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The Early History of Cannabis

By December 10, 2018 March 23rd, 2019 No Comments

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years for industrial, recreational, religious, and medicinal purposes. Once valued as a versatile herbal medicine, cannabis has held a volatile place in the medical field since the beginning of the twentieth century. Its decline was deeply influenced by economic, social, and ethical factors. Until recently, it seemed the flowering plant was destined to fall by the wayside: it was classified as a substance of abuse, condemned by governments, and contributed to the problems of drug trafficking. However, in recent years, a growing body of research has begun to demonstrate the medicinal potential of cannabis in the treatment of numerous pathologies. Cannabis’ path from praised healing agent to dismissed substance of abuse has now come full circle.

In the first installment of our exploration of the history of cannabis, we look at the earliest recorded use of cannabis in the premodern era.

Early Cultivation and Use

Historians and archeologists believe Cannabis sativa has been grown for at least 12,000 years. It was initially cultivated for its fiber and grain. The fibers and stalks of hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of Cannabis sativa, was found to be particularly useful in the development of numerous products including paper, textiles, and rope (Pain, Nature, 2015; Baron, Headache, 2015). The exact geographic origin of cannabis is unknown, but it is believed that the plant arose in Central Asia and subsequently spread throughout Asia and Europe, following the migration patterns of humans (Russo, Chem Biodivers, 2007). Carbon dating of archeologic remains from the Yang-shao culture in China has confirmed the use of cannabis fibers in the form of hemp dating as far back as 4,000 BC (Li, Economic Botany, 1974). Cannabis spread to the United States after the arrival of Columbus, and the industrial benefits were capitalized in the country. In fact, in 1619, Virginia passed a law requiring hemp to be grown on every farm in the colony (history.com 2018).

Fibers of a hemp plant stalk.

The earliest evidence of the medical use of cannabis dates back to 2,700 BC, where the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung described it as a remedy for gout, malaria, rheumatism, and constipation (Liu, Lett Drug Disc Des, 2006). In Egypt, starting around 1700 BC, scholars began to outline medical remedies for a number of ophthalmic, gynecologic, and infectious disorders using marijuana, indicating suspected antibacterial, antipyretic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory effects (Russo, Chem Biodivers, 2007). A number of ancient societies in Asia and Europe, including the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians provided medical indications for the use of cannabis. Some historians even argue references can be found in the original Biblical texts (Russo, Chem Biodivers, 2007).

Emperor Shen Nung chewing a branch (painting circa 1503).

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In India, literary descriptions of cannabis were outlined as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. By the tenth century, scholars were clearly describing the narcotic and pain-relieving properties of the plant (Chopra, Bull. Narcotics, 1957). The first archeologic evidence supporting the medical use of cannabis came from a burial cave near Jerusalem. The skeleton of a 14-year-old girl who had presumably died during childbirth in the fourth century was found to have burnt plant remains on her abdomen. Chemical analysis showed the remains contained THC. Archaeologists concluded that cannabis had been burnt in a vessel and that the girl inhaled cannabis smoke during her efforts to deliver the baby (Pain, Nature, 2015). Cannabis has long held an important role in human culture, across a variety of cultures and regions. It was well-known before the modern era to be a potent, versatile therapeutic.