Cannabis has been around for a long time, a tidbit that should surprise no one, but did you know that some of the earliest mentions of medical cannabis can be found in a 10,000 year old Chinese pharmacopeia? Or that it has been speculated that cannabis is one of the oldest agricultural crops and may have been a catalyst to the dawn of civilized human life as we know it? Historically, cannabis has over 25,000 varying uses from paints to textiles – including the original Levi’s Jeans – as well as building materials and paper. When we think about cannabis history, it’s often easy to focus on our own country’s short and often tenuous past with cannabis that’s reduced it from an industrial powerhouse to a mere “drug”, but familiarizing ourselves with just a part humanity’s long love affair with cannabis may help those who are struggling to grasp why and how cannabis has become so ubiquitous in our society today.
That “Dawn of Civilized Life” Thing
Ok, that was a lot to throw into an opening paragraph about the medical history of cannabis, but it’s just such a fun idea that it deserves a little spotlight of its own, so let’s talk about that “dawn of civilized life” thing.
Carl Sagan, one of our nation’s most beloved and well known scientists, was also a cannabis user and advocate. Unfortunately, Sagan was born and raised during an era of rampant sensationalist claims about cannabis use – when it was thought that a few puffs would make you violent and psychotic – but where there’s a “culture” there’s a “counter culture”, and cannabis found its way to Sagan as a PhD student at the University of Chicago in the late ‘60s. The attitude towards cannabis at the time and the stigma attached, however, kept Sagan’s use and advocacy very under the radar – and often anonymous – until later in his life. Association with cannabis use while he pursued a scientific and academic career could have likely ended it all for Sagan.
“That’s all great but what about civilization, Kelly?” Sorry, I’m getting there, and maybe we should talk more about Sagan and cannabis soon?
Anyway, in 1977 Sagan released a book called The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, where he touches on Pygmy hunters who grow cannabis as their only cultivated crop and take part in “marijuana intoxication” in preparation for long and arduous spear hunts. This intoxication “helps to make the long waits, boring to anyone further evolved than a Komodo dragon, at least moderately tolerable”. I think we can all relate to that feeling. He goes on to say, “It would be wryly interesting if in human history that the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.” Wouldn’t it?
It’s important to remember that agriculture as we know it is a human invention, one that – when compared to the 250,000 years that modern humans have existed – is fairly new. While we can’t say for certain that cannabis was the agricultural crop that spurred on the evolution of civilization, we do have evidence that cannabis was domesticated approximately 12,000 years ago in neolithic China, strongly suggesting that it was one of the first crops domesticated for agriculture.
When discussing the history of cannabis, it’s important that I make the distinction between hemp and the colloquial “marijuana”. You’ve probably noticed by now that I avoid using the latter at all costs – mostly because I don’t like it but we won’t get into that here – and I prefer to use “cannabis”, making a distinction for hemp when there are little to no psychoactive components. This may not be the most technically correct terminology, but it feels like the best option when I’m trying to avoid using the word “weed” in a professional context, like… an article. Historically, hemp was believed to be the most commonly used variety of cannabis in the ancient world, but as we continue to unearth buried capsules of time, we have found evidence of ancient medicinal and psychoactive uses as well.
Some of the earliest recorded uses of the cannabis plant can be traced back to Mesopotamia – a historical region of Western Asia that includes present day Iraq, parts of Iran, Turkey, and Kuwait – and neolithic China. Neolithic pottery with hemp cord markings was discovered at an archaeological site in Yuanshan, along with a rod-shaped stone beater that would have been used for pounding hemp. These discoveries from roughly twelve thousand years ago, during a period also referred to as the “Agricultural Revolution”, may reinforce the theory that cannabis (hemp) is among the very first domesticated plants. This domestication would have led to cultivation for agricultural purposes, like food and materials, but may have also led to the earliest known example of industrial agriculture. Emperor Shen Nung (2700 BCE), often considered the Father of Chinese Medicine, is mentioned in ancient Chinese writings as having taught his people to cultivate hemp for cloth, making this the earliest example of industrialized agriculture that I was able to find. Mind you, I’m no cannabis or ancient Chinese scholar.
In addition to encouraging the industrial use of hemp for cloth, Emperor Shen Nung is also said to have discovered the healing properties of cannabis, as well as ginseng and ephedra, staples of Chinese medicine. Cannabis medicines were used to treat menstrual problems, gout, malaria, and absent mindedness, and although we can’t always be certain of the method of consumption, it seems like it was commonly processed into a powder and mixed with wine. Although Shen Nung is credited with discovering the medicinal benefits of cannabis, Emperor Fu Hsi (2900 BCE), who is believed to have brought civilization to China, often made reference to “ma” – the Chinese word for cannabis – as being a popular medicine that possessed both yin and yang, which if you think about it, honestly makes a lot of sense. Botanist Hui-lin Li wrote in An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China, that “The use of Cannabis in medicine [in China] was probably a very early development. Since ancient humans used hemp seed as food, it was quite natural for them to also discover the medicinal properties of the plant.”
Aside from being used for food, materials and medicine, a discovery was made in 2008 that suggests that cannabis was being cultivated for spiritual or even recreational purposes in China almost three thousand years ago. In a grave in the Gobi Desert, in the Yanghai Tombs near Turpan, China, almost two pounds of cannabis were discovered, lightly pounded in a wooden bowl inside of a leather basket. After carefully analyzing the size of the seeds and the color of the cannabis, along with other characteristics, it was determined that it came from a cultivated strain. This, combined with the fact that someone had carefully removed all of the male plant material, which is less psychoactive, suggests that this particular strain of cannabis was cultivated specifically for spiritual or recreational purposes. The 45 year old man who was buried in the grave with almost two pounds of cannabis was also buried with a large amount of high value items, such as bridles, pots and archery equipment, and researchers believe he was a shaman from the Jushi (or Gushi) kingdom. Although it is believed that this strain was cultivated specifically for psychoactive properties, researchers are still unsure as to how they might have consumed it, as there were no pipes or other smoking objects found at the burial site.
And because we’ve all probably thought about it, even though the cannabis was determined to have fairly high concentrations of THC, centuries of sitting in a grave would have degraded it so it’s no longer capable of getting you stoned.
Ancient Uses Around the World
In 2007 in the Netherlands, a neolithic grave from a European archaeological culture known as the Beakers was found to contain an unusually large amount of pollen. A small amount of the pollen was determined to be meadowsweet, which at the time was used for it’s fever reducing properties, but most of the pollen was from the cannabis plant. Archaeologists speculate that the person buried in this grave was likely very ill and the cannabis pollen would have served as a painkiller.
Although China is thought to have the longest, continuous history of cultivating cannabis, India has been using cannabis medicinally and religiously for around four millenia, commonly in a still popular drink known as bhang. Bhang is made by combining fresh cannabis leaves and flowers with milk and other spices. Cannabis was used to treat the pain of childbirth as well as insomnia, headaches and a variety of gastrointestinal issues, and in Ayurvedic and Tibbi rituals, cannabis was used to treat diseases like malaria and rheumatism. Besides its medicinal benefits, cannabis has a long history of spiritual and religious significance, specifically in Hinduism. The Atharvaveda, a sacred Hindu text, names cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants, and it’s believed that Shiva used bhang to harness his divine powers. Bhang is still popular today during religious festivals like Holi and you can find recipes online if you’d like to try it yourself!
Fun fact! Cannabis use when the British arrived in colonial India was so widespread that they commissioned a large-scale study known as the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894 to determine the “social and moral impact” of cannabis use. They conducted over eleven hundred interviews across 30 cities with an overwhelming determination that cannabis was harmless, socially and physically and that “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance”.
Ancient Egyptians may have used medical cannabis as a suppository to treat hemorrhoids, or applied directly to an area to treat inflammation, and around 2,000 BC to treat eye ailments. In ancient Greece, green cannabis seeds were steeped in wine and then removed. The wine was served warm to treat the pain and inflammation that comes from obstruction of the ear. The ancient Greeks also used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses.
Looking at archaeological evidence and ancient religious and medical texts, we know that cannabis has been an integral part of the human experience for thousands of years. Are we really surprised, though? Cannabis is an incredibly versatile plant with a seemingly endless list of uses and, unlike pretty much anything else, the more we learn the less there is to be afraid of. Cannabis isn’t like tobacco, where seventy years ago you smoked for your health but now we know that’s bad. We’re uncovering scientific specifics about medical cannabis that our ancestors may have stumbled upon and it seems as though most of the claims are verified rather than vilified, reinforcing my belief that a reemergence of widespread cannabis use for really whatever you’re using it for is a good and totally natural thing. We’ve been doing it for twelve thousand years, y’all, what’s a few more?
Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.