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A Brief History of Cannabis

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

The Cannabis L. Sativa plant has permeated the ages, both as a commodity and as a remedy.

The earliest records of adoption, date as far back as 10,000 years, where the plant's fiber was used both in cordage and pottery. Discovering traces of hemp used and cultivated in this date range, identifies it as one of the oldest known human agriculture crops. Carl Sagan even proposed the possibility that hemp may have been the world’s first agricultural crop, leading to the development of civilization itself.


In a 2009 Scientific American article on sustainable agriculture, Richard Hamilton noted: “Modern humans emerged some 250,000 years ago, yet agriculture is a fairly recent invention, only about 10,000 years old ... Agriculture is not natural; it is a human invention. It is also the basis of modern civilization.” History shows that Cannabis was often used in rituals and as a medicine for thousands of years. From about 900 to 100 B.C., the Scythians, a nomadic tribe who dominated western China all the way to the Danube. Scythians though often referred to as one people, “Scythian” is actually an umbrella term for multiple nomadic tribes that inhabited the region. The Scythians were ferocious warriors and expert horsemen, making them the earliest known masters of equestrian arts, as well as the first known users of cannabis. This early mobility explains how they introduced cannabis throughout the antique world. The Scythians rode all throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Russia, spreading their experience of the spiritual and practical uses for cannabis with them.


Cannabis played an integral role of the Scythian cult of the dead. As part of funeral rites, the Scythians would set up small tepee-like structures in which they would burn hemp seeds, cannabis buds and leaves onto red-hot stones. Entering the structures, they would sit in a group, inhaling the fumes created by the smoldering plants and pay tribute to the departed. Archeologists found charred "marihuana" seeds along with what appeared to be burnt cannabis buds in at least two different burial mounds in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. In the tomb of the 5th century BC Siberian “Ice Maiden,”, a “pouch of cannabis,” was offered to serve as a medicine for the maladies that caused her death, including breast cancer. More recently, archeologists uncovered cannabis residue inside gold cups in another Siberian site. Further east, the body of a man unearthed in what is now Turpan, China had whole stalks of preserved cannabis laid across his chest like a funeral shroud. NBC News reported that another grave nearby contained the oldest known marijuana stockpile.


Cannabis wasn’t only used for ceremonies for the dead. A tribe known as the “Thracians” used it in healing rituals. These ancient nomads had a class of shamans in their midst who burned cannabis flowers (and other psychoactive plants) to induce trances. They believed that the plants dissolved in the flames reassembled themselves inside the person who inhaled the vapors and attributed divine healing powers.

Asian societies migrating from Korea to Japan during the Neolithic period brought along their eastern Asia shamanistic practices. This laid the foundations of Japanese Shintoism. Japanese Shamans have been a permanent fixture in society ever since that time. Traditional Japanese medicine commonly uses the dried fruit of hemp (Cannabidis Semen), to treat cases of debility, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.


Cannabis sativa was the most popular crop in Elizabethan England—after wheat. The Queen herself encouraged hemp cultivation. The sailors of the Royal Navy fashioned the fibers into rope, paper, garments, and sails. According to Nikolaas J. van der Merwe, professor of scientific archaeology, the queen’s subjects may also have smoked marijuana for its mind-altering effects. Shakespearian scholars claimed they found references to cannabis encoded in old William’s writings. It suggests that he not only smoked marijuana but also acknowledged the creative force of the herb in a sonnet. He was however careful to avoid explicit reference to its hallucinogenic properties which could associate him with witchcraft. The Church banned cannabis during the Inquisition, after Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed it an “unholy sacrament of satanic mass”. Anyone using it for enjoyment or healing purposes were often tortured and/or burned at the stake. Would Shakespeare have run the risk, had he been more forthcoming about his use of weed? Though that particular Pope forcibly opposed cannabis, other Popes and even Saints recognized its healing powers. St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), perhaps the greatest naturalist and multidisciplinary scholar in all Catholic history, tended to the sick and wrote medical texts which included reference to cannabis for treating epilepsy. Pope John XXI (c. 1215-1277), who was a renowned physician, created a manual about caring for the poor that mentions the virtues of cannabis.

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