History Of Cannabis
Traditionally, a story will start with set and setting – here we have no such specifics
Our understanding of humanity’s earliest years is based only on archaeological record, with only a couple hundred village sites, grave sites, and caves informing 40,000 or so years of what’s otherwise historical pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Graciously, there are two constants those who make a habit of looking this far back can rely upon.
There is the necessitous need for food, water, clothing, shelter, and tools, and
There is the almost unbroken human tradition of leaving an impressive mess behind while in pursuit of these things.
This has given us at least some insight into humanity’s early endeavors. What we do know is that round-abouts the year 13,000 BCE, human beings were just as ambitious as they are today, and things were downright rowdy. Around this time some very committed people crossed the land bridge connecting Siberia and North America, bringing our tally to 6 out 7 continents settled (Antarctica, unfortunately, was just as much of a bother back then). It appears this is also when humans first domesticated the pig, in what is now Southeastern Turkey. Around this time, what is now the Sahara was a lush, fertile wetland, Japan was connected to China by land, and people were starting to get really stoked about rocks.
Our gradual fade from upper paleolithic hunter-gatherer (nomadic) societies into organized and permanent early neolithic (sedentary) settlements is said to have begun as early as 10,200 BCE, where agricultural traditions first became established in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (stretching from the Levant to the Persian Gulf). Here, between the well sedimented Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a mineral-rich soil and temperate climate lent itself to the earliest agricultural forays. The unimaginatively named “pre-pottery Neolithic A culture” came on the scene around 10,000 BCE – the first documented agricultural society – and, around 8700 BCE, transitioned to the equally uninspired “pre-pottery Neolithic B culture,” which continued on until 6800 BCE. Around 6000 BCE, the first organized, pottery-using, and imaginatively named culture (the Hassuna!) comes on the scene. In these years, pottery is a big deal. Being heavy and easy to break, the presence of pottery almost definitely indicates that the society has permanently settled. This ushers in the age of surplus and food storage, and, some 8,000 years later, the age of delivery pizza, Uber, and space exploration!
Almost contemporaneously (ca. 9500 BCE), the first Yellow River Society in what is now China (the Nanzhuangtou) appeared. The Nanzhuangtou village site is the oldest Chinese neolithic site – so old, in fact, that the archaeological record suggests they may have been the first society to domesticate the dog. It’s also around this time that the modern cannabis plant – Cannabis Sativa – seems to make its way into the hands of human beings. I guess cute canines and cannabis have always gone bud-in-paw!
So where does hemp call home?
Unfortunately, we’ll probably be left guessing. It’s long been thought that the “Garden of Weeden” (hold for laughs?) most likely lies in the riverbed steppes and slopes of central Asia. Based on the limited fossil record and the best guesses of some really smart people, the Irtysh River Valley (stretching from Northern China to Russia) has been specifically suggested as cannabis’ ancestral home. Regardless of where it took root, Cannabis Sativa spread like a wee…ildfire (got ya!), proliferating quickly across Eurasia and Africa.
No matter its origin, cannabis sativa – aka “hemp” – is clearly a popular and widely-shared plant.
We do have some clarity at least – the earliest indication that humans were producing hemp textiles comes from ~8,000 BCE, from a site in the Yuan-Shan region of what is now Taiwan. Here, fragments of pottery appear to have been decorated with a woven hemp rope, and a stone beating rod (closely resembling later stone tools used to pound hemp plants) was found alongside these. No hemp fibers could be positively identified – however, the practice of decorating pottery with the imprint of hemp cords would re-emerge in the later Yangshao society, suggesting a continuing tradition. The later practice by many neolithic societies of forming pottery in the shape of and/or decorating pottery with materials it would later hold (i.e. a vase shaped like a poppy intended to hold opium products) hints that these may have held cannabis products like hemp oils and seeds.
Ultimately, cannabis’ earliest years remain incredibly hazy – but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone up in smoke! As archaeologists continue to innovate new methods for historical analysis and further develop the tools already at our disposal, we can only expect the picture to get clearer from here! Until such a time time, know that the cannabis flower on your shelf carries on an at least 7,000 year legacy of continuous human use that’s traveled from the Eastern coast of the Asiatic continent to the most Westerly Americas – no small feat for a humble weed!
Next time we’ll start looking at early indications of hemp production in ancient Japan and China, focusing on the physical evidence of their grand civilizational transformations.
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BCE: Before Common Era, aka “BC” (Before Christ). BCE designates any year prior to 0 CE (AD), the turn of the millennium.
CE: Common Era, aka “AD” (Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord). The Common Era begins at 0 CE and continues to the present year, 2018 CE.
Ca: Ca. is shorthand for circa, which in the study of history is used to identify any approximal dates.
Cannabis Sativa: The species name for cannabis. Indica, Afghanica, and Ruderalis are subspecies. Hemp refers to minimally psychoactive male cannabis plants grown for food and/or fibre.
Paleolithic: Informally known as the “Stone Age,” the paleolithic period designates the vast amount of time between the earliest examples of stone tools, c. 3.3 Million BCE, and the advent of agriculture in the neolithic period, ca. 10,200 BCE.
Mesolithic: The transitional period succeeding the paleolithic and preceding the neolithic. The dates of the mesolithic period vary from region to region, and the mesolithic designator is not typically applied outside of Northern Europe and areas of the Levant.
Neolithic: The beginnings of organized and sedentary human societies. This period of time commenced with the advent of agriculture, and featured widespread and independent domestication of crops and animals. Eventually, the neolithic period would give way to the Copper and Bronze Ages.
Sedentary: A society inhabiting permanent or semi-permanent settlements.
Nomadic: A roaming society without permanent settlements.
About the author
Lana Tong is an aspiring Endocannabinoid Psychopharmacologist and Squirrel Behavioral Therapist based in Victoria, British Columbia. She’s passionate about cannabis as a medicine, entheogen, food, fiber crop, and so much more. Lana hopes to one day swim in a pool filled with organic CBD-infused coconut oil – we all have dreams, right?