he was healed. For whichever reason, Shiva is considered "Lord of Bhang." In medieval times, Indian soldiers would consume bhang in order to raise their spirits before battle.
Even today, on certain holidays each year (Indian New Year, Holi, & the holiday of Shiva, Shivatri), Indians legally consume "bhang lassi"; a milkshake like drink containing yogurt, nuts, spices, rose water, and cannabis. Even the children are given bhang candy to join in the celebration. It comes in a variety of potencies, with the capacity to leave even an experienced cannabis user with a three day hangover! Akin to Chinese culture, Indian legend and lore suggest cannabis' existence and use before the development of their written word; an eye-opening reality considering that India is home to the oldest known language, religion, and even medicine.
Ayurveda, from the Sanskrit, meaning "The Science of Life" is considered by many scholars to be the oldest known form of healing science. Cannabis is mentioned within Ayurvedic writings, but not until much later than the previously mentioned religious texts. Nonetheless, as this quote from Biljana Dusic, M.D. and Ayurveda counselor demonstrates, the medicine men of the time found numerous uses for the plant, when used responsibly.
In Ayurveda, bhang is used to treat high blood pressure, the juice is used for lowering intro-ocular pressure (glaucoma), and for short-term stimulation of the nervous system... Some martial artists in northern India, mainly wrestlers, take bhang with a paste made of almonds, pistachios, black pepper, saffron, rose petals etc., mixed with fresh cow's milk - to ensure long term concentration during exhausting all-day practice, and to help the body to ingest enormous quantities of food, without losing its digestive power. Fresh leaf juice is also used to treat dandruff, as a preventive measure against parasites in hair; also in cases of earache, and against bacterial inflammations and infestations of the ear. The juice is also diuretic, and therefore is used in treating inflammations of the bladder and kidney stones. Dried leaf powder is applied on fresh wounds to promote healing. A poultice of crushed fresh leaves is used on the skin in cases of different skin infections, rashes, neuralgias - for example erysipelas, Herpes zoster, Chickenpox, eczema, etc. - to diminish pain and itching. Combined with other herbs, bhang can be used against diarrhea - for this purpose, it is most usually combined with nutmeg (ganja may also be used for the same purpose - mainly with nutmeg and honey). With digestive herbs (like cumin, fennel, anise, ...) bhang can be excellent for stimulating appetite and digestion; with aphrodisiac herbs and foods (almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, saffron...) it becomes an excellent aphrodisiac. When the leaves (bhang) on the other hand are mixed with tobacco, the plant diminishes appetite, and acts as an anti-aphrodisiac. In these cases, the actions of the cannabis plant are modified by other herbs in the mixture.
Herb's earliest appearances in both history and archeology do indeed, strongly suggest a birth place in the Himalayan (Hindu Kush) mountain range. This central location would have been easily accessed along the silk road and lies very near to ancient Yamna and Scythian territory. This location also makes a great deal of sense given that cannabis was also clearly used to the southwest, throughout the ancient Egyptian dynasties.
As early as 2,000 B.C., Egyptians were using cannabis to alleviate eye soreness and as an anti-inflammatory. Pronounced "shm-shm-tu", cannabis, according to Egyptian lore, was created by the sun god Ra for use in ceremonies for the dead. The goddess of wisdom, Seshat is also often depicted with a seven pointed, leaf like symbol above her head. Hemp materials were found in the tomb of Akhenaten, who was the pharaoh around 1350 B.C., and cannabis pollen which was not native to the region, was discovered in the tomb of Pharoah Ramesses II, who died in 1213 B.C. Numerous hieroglyphs have been discovered of what appear to be both pipes and incense burners used for ceremonial, as well as recreational use. While some would argue these were used for ingestion of blue lotus, the lotus was much more commonly turned into a wine.
Cannabis, referred to as "kaneh-bosm" was a key ingredient in the Judaic "Holy Anointing Oil" mentioned in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible. The first five books, known as the Pentateuch, are commonly believed to be authored in 1400 B.C. by Moses, who was interestingly adopted into the Pharaoh's household. Some evidence suggests that most of these books were written by authors that precede him, and that he merely compiled them into a single volume. Cannabis' importance to the Christian faith is evident even in the name of Yeshua (Jesus). "Christ", often mistaken as a last name, is rather a title, one that literally translates to "the anointed one." Judaism and Zoroastrianism, some of the oldest and Christian religions, have strong relations to the cannabis plant. Numerous Biblical authors traveled to Greece for spiritual missions. Our authors can't help but wonder what role cannabis played in their interactions, as it was diffused into Greco-Roman culture from the Middle East.
As noted previously, Herodotus records Scythian use of recreational cannabis in 450 B.C. This is one of Greece's earliest records of the plant. By first century A.D., numerous Grecian physicians referenced cannabis for it's medicinal uses. Dioscorides described cannabis in his 5 volume "De Materia Medica." In book Three hemp is described:
"Cannabis indica -the root (boilde and applied) is able to lessen inflamation, disolve oedema, and disperse hardened matter around the joints...Cannabis sativa is a plant of considerable use for twisting very strong ropes. The seeds eaten in quantities quench conception and the herb (juiced while green) is good for earaches."
The original Greek manuscript, written a few hundred years after the death of Hippocrates, was transcribed in more than seven languages. It described a great deal of components used in medical practice. It is a precursor to all modern pharmacopeias and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century. As a surgeon in Nero's army, Dioscorides was offered many opportunities to study the distribution, features, and medicinal properties of many plants and minerals as he traveled. His text described the observations of over 600 plants, fruits, seeds, and the effects those very compounds had on patients. He also recorded a number of therapeutically useful animal and mineral products. Another famous Greek physician to reference cannabis includes Claudius Galen.
Grecian culture is the last of those in B.C. times to become introduced to ganja. The Arabs, Persians, French, and Spanish, soon followed suit in the Common Era. So you see, for most of it's life, cannabis was not viewed as the spawn of Satan ("devil's lettuce"). Lots of ancient texts that exist during the dawn of the written word make reference to the use of cannabis. Interestingly, none of these texts mention the discovery of the plant (other than by mythical means), suggesting that cannabis had been interwoven with human DNA long before recorded history. In fact, it was typically regarded as a sacred plant that appears to have contributed to the foundation of civilization, agriculture, and religion. For many cultures, it was frowned upon for a farmer not to be growing it. During some points in history, it was even illegal not to grow cannabis! Be sure to read our entry entitled "Founding Fathers: Part 1 - Setting the Record Straight" to learn the history of cannabis in the New World.
The sources cited are primarily intended for the casual reader. Each source however, has been carefully chosen to include scientific sources linked within. Living with today's industry funded, pseudo-scientific journals, we encourage you to "research the research".