Cannabis is considered to be one of the first cultivated plants in human history, with some estimates placing its first cultivation over 30,000 years ago. For thousands of years, sativa plants were cultivated for their use as fiber and food, utilized by ancient peoples for clothing, paper, rope and much more. Indica plants found use across southeast Asia as spiritual enhancers, and were popular for religious rituals and recreation. Cannabis would find its way around the ancient world, and is mentioned in numerous historical records from Ancient China, Germanic tribes, the Celts and down to Africa. Its medical uses throughout early history included analgesia, childbirth anesthetic, as well as treatment for migraines, indigestion and insomnia.
Some of the earliest known records of cannabis use exist in East Asia due to the early advanced civilizations that inhabited the areas, along with the cultural importance placed upon herbal remedies. Despite cannabis’ birthplace being the Hindu Kush mountain region of Pakistan, it appears the first peoples to cultivate the plant brought it through modern-day Kashmir into India, and either through trade or separate cultivation in western Tibet, or perhaps a combination of both, it was introduced to the peoples of China and further spread around East Asian cultures.
The oldest known use of cannabis comes from a Japanese tomb on the Oki Islands dating back to 8000 BCE, where cannabis residue was found alongside the dead, seemingly due to its cultural importance. Cannabis use in pre-Neolithic Japanese culture for its use in fibers, food and possibly a psychoactive spiritual aid were rather prevalent. For thousands of years afterwards, it was utilized heavily in mainland China as well, even earning its place on Yangshao culture pottery dating to around 4500 BCE. Korean culture utilized the plant for fabric as well, and has been traced back to at least 3000 BCE. Chinese Emperor Shennong, “The Red Emperor,” wrote about cannabis in 2727 BCE in what is considered the first known pharmacopeia, Shennong Bencao Jing, or “The Classic of Herbal Medicine.” Shennong refers to cannabis as a staple crop of Asian culture, and gives specific instructions on grinding cannabis roots down to a paste for pain relief. The influence of this herb in ancient China is still seen to this day in the Chinese character for cannabis, 麻 or “má.” The symbol shows two cannabis plants under a shelter, and can be traced back to 1000 BCE in ancient Taiwan.
In ancient India, cannabis was called ganja, or गञ्जा in Sanskrit. Cannabis indica was used extensively throughout Indian history for both industrial and spiritual uses. Another ancient herb referenced in Indian antiquity around 1000 BCE is known as bhanga, and though disputed among scholars, it’s possible this was meant to be bhang, an edible preparation of cannabis that first appeared around the same time. Disputed as well, it’s suggested that the ancient drug known as soma mentioned in the Vedas was also cannabis. Cannabis was discovered in archaeological Ayurvedic mixtures in India dating to around 400 BCE as well, primarily, used to treat headaches.
The ancient Aryans, an ethnic group of Indo-Iranian people who migrated from Aryavarta in the Indus Valley to the Ural mountains of eastern Europe, were first to introduce the cultivation of cannabis to the Assyrians of Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE, who began calling the herb qunubu, or “a way to produce smoke.” As the Aryans migrated, they spread their favorite herb to the Scythians of Eastern Iran, the Thracians of Southeastern Europe and the Dacians around the Black Sea, all of which began utilizing cannabis sativa heavily as well. These cultures shared the kapnobatai, highly revered ritualistic shaman whose name means “those who walk on clouds.” These spiritual leaders burned cannabis flowers to induce a trance for rituals. Circa 700 BCE, a Caucasian shaman was buried in the Yanghai Tombs near Turpan in China with a large cache of cannabis sativa showing distinct signs of domestication, suggesting this soothsayer had traveled from Eurasia to China in order to share his holy herb, possibly coming from the Aryan culture that had introduced it to many other cultures before him. Phytochemical analysis showed preserved THC, among many other phytocannabinoids still remaining in the ancient plant. Herodotus would go on to remark around 440 BCE that the inhabitants of Scythia, as well as numerous cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, were fond of inhaling the vapors of hemp-seed smoke in steam baths, both in culturally significant rituals and as pleasurable recreation.
The Assyrians’ use of the herb in the Middle East became a traditional haven for cannabis, and its cultivation quickly spread to surrounding cultures and regions, including the Egyptians and Persians, as well as their successors in modern-day Iraq. The Egyptians valued the plant in a similar manner to the Assyrians, giving it a divine significance and preparing it the form of hashish, a method borrowed from the Persians. An Egyptian mummy dating to around 1070 BCE was surprisingly found to still have trace amounts of THC from hashish in its hairs, bones and soft tissues due to its preservation. The amount bound in fat cells was upwards of 4100 nanograms, nearly 4 times the amount found in modern-day German citizens in treatment for marijuana addiction. The Egyptians weren’t the only ones, however, as the budding Semitic people of Arabia began to give the herb religious significance as well. Biblical scholars insist that the “holy herb” commonly referenced in numerous Bible verses and books is the cannabis plant itself, as it was a common crop in the region and its psychotropic properties weren’t unknown. This is further supported by the fact that a component of the holy anointing oil in the Bible is referred to as kaneh-bosem according to Exodus 30:22-30, a derivative of which would become qannabōs, the precursor word to cannabis. Coptic Christians, Shintos, Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, Essenes, Zoroastrians, Bantus, Jews and Rastafarians, among many others, consider cannabis to have religious value.
For some time, however, seemingly following the Babylonians overtaking Mesopotamia, historical records of cannabis use in many Middle Eastern cultures began to drastically diminish. Aside from the Jewish people of Israel, many Arabic cultures ceased cultivation of the plant entirely, and instead the plant saw more attention as it spread further into Europe, Africa and East Asia. In Europe, around 79 CE, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in Naturalis Historia that cannabis root was commonly boiled in water for joint cramps, gout and acute pain relief. Cannabis use throughout India never faltered, and recently it was discovered that a combination of hemp fibers, clay and lime called hempcrete is what has preserved the Ellora Caves so well, a world heritage site in India dating to around 600 to 1000 CE. Cannabis continued to spread further into western Europe as well, finding particular value among the Germanic tribes of the region. It was described by the German mystic, abbess and philosopher Hildegard Von Bingen as a miracle herb in Physica around 1101 CE.
Following a sudden reintroduction of cannabis in the Middle East, tradition has it that cannabis was brought back to Egypt by “mystic Islamic travelers” from Syria sometime during the Fatimid Caliphate around 1100 CE. Some time later, cannabis cultivation wouldn’t reach Iraq again until 1230 CE during the reign of Caliph Al-Mustansir Bi’llah by an entourage of Bahraini rulers visiting the territory. Cannabis was most popularly consumed in the form of hashish until the 1500s, a concentrated and processed form of cannabis that had been revitalized from the ancient Persians. Smoking the plant appeared to be a long-lost tradition that wouldn’t be reintroduced until the spreading popularity of tobacco once the New World was discovered and colonized.
Following this reintroduction, cannabis made its way further into Africa than just the northern coast and Ethiopian cultures. Arab and Indian Hindu travelers that had introduced cannabis to the Bantu people in years past did so once again, though this time came during a mass migration of the Bantu further south into Africa. Smoking pipes containing cannabis have been uncovered in Ethiopia dating to around 1320 CE, and the Bantu spread it to the Buganda and Kilwa cultures in modern-day Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique. Before long, cannabis was already popular in South Africa by the indigeneous Khoisan peoples prior to European settlement in 1652. Cannabis wouldn’t make its way further into the Congo Basin until the 1850s, credited yet again to the Bantu’s trade with the Luba, Lunda and Kazembe people.
In Western Europe, the popularity of cannabis-based medicine was spread swiftly by the Holy Roman Empire’s conquest through much of modern-day Germany. Cannabis sativa saw particular attention in many European cultures around this time, and its spread into France, England, Scotland and Spain led to private gardens of hemp being somewhat common. Dated to the later 1500s, Professor Francis Thackeray was able to find evidence of marijuana residue on pipe fragments from William Shakespeare’s private garden, suggesting he or someone living on his property consumed it recreationally as well. Cannabis’ use as fiber was its main draw in Spain, and when voyages to the New World turned up few resources for fiber in the Americas, they began sending hemp with their settlers. Cannabis first made it to the Americas by Spaniard explorers in 1545, importing the plant to Chile for its use as fiber. Though this is one of the few specifically documented cases of cannabis being brought over, the plant very quickly spread throughout settlers and native peoples alike in numerous places around the new continents. By 1607, Gabriel Archer observed cannabis being cultivated by American Indians at a Powhatan village where Richmond, Virginia currently stands. In 1613, Samuell Argall reported wild cannabis “better than that in England” growing along the shores of the upper Potomac in northern Virginia.
In 1619, King James I decreed that the colonists of Jamestown would need to step up their efforts to support England. In response, the Virginia Company enacted a decree that Jamestown’s land owners grow and export 100 hemp plants to support England’s cause. Back in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 left his men craving some recreational fun, and with the ban of alcohol in Ottoman territory, being an Islamic nation, they instead tried hashish and found it much to their liking.
Since the 1700s, cannabis was available throughout North America in a wide variety of medications and general items; not only carried over from the European uses of the plant, but reinforced by the American Indians who occasionally cultivated wild varieties as well. In personal correspondence, it’s been revealed that former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison, as well as Benjamin Franklin and Mary Todd Lincoln, all consumed hashish recreationally, though Mary Todd’s use appeared to be more medical. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both used their immense personal wealth to grow vast acreages of hemp at their estates, contributing to their stature in the colonies, with Washington including it among his three staple crops of America. Cannabis was considered such an integral part of American culture that it was featured on the United States’ ten dollar bill until a revision in 1900.
As colonization of the Americas continued to ramp up in the early 1800s, the Portugese began importing it to Brazil at the same time their African slaves brought their cannabis as well. While the Portugese intended to use it as fiber, similarly to their Spanish rivals, the Bantu people were familiar with it as a recreational substance, and historical records from the time indicate it was popular among slaves for lifting their spirits in an otherwise dismal situation. By 1830, the Municipal Council of Rio de Janeiro prohibited all cannabis to be imported into the city, and outlawed its use by slaves. Similarly, the British empire’s expanding use of Indian slaves saw the spread of their variety of cannabis, and likewise was banned in Mauritius in 1840, Singapore in 1870 and South Africa the same year under the Coolie Law Consolidation.
Hemp was used almost exclusively to make rope, sails, clothing, paper and oil in the Americas, but after those products began being replaced by imported materials, cannabis gradually became more prominent among medications. Up until this point, the general public largely considered cannabis in medical tinctures as an unnecessary additive, and since so many products at the time contained dozens of ingredients, very few knew it was genuinely beneficial to their health. Following a 4 year journey throughout the Ottoman Empire in parts of North Africa and the Middle East in 1836, French physician Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote on the psychological effects of cannabis use, prompting a renewed discussion in Europe over its medical benefits, rather than industrial or recreational purposes. Soon after, Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy released his own research conducted while in India under the British Empire, tremendously helping its image both in Europe and the New World.
As early as 1853, cannabis had been labeled a “fashionable narcotic” by the New York Times. Recreational use was prevalent in East Asian-style hashish parlors throughout the United States, typically nearby to opium dens, and one could be found in nearly every major city along the east coast with an estimated 500 hashish establishments in New York City alone. Harry Hubbell Kane wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1883 detailing one of these hash bars in New York, describing the lavish interiors, upper class clientele and big-name customers. South of the border, cannabis cigarettes were frequently used by Mexican soldiers as early as 1874, with many preferring marijuana to tobacco.
Across the pond in 1890, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the physician to Queen Victoria, wrote a summary about cannabis in the The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. Reynolds touted cannabis’ medicinal benefits, citing other physicians who frequently prescribed it and even giving details on how the the Queen herself utilized the herb for her menstrual cramps. In 1892, Sir William Osler authored the first textbook of Internal Medicine, and advised that cannabis was the most effective treatment for migraines he was made aware of.
The British Empire attempted to outlaw the use of cannabis among Indians in their own land as well, and made attempts at such in 1838, 1871 and 1877, all unsuccessful. In 1894, following increasing reports from around the world of cannabis’ therapeutic use, the British Indian government completed a wide-ranging study of cannabis indica. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission completed their report in 1895, “Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation.”
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