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Cannabis in Ancient History

Cannabis plants have been utilized by people for thousands of years and thanks to modern-day archaeology, we have plenty of evidence as to what marijuana and hemp plants were used for. American astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his book Dragons of Eden, that marijuana might have been the earliest crop, writing “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”

Although there isn’t definitive proof that coincides with Sagan’s beliefs, it’s not hard to imagine that it could be true. The written history of cannabis is extensive, with more being added to the timeline with each new archaeological discovery.

China and Siberia – 4000 BCE – 2500 BCE

Cannabis is thought to have originally grown in Central Asia, in the areas now known as Southern Siberia and Mongolia. Burned cannabis seeds have been discovered in Kurgen burial mounds located in Siberia, dating back to 3000 BCE, while mummified psychoactive cannabis (marijuana containing THC) has been found in tombs of Nobupeople in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia from 2500 BCE.

Incredibly, records show cannabis being used medicinally in China as far back as 4000 BCE. Marijuana’s medicinal use in ancient China was as an anesthetic during surgery, while hemp plants were utilized for both fiber and food. 

Asia and Europe – 2000 BCE – 1400 BCE

During 2000 BCE, coastal farmers in Korea were the next to experience the benefits of marijuana as it started to come over from China. From there, it continued to travel through South Asia from 2000 to 1000 BCE.

Cannabis then began to make its way through the middle east between 2000 – 1400 BCE, where it is believed to have been used by a nomadic Indo-European group called the Scythians. The Scythians used cannabis for its psychoactive properties and to create fine cloth. They were responsible for introducing cannabis into what is now Ukraine and Southeast Russia. An ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, detailed the Scythians getting high from marijuana by inhaling smoke from burning the seeds and flowers.

In the 1940s, a Pazryk gravesite was discovered northwest of the Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, which confirmed the accounts made by Herodotus. A Scythian couple from 500 BCE were found buried with two small tents covering containers that were used from burning incense, with one of the tent sticks having an attached decorated leather pouch filled with cannabis seeds.

China continued to utilize cannabis plants to the fullest, by making hemp fabric and inventing hemp paper in 100 BCE.

Throughout the world – Current Era and after 

Multiple accounts appear throughout history, of cannabis and hemp being used around the world. For the next centuries, marijuana has many accounts of being used medicinally, such as;

  • 70 CE – a physician in Nero’s army, Dioscorides, wrote of medical marijuana in his Pharmacopoeia 
  • 130 CE – Galen, a Greek physician-prescribed medical marijuana
  • 200 CE – Hua T’o, a Chinese surgeon, used cannabis as an anesthetic
  • 300 CE – In Jerusalem, medicinal marijuana is given to a woman during childbirth

Germanic tribes carried marijuana into Germany, where it traveled to Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions in the 5th Century. Europe’s Middle Ages saw marijuana used to treat jaundice, cough and even tumors. Although, medieval herbalists and physicians were wary of cannabis, and believed too much could cause problems, such as sterility.

The plant and its many uses found their way to the fierce Nordic seafarers, the Vikings. Mid-ninth century Viking ships have been found with remnants of cannabis seeds. It is believed that Vikings and medieval Germans used cannabis as pain relief for toothaches and to alleviate suffering during childbirth.

Pipes found in Ethiopia dating to 1300 CE were discovered to contain marijuana. Giving evidence that cannabis had spread throughout Africa from Egypt by this point in history.

As years passed, cannabis continued to travel throughout the world, making its way through Africa, South America, and eventually finding its way to North America. The earliest American colonies have records of hemp being grown for its durable fiber, using it to make clothing, sails and rope.

Written Records of Cannabis

Chinese emperor Shen Nung wrote of cannabis use for medicinal purposes in 2737 BCE.  He described its use for gout, malaria, rheumatism and even absent-mindedness. Shen Nung touched briefly on the intoxicating effects of marijuana but focused primarily on its medicinal uses.

A discovery from ancient India, a book known as the Atharvaveda (which translates to “Science of Charms”) mentioned a drink made with cannabis, celebrating it as one of the “Five Kingdoms of Herbs”, where it specifically listed that cannabis would “release us from anxiety.” This ancient medicinal (and enjoyable) drink is named bhang, consisting of milk, ghee, cannabis paste and spices. The drink later was written as being able to improve “mental powers”, “remove wind and phlegm” and able to make drinkers feel “warm and happy” feelings.

Written in Egypt around 1550 BCE, Ebers Papyrus is one of the oldest complete medical textbooks that has been discovered. In this book, there are ways to use hemp as an anti-inflammatory and for pain relief caused by a number of injuries and diseases.

In 600 BCE, Zoroastrian Zendevsta, a Persian ancient religious text consisting of hundreds of volumes, mentions the cannabis concoction bhang as a “good narcotic”.

An ancient Chinese medical book named the Shennong Bencaojing, written in 100 CE refers to how all parts of the cannabis plant can be useful in medicine. This text refers to cannabis as the name dama. Da translates to great, with mameaning cannabis.

These records and archaeological finds prove to us the importance of cannabis in its many forms, and the impact it has had on humans for thousands of years. Its medicinal value has been recognized since ancient times, while the materials made from hemp paved the way for growth and exploration for cultures around the world. From the early days of humanity to today, cannabis is truly one of the most versatile and useful plants in existence.