The Early History of Cannabis – Part 3 of 4

The Early History of Cannabis – Part 3 of 4

History Of Cannabis

Hemp in Asia: The Beginnings of a Hempire (8,000 BCE through 3,000 BCE)

Around the time that cord-decorated pottery was being constructed in ancient Taiwan,  a small group of individuals was cultivating hemp and very likely eating it! A large collection of cannabis achenes, seemingly far too large to be naturally occurring, was found on the Oki Islands (off the southwestern coast of Japan). Achenes are the seed-bearing fruits produced by a pollinated Cannabis Sativa plant, and were likely an important source of food and oil. The presence of so many in one place, alongside other traces of organized human life, suggests that this may have been a stockpile or burial gift.

In Japan, the whole period of time between ~14,000 BCE and ~1,000 BCE is known as the “Jomon” period. “Jomon” (縄文), loosely translates to “Cord-Marked” – a reference to the cord-decorated pottery that remained a fixture throughout. Past 8,000 BCE, these cords are presumed to be predominantly hemp-derived. It’s possible that hemp cords were being used to decorate Jomon pottery earlier, but no hemp fibres have been positively identified.

Asiatic languages differ slightly from latin-derived languages in that one character may carry multiple meanings or associations, and these meanings may be modified depending on other characters present. In modern Chinese, for example, 木 designates a tree, where the composite character 林 (literally a depiction of two trees) represents a forest. It’s important then to recognize the various meanings ascribed to the composite “Jomon” (縄文); while primarily interpreted as “cord-marked,” it’s also been interpreted as “a collection of ropes,” “straw rope pattern,” and, while it’s yet unconfirmed, it may have doubled as a symbol for hemp in the very late Jomon/early Yayoi periods.

From here-on-out, hemp experiences a rapid and enduring renaissance. The earliest artistic depiction of hemp adorns a cave wall on the Japanese island of Kyushu, painting what appears to be a reverent and idyllic scene. In the rendering (carbon-dated to ~5500 BCE), two robed figures with horses in tow stand in the shadows of two grand hemp plants, easily identifiable by their thin, odd-numbered fan-leaves, all looking at ease. The sun shines overhead, and calm waves lap at the shore. The prominence of the hemp plants and the celebratory nature of the portrait seem to impress its importance in the natural world and in civic applications.

Cave Art Painting

Blurriness aside, this image fills me with wonder every time. It’s beautiful to see a continued tradition depicted far before we could even write!

A Treasure Trove of Hemp

Our earliest treasure trove of hemp-derived artifacts follows soon after, all the way back in the Yellow River Valley. Here, in 1953, archaeologists discovered an exceedingly rare and expansive neolithic site known as “Xi’an Banpo,” or simply “Banpo.” Here, a society known as the Yangshao (~5,000-3,000 BCE) erected one of its most prolific settlements; Banpo covers an area between 5 and 6 hectares (12-15 acres) and includes multiple organized settlements, featuring a communal space in the centre of the village and ~6 metre-wide defensive moat surrounding the entire perimeter – no small feat for a Neolithic society!

Jiangzhai, another Yangshao settlement, was also surrounded by a ditch, and featured a similar collection of circular houses with a communal burial ground. This is one of the first examples of complex, multigenerational traditions spreading, which is a pretty big deal. Over the next ~2,000 years, the Yangshao’s practices would spread impressively amongst surrounding Yellow River populations, indicating a significant degree of mobility.

From the items found at these village sites, we can identify that hemp was being used for a number of essential purposes. The Yangshao wove hemp into rope, which they used to decorate and reinforce pottery, clothing, baskets, and fishing nets. In short, hemp was the agricultural backbone that tied the Yangshao society together. It’s been suggested that, with its many uses, the cannabis plant itself may have become a proto-currency – a “cash crop before cash.”

Decorative Stone Carving Urn

An example of cord-decorated pottery!

By the time the Yangshao society was phasing out and diverging into its successor societies, hemp had found a home in Korea. Early hemp threads alongside needles made of bone have been dated to ~3000 BCE on the Korean peninsula, suggesting a long history of woven hemp in this region. The mythicized Gojoseon period (2333-108 BCE) seems to have cemented the role of hemp in Korean life – multiple village sites have turned up hemp fibers and rope. Later, the Korean Peninsula would become renowned for its clean, consistent, high-quality hemp fabric, and the ancient art of hemp weaving is carried on to this day!

As it was in China, the later Gojoseon peoples were primarily clothed in woven hemp, known as Sambe. And much like the later Zhou and Qin dynasties, Korean ceremonial rites call for both the deceased and mourners to be clothed in hemp as a sign of respect. In those years hemp was revered and even literally deified, as with the ancient Chinese goddess Ma Gu – literally, Hemp Maiden. Even as late as the 1920s, hemp was considered essential for construction materials, food, fibre, oil, rope, and so much more. And now, after 80+ years of prohibition, we’re reclaiming that legacy. Whether for food, fibre, medicine, or more, we know that cannabis will always have a place in human society.

Next week’s post will explore the earliest recorded mentions of cannabis, a much-needed “ahhh” moment for hemp historians as we’re treated to the first confirmation of early hemp production in ancient China.

The final part of our series will be coming soon!

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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?

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