Cannabis Through The Ages

One plant's journey across the world

Cannabis has been used throughout history, both medicinally and recreationally.

It is well known that the Cannabis-Sativa plant has a long history. While some only know of the plant’s recent use, starting from the 1900s when it was first made illegal in the United States, it has actually been around since ancient times. Whether we are talking about non-psychoactive hemp or medicinal and recreational cannabis, both have had recorded uses proved by literary, linguistic, and physical findings dating back thousands of years ago. 


The oldest records of cannabis use date back to Ancient China, where hemp was utilized for fiber and food. Archeological records show hemp has been farmed for over 6,000 years in China. It was also an important part of Chinese culture. Ancient texts dating back to  second century BC like the Book of Rites, instruct mourners to wear clothes made out of hemp fabric to respect the dead. Other records and texts show us the various uses in food. At one point, hemp seeds were even considered one of the five major grains in Ancient China.

While traces of food may have disappeared, there has been physical evidence of hemp fabric found. In 1972, an ancient burial site that dates back to the Chou dynasty (1122 BC – 221 BC) was found to contain pieces of hemp fabric, making it the oldest preserved specimen of hemp. 

Even the first recorded paper was made from hemp. Records that date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) found it to be made from a mixture of hemp, bark, and old fishing lines also composed of hemp fibers. Prior to using hemp to make paper, these important ancient documents were transcribed on shells, bamboo, or bones.

The first documented use of cannabis as medicine was also found in Ancient China. The earliest pharmacopoeia in existence, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, written around 2737 BC, listed cannabis as a remedy for conditions like gout, malaria, and absentmindedness. There is also evidence to suggest the first anesthetic used in ancient china around the first century contained cannabis. The medicinal properties associated with the cannabis plant is likely one of reasons it spread across the continent, and then the world. 


Eventually cannabis expanded from China and its surrounding lands to India. The first recorded instance of cannabis here was found in one of their ancient religious texts, the Atharvaveda, dated around 1500 BC. There it mentioned the “bhang” plant as one of the five kingdoms of herbs which releases us from anxiety. It was to be used in worship of the god Shiva, Lord of Bhang.

 While bhang was used to describe the cannabis plant in the holy text, it also has additional meanings. There were three main words used to describe the cannabis, each based on how it was prepared. Bhang, is the weakest, made of leaves and seeds, followed by the stronger Ganja, made with only female flowers. The strongest is called Charas, which is composed of the resin that covers the female flowers. Bhang also can refer to a drink composed of cannabis milk and spices.


The next recorded use of cannabis was found in ancient Egypt, around the same time the Vedas were dated. Various medical papyri dated around 2000 BC, refer to a medicine called shemshemet. At least 6 studies have determined that the word shemshemet is synonymous with cannabis. Under that conclusion, the first mention of cannabis was written on a papyrus dated to 1700 BC suggesting a mixture of hemp and celery as a treatment for the eyes. Other medical papyri recommended adding cannabis to aid with contractions, infections, or fevers. 

Additionally, physical evidence of hemp fibers and pollen have been in the tombs of multiple ancient egyptian pharaohs. Hemp fibers were found in the tomb of Amenophis IV (1350 BC), and several grains of cannabis pollen was found inside the mummy of Rameses II who died in 1213 BC. There is also evidence to suggest the ancient Egyptians knew of the psychoactive properties of cannabis. Other medical papyri prescriptions from the same time suggest burning mixtures that contain cannabis. Another analysis from a tomb found around 950 BC examined internal organs of mummy remains and found them to have significant amounts of THC, suggesting it was inhaled. 


A group of warriors known as Scythians were the next group to be recorded using cannabis. According to the Greek historian Herodtus who lived in 450 BC, the tribe used cannabis for funeral rituals. They would construct a tent, and set a dish in the center of the tent with fire-hot stones placed upon it. After, the Scythians would enter the tent and throw cannabis seeds on the hot stones until they created dense smoke. 

While his writings were speculative for some time, recent physical findings have confirmed his records. In 1972 Russian archaeologist Rudenko found a grave site dating back to 500 – 300 BC in modern day Siberia. There, a container filled with burnt cannabis seeds was discovered. Though the discovery was in Siberia, there is evidence the Scythians traveled around China, the middle east, and eastern europe to trade. Because cannabis was such a main part of their culture, this could have helped spread cannabis use across the continents. 

Rest of World

After the Scythians, traces of hemp and cannabis begin to show across the rest of the world. Ancient Persia, like India, also referred to cannabis as Bhang. In the Venidad volume of its ancient religious texts the Zend-Avesta (~700 BC), Bhang is listed as one of the most important out of 10,000 medicinal plants. It also noted a cannabis drink mixture as an important sacrament of the religion. We then see the first records of hemp in northern Europe dating back to 450 BC. The ancient Greek also have records of hemp rope dating back to 200 BC. 
Various other countries have found traces of cannabis or hemp use in ancient times. Romania found charred seeds that date back 5,000 years. Last week a Shrine in Israel dated around 750 BC was found to have traces of THC, CBD, CBN, and various terpenes, suggesting cannabis had been burned on it. Who knows what we will find next. Overall we can conclude that cannabis has had various uses across the world for as long as history can tell. Although we may now just be proving the many medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant, it seems ancient cultures & civilizations have known all along.

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