The History of Cannabis Part 1: Early Cultivation

July 21, 2022

Cannabis became one of the earliest cultivated plants in the world during the Neolithic (circa 1900 BCE) in Eastern Asia. With a spread spanning Eurasia and the Americas, humans have used cannabis for 10,000+ years according to historical research. A study published in Science Advances found fourteen plant samples and landraces of cannabis along the northern Chinese portion of the Eastern Steppe in group A, as well as two cannabis plants in the Great Plains region of North America. Their second group, group B, managed to locate five plants, thirteen landraces, and twenty cultivars of hemp varieties worldwide. These included Manchuria, North America, Kazakhstan, and nearly every region of Europe. Group C collected three base samples in southern China, eleven plants throughout Pakistan and India, and one cultivar in India. The fourth group, group D, focused on Drug-type cultivated plants. This team found thirty-five cultivars worldwide with complete congruence between the four defined clusters. With these findings, it seems that the notion of Cannabis being only a Central Asian crop is not accurate. 

Cannabis Use In the Ancient World 

The use of cannabis was widespread across the ancient world well before cultivation practices began. The Egyptian hieroglyphs first appeared in records during the New Kingdom era (circa 2350 BCE) that indicated the presence of cannabis. The ancient city of Margiana in the Karakum desert was one of the trade hubs along the Silk Road, and during excavations of a Zoroastrian temple in the city, scientists found residue of cannabis in pottery at Margiana, dating to around 1000 BCE. Zoroastrian priests had a long history of using cannabis in their religious practices, most notably with the drink “Haoma,” which is theorized to be made from cannabis, or other psychoactive ingredients like fermented honey, or psilocybin mushrooms. 

Around this same time period, Mesopotamians are believed to have been importing cannabis from Bactria, modern-day Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan, to be used in various medicinal and religious practices, as well as likely trading the plant with Egypt and Judaea. In India, pharmaceutical texts dating to circa 1600 BCE “ganjha” was prescribed to treat common ailments and anxiety. Exodus mentions an anointing oil called “kaneh bosm” that was used in Judaea, and the Talmud includes a recipe for wine infused with cannabis and myrrh. Cannabis hash was also found in the tomb of a young woman in Judaea, dating to the Roman Empire (circa 400 CE), and was likely used as medicine for her child’s birth or as part of her funeral rites. As stated earlier, the Egyptians were no strangers to cannabis and it had a long-standing in their pharmaceutical practices until the 1800s CE. In northwest China, a semi-nomadic tribe known as the Subeixi were early cannabis cultivators and used the plant in burials. Ancient cannabis remains of sixteen intact female plants were found in a grave, laid across the deceased body as a burial shroud. Another grave in a nearby cemetery, this one belonging to a shaman of the tribe, contained a little under two pounds of processed cannabis. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about of cannabis as well. The Greek god of wine and intoxication, Dionysus, came from the region of Bactria. The Greek historian Herodotus detailed a funeral tradition of the Scythians, where they fumigated cannabis on hot coals inside tents. The Greeks called the process a “vaporbath” that was akin to a modern hotbox. This method was also used by a tribe called the Massagetae. The Scythians traveled along ancient trade routes between Eastern Europe, India, and China. Excavated Scythian graves in Southern Siberia have been found containing remains of burnt cannabis, tent poles, and small coal stoves, matching up to the accounts from Herodotus. A Thracian oracle in the Greek city of Epiru, also used cannabis as part of the religious practices in which the plant was consumed by the oracle to commune with the dead. Burnt remains of cannabis were found in the caves below the temple. Cannabis appears in various medical and pharmacological texts throughout most of the Roman Empire’s history. The Roman naturalist Pliny mentions cannabis in several texts. In his work Natural History, he wrote about the infusion of “laughing-weed” (gelotophyllis) with wine that was known to induce intoxication. The Roman doctor Galen wrote in his work On the Properties of Foods that it was cooked into desserts and eaten at parties for recreation. 

The ancient world was well ahead of its time with medicinal cannabis being used to treat a variety of symptoms and ailments, including burns and cuts, inflammation, tumors, gastrointestinal issues, muscle aches, gout, tremors, and many more. We treat many of these conditions with the cannabis that is grown today. Cannabis has developed alongside human civilization and will continue to do so well past our time, just as did for the people of the ancient world. 

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