You may think of cannabis as a modern cultivar, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the cannabis plant has been an essential crop since the invention of agriculture itself. Archeologists digging off the coast of the Oki Islands near Japan have found evidence of cannabis cultivation dating back to 8000 BC, meaning early humans used cannabis all the way back in the Stone Age.
But how exactly did these ancient cultures use cannabis? Were the people of antiquity sitting around getting stoned? Keep reading to learn just how ancient civilizations benefited from cannabis.
Cannabis In Ancient China
All the evidence we have suggests that cannabis originated somewhere in the area that today we call China or Mongolia. To this day, wild cannabis plants can be found growing independently of humans all over this region—particularly in Southern China’s Yunnan Province.
Today, we mostly think about cannabis in terms of its medicinal and recreational benefits. However, for early societies like ancient China, cannabis was even more. The plant played a vital role in almost all aspects of life.
For one, hemp seeds were a staple in ancient Chinese diets. Shennong, the man in Chinese mythos credited with inventing agriculture, included hemp seeds as part of his divine five grains. Confucius would later compile these grains in his seminal text “The Book Of Rites.”
Aside from the culinary applications of cannabis seeds, the plant also served other essential practical functions in ancient Chinese culture. The bast fibers found in hemp are ideal for textile production. Some of the earliest garments ever created were woven from hemp fibers.
Sturdy ropes, sacks, and all sorts of other useful tools were forged from cannabis fibers. Later on, these same hemp fibers would make navel trading and exploration possible.
Evidence also suggests that these early humans likely already had an appreciation for cannabis as a medicinal plant. One archeological study found evidence of ritualistic cannabis being smoked as early as 500 BC, likely during mortuary ceremonies. According to esteemed biologist Hui-lin Li, “The use of Cannabis in medicine 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.”
How Cannabis Spread Across The Globe
It’s evident that cannabis was extremely useful to early peoples living in the plant’s native region for myriad reasons, but how did cannabis spread across the ancient world to other cultures?
It starts with an ancient nomadic tribe known as the Scythians, who made camps across the Eurasian Steppes and are documented using cannabis for both industrial and ritualistic purposes. These nomads likely spread cannabis use throughout the middle east and what’s now modern Russia. From there, Germanic tribes helped spread the plant further into Europe.
Cannabis would become ubiquitous in the Arab world around 1200 AD during the time of Caliph Al-Mustansir Bi'llah’s reign. It was during this time that Egyptian Sufis first began adopting the practice of consuming Hashish. Some 500 years later, hash culture would spread to France after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.
The cannabis plant didn’t make its way to the Americas until around 1500 AD, when the Spaniard Conquistador brought industrial hemp seeds with them to South America. Later, during the British Colonization of North America, hemp quickly became an essential crop for early settlers.
Cannabis And Humanity
We human beings have been able to thrive on this planet largely due to gifts bestowed upon us by nature. Few of those gifts have been as impactful as cannabis. For thousands of years, the cannabis plant has provided sustenance, helped develop technology, treated our ailments, and aided our spiritual development. Here’s to another thousand years of cannabis!