The History of Cannabis Around the World: Part I

marijuana leaves resting on a world globe

Cannabis consumption has coincided with much of recorded human history. The word, sativa, comes from Latin and means “sown” or “cultivated,” in fact, the hemp plant, Cannabis Sativa, has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years.

Modern humans (Homo Sapiens) emerged around 250,000 years ago, yet the human invention of agriculture, is only about 10,000 years old.  Deliberate cultivation happens to be the basis of modern civilization and did not happen by accident.  Carl Sagan made this point in 1977 when he suggested that marijuana may have actually be the world’s first agricultural crop; leading to the development of civilization itself.

We know that humans and their technologies migrated throughout the entire world; we are the dominant animal on Earth. And it should come as no surprise that Cannabis Sativa can be found in every corner of the planet.

So, grab an atlas or dust off that globe, because we're going to clear away the smoke and peer into the history of cannabis around the world.

Origins

cannabis seeds coming out of a container

Cannabis Sativa is a plant with a long history that begins in Central and South Asia. Burned cannabis seeds have been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in the Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.

The first recorded uses of cannabis can be found in ancient Chinese scrolls, but archeological evidence shows hemp use even before that.  Hemp was one of the earliest plants to be cultivated; its use archaeologically dates back to Neolithic China, dating from the 5th millennium BC (4000 BCE). That is why Asia is where we start our journey into the history of cannabis around the world.

China

aerial shot of the great wall of china and the greenery that surrounds it, showing that the history of cannabis around the world started in china

In addition to archeological evidence, ancient Chinese documents refer to hemp as a source of clothing. For example, The Shu King, a book dating to about 2350 B.C., refers to the soil in Shantung as rich with silk and hemp while ancient poetry mentions young girls weaving hemp into clothing.

The earliest written reference to cannabis dates back to 2727 BC, from the Chinese Emperor Shen-Neng (c.2700 B.C.).  Known as the Father of Chinese Medicine, Shen-Neng singled out cannabis for its healing properties.

The Chinese also relied on hemp for warfare. And because Chinese hemp bowstrings were stronger than the enemy’s bamboo ones, the Chinese arrows could fly further. An important enough advantage, that Chinese rulers allocated large swaths of land specifically for growing hemp – the first war crop.

Of course, paper is probably the most significant Chinese invention. Fragments of paper containing hemp fiber have been found in Chinese graves dating to the first century B.C.

Cannabis was a multi-purpose plant to the ancient Chinese. It has been cultivated and used for over 4000 years. It was used for war, writing, food, and medicine but there is very little mention of its psychoactive properties by the Chinese. It wasn’t until India came upon cannabis that it became a widespread religious and medicinal intoxicant.

India

cannabis plant up close showing the leaves, the history of cannabis tells us that the cannabis plant was sacred in india

Cannabis has a long history in India, veiled in legend and religion. The earliest mention of cannabis was found in The Vedas, or sacred Hindu texts. These writings may have been compiled as early as 2000 to 1400 B.C. According to The Vedas, cannabis was one of five sacred plants and a guardian angel lives in its leaves.

The god, Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis, which is referred to as bhang in India. According to legend, when Shiva made the cannabis plant his favorite food, he became known as the Lord of Bhang.

Cannabis has been popular in India since the beginning of recorded history and is often taken as a drink, or bhang might be rolled into small balls and eaten.

During the Middle Ages, Indian soldiers often drank bhang before entering battle, just as Westerners might take a swig of whiskey.

In colonial India, the British found the uses of cannabis to be so substantial that they commissioned a large-scale study in the late 1890s. 

After years of detailed work, The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission concluded that suppressing the use of herbal cannabis (bhang) would be totally unjustifiable; because its use is very ancient, has some religious sanction among Hindus, and is harmless in moderation.

Today, bhang is so common in some parts of India that it can be found in government licensed street stands. It has lived for thousands of years in stories of gods and warriors and it continues to live today in religious ceremonies and everyday life.

Japan

pink cherry blossom trees in japan

The earliest traces of cannabis in Japan are seeds and woven fibers discovered in the west of the country dating back to the Jomon Period (10,000 BC – 300 BC). Archaeologists suggest that cannabis fibers were used for clothes, bow strings, and fishing lines; a thesis supported by a prehistoric Japanese cave painting depicting a tall spindly plant with cannabis's tell-tale leaves.

Cannabis was a very important substance for prehistoric people in Japan, but today many Japanese people have a very negative image of the plant.

The Taima Hakubutsukan (The Cannabis Museum), located 100 miles outside of Tokyo, is packed with testimony to Japan's proud cannabis heritage. In it, there are 17th century woodblock prints of women spinning fibers and photos of farmers cutting plants.

Playing such a key role in agriculture, cannabis often appeared in popular culture. It's mentioned in the 8th century Manyoshu – Japan's oldest collection of poems, and features in many haiku and Tanka poems. Ninjas purportedly used cannabis in their training – leaping daily over the fast-growing plants to hone their acrobatic skills.

Accompanying material uses, cannabis also bore spiritual significance in Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, which venerates natural harmony and notions of purity. Shinto priests used to wave bundles of leaves to exorcise evil spirits. Similarly, to signify their purity, brides wore veils made from cannabis on their wedding days.

Today, the nation's most sacred shrine, Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, still has five annual ceremonies, called Taima, dedicated to the nation's sun goddess. However, most modern visitors fail to connect the ceremonial 'Taima' with cannabis.

However, after Japan's surrender in 1945, U.S. authorities occupied the country and introduced American attitudes towards cannabis. With the nation under U.S. control, the 1948 Cannabis Control Act was passed. The law criminalized possession and unlicensed cultivation, and more than 60 years later it remains the core of Japan's current anti-cannabis policy.

Marijuana Moves Towards the Middle East

cannabis grower tending to his cannabis plants, the history of cannabis continues

From the high steppes of Asia, cannabis use spread in every direction. After pushing east into Korea and later Japan, cannabis cultivation and consumption moved west with the seasonal migrations of nomadic tribes.

Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., and it was probably used there by the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group. The Scythians also likely carried cannabis seeds into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for a number of generations.

Afghanistan

a hill in kabul afghanistan

The history of cannabis around the world brings us to the central Asian nation of Afghanistan; one of the world's two largest producers of (cannabis) hashish, along with Morocco, and a cross-road of culture and trade between Asia and the rest of the world.

The cannabis cultivation and refinement industry developed over centuries, and it was left largely unhindered by Afghan authorities until the 1970s when increasing numbers of Western 'drug tourists' compelled King Zahir Shah to ban cannabis along with poppy cultivation.

Hashish was technically made illegal in 1957 to appease U.S. pressure, but the law had not been enforced until Anglo-visitors on the "hippie-trail," became a nuisance.   

Afghanistan is a land of ancient tribal laws and cultures, and in many parts of the country, the central rule of law does not necessarily apply, particularly in the wild northern territories bordering Pakistan, where the bulk of the hashish is produced.

Islam is a fundamental part of a large proportion of life in Afghanistan, but Afghan people have always tended to have their own way of looking at the religious rules. Tribal traditions relating to cannabis predate Islam by many centuries and often are at odds with the rules of Islam.

Furthermore, the central rule of law has been massively inconsistent over the last decade and a half with the ravages of the U.S. invasion.

Today, hashish is still extremely popular in Afghanistan and the wider world, with it being reported that even serving Afghan soldiers will smoke while on patrol, much to the annoyance of their foreign allies.

Egypt

the river nile in egypt with boats floating by, showing the history of cannabis involves egypt

Egypt is the last stop for Part I of the History of Cannabis Around the World. At its location, between Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf, Egypt has been a nexus for knowledge and trade for millennia.

Having once archived the sum of the ancient world's knowledge, in the Library of Alexandria, and having left behind some of the most advanced architecture of the ancient world, it shouldn't come as a surprise that ancient Egyptian civilizations used cannabis medicinally.

What is surprising, is that ancient Egyptians seem to have understood the medicinal properties of cannabis better than modern medical science has been able to. The Ebers Papyrus, written around 1550 BC, is one of the oldest finished medical textbooks that is yet to be found.

In it, a number of formulas make use of cannabis to alleviate pain and inflammation caused by various diseases and injuries. It also seems apparent that in particular, women used marijuana as a remedy in the early days of Egypt.

The oldest medicinal use of the herb in the region most likely dates back even further, to 2000 BC, where it would have been used to treat glaucoma, cataracts, hemorrhoids, vaginal bleeding, and even cancer.

Based on ancient text, it can be estimated that, in most cases, cannabis was not a cure but an alleviator of pain and other symptoms, similar to how cannabis is prescribed today.

In 1881, when the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II was uncovered and examined, no one was expecting traces of cannabis to be found in the remains. Since then, many uncovered mummies have shown similar traces of the herb in their systems, confirming the suspicion that cannabis was indeed a part of the regular culture in ancient Egypt.

Seshat, the goddess of wisdom, was often depicted with a leaf of the cannabis plant above her head in paintings, as was the feline goddess of war, Bastet. Evidence also suggests that ancient Egyptian worshippers may have consumed marijuana in one form or the other during certain religious festivities and rituals.

Besides the medicinal and spiritual benefits, ancient Egyptians took full use of cannabis' fibrous properties; using it in the production of ropes, sails, and fabric in particular. In fact, research suggests that ancient workers had a technique to break large rocks using cannabis fiber.

The technique involved hammering dry cannabis fiber into the cracks of the rock before soaking them thoroughly in water; the expanding fiber is strong enough to fracture huge sections of rock.

Stay Tuned for Parts II and III

a globe on a table in a library, showing there are more parts of the history of cannabis article coming up

As cannabis cultivation has tracked with human migration, there is just too much terrain to cover in one piece. I will continue to cover the migration of cannabis cultivation and use in The History of Cannabis Around the World: Part II; where we follow the movement of marijuana west, into Europe and Africa.

And later, concluding with The History of Cannabis Around the World: Part III. Where we continue the multiple voyages that Cannabis Sativa took to the Americas; first finding a foothold as industrial hemp and later becoming the cultural center of psychotropic-cannabis use (and the biggest global pressure towards cannabis criminalization).

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