Cannabis has a long history of human use and cultivation, although our relationship to the plant has changed significantly over the course of millenia. Cannabis first evolved in Central Asia about 12,000 years ago. More specifically, scientists believe that it evolved in what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia. The plant was later introduced by humans to Africa, Europe, and finally the Americas, and it was one of the first agricultural crops. But what was it being used for?
Originally, cannabis was rarely smoked or eaten for its psychoactive effects. In fact, in some areas of the world, it would have been impossible for people to do so. This is because there are actually several different types of cannabis. Cannabis sativa L. is a subspecies of cannabis that is not psychoactive, and is also known as hemp. It can be used for manufacturing goods such as oil, fuels, and textiles. Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica both have psychoactive properties from the THC they contain, and are both sometimes referred to as marijuana.
There is also a third low-THC type of cannabis called Cannabis ruderalis, which grows in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Russia. However, this type is rarely used for any purpose: it has very little THC, so it’s not good for recreational use, and because of its short height when compared to C. sativa or C. indica, it’s not as effective for manufacturing purposes.
Cannabis Use and Culture in Pre-History
Cannabis has made its way all around the world, at this point. However, it was not used extensively in much of the world – at least, not as extensively as in China (the birthplace of cannabis) and in India. These two countries are known to have made some of the first use of cannabis as an intoxicant, as well as a medicine and a useful construction material. So, we’ll start there.
China: The earliest human civilizations began along the banks of Earth’s great rivers: China’s Hwang-Ho, India’s Indus, and the Nile. These areas had water and fertile land for crops, which made them perfect areas for settlers. At different times, in different places, humans discovered cannabis, and began cultivating it. The first cannabis cultivation began in China more than 10,000 years ago.
This is evidenced by archeological findings: in the remains of a village on the island of Taiwan, scientists discovered fabrics and ropes made from hemp fiber. This technology was incredibly important to the early people living in this area. In fact, the second century B.C.’s Book of Rites – a collection of ancient writings that describe the ceremonial rites of the Zhou dynasty, among other things – states that in order to respect the dead, those mourning should wear hemp clothing. So, clearly, hemp and cannabis were important to this early civiliziation.
Cannabis wasn’t important just as a material, though. The Chinese were also the first to use it as a medicine, beginning (according to legend) with the emperor Shen-Nung. According to the legends, the emperor ingested seventy different poisons in a single day, and single-handedly discovered the antidotes to each one. Afterwards, he wrote the Pen Ts’ao, a herbal that listed hundreds of drugs that could be created from vegetable, animal, and mineral sources. This book contains references to ma, the Chinese word meaning “cannabis.”
Allegedly, a Chinese surgeon named Hua T’o was later able to perform complex surgeries like organ grafts, intestinal resections, and more painlessly by using ma-yo, an anesthetic made by combining wine and cannabis resin. However, unless he was using so much of the substance that it rendered his patients entirely unconscious, this seems extremely unlikely to be true.
The Chinese were also the first people to experience cannabis’ psychoactive effects. However, many Chinese disapproved of its use – largely due to the values promoted by Taoism. A later version of the Pen Ts’au states that if too many ma seeds are eaten, they can make the user “see demons.”
One of the most important Chinese inventions of that early chapter of civilization was paper. Chinese legend credits a court official named Ts’ai Lun for the invention of paper in 105 A.D., although archeological evidence has shown that paper had already been in use at that time.
In contrast, the rest of the world (beginning with the people living in the Middle East) didn’t develop methods to manufacture paper until the 9th century AD – possibly after gleaning the secret from the Chinese prisoners that the Arabs took in the Battle of Samarkand (or modern-day Russia). In the 12th century A.D., the paper manufacturing techniques were discovered by the rest of Europe.
India: According to a legend, the Hindu deity Shiva once stormed off to some fields after an argument with his family. In the fields, a cannabis plant shaded the god. He ate some of the plant’s leaves, and felt relaxed and refreshed. Then, Shiva adopted cannabis (also known in India as bhang) and became known as the Lord of Bhang.
Frequently, the word “bhang” does not refer to the cannabis plant itself. Instead, it often refers to a drink made with cannabis leaves and a few other ingredients. India treated (and still treats) bhang much like the West treats alcohol. Now and in the past, bhang has been an ever-present piece of social and religious gatherings. Practitioners of Tantric sex, performed in honor of the goddess Kali, drank a bowl of bhang an hour and a half before the sex act.
At the beginning of the 1900s, following a several-year investigation, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission concluded that: “To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy. A guardian lives in the bhang leaf… To see in a dream the leaves, plant, or water of bhang is lucky… No good thing can come to the man who treads underfoot the holy bhang leaf. A longing for bhang foretells happiness.”
The Middle East: The Middle East appears here as a region rather than as specific countries because the path of cannabis throughout the Middle East is not tied to a national culture, but to a religious one. Cannabis became popular in the Middle East around 800 AD – the same time Islam spread around the region. This is likely because the Quran forbids the use of alcohol and other intoxicants, but did not specifically forbid cannabis. In this region, cannabis was typically consumed in the form of hashish, which is made from cannabis resin.
Scythians: The Scythians were a nomadic warrior tribe, and were renowned for their horsemanship and ability in warfare. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that cannabis was an important part of the Scythians’ ritual for honoring dead leaders.
The ceremony was unpleasant, to say the least. Fifty of the leader’s bodyguards were killed, along with their horses. Then, the men’s innards were removed, and replaced with various herbs before they were stitched back shut. The horses were impaled on a circle of stakes around the leader’s tomb, and the bodyguards placed on top to stand watch over the dead.
Following this grisly affair, everyone who participated in the burial would undergo a purification ritual. First, they washed their bodies with oil. Then, they put up small tents. Inside was a censor filled with red-hot stones. Marijuana seeds were dumped onto these stones, which caused the Scythian men inside to, in Herodotus’ words, “howl with joy.”
Cannabis evolved around 12,000 BC on the steppes of Central Asia. Then, it stayed there for several thousand years. During that time, the Chinese learned to make rope, textiles, and paper from hemp fibers. Around 2,000 or 1,400 B.C., cannabis was carried to the Middle East by a nomadic Indo-European people known as Scythians. Shortly afterward, cannabis traveled to Japan, India, and Europe.
Over the next several hundred years, cannabis spread to Africa. By the 1800s, Africans who were later taken as slaves by the Portuguese were familiar with recreational use of cannabis. Through the Portuguese, the habit spread to Brazil. Similarly, and also in the 1800s, the British transported millions of indentured Indian servants around the British Empire, and use of cannabis spread along with the indentured servants. There were several failed attempts to criminalize cannabis in British India in 1838, 1871, and 1877.
From Brazil, cannabis traveled throughout South America, and then to Central and North America in the 1910-1920s. An important note here is that cannabis of the hemp variety was cultivated in North America since the 1600s or earlier. However, the continent only had hemp until the 1910s, when refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution came north, bringing marijuana with them.
Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years, both as a building material and as a recreational drug. However, it has been fully legal in most of the world for most of history. Cannabis has been made illegal on a few occasions, beginning with emir Soudoun Sheikouni’s mid-1300s ban on cannabis in his district of Arabia. In 1787, King Andianampoinimerina of Merina in Madagascar decreed that cannabis use must be penalized by death in his kingdom.
More recently, cannabis was banned in Singapore, Greece, and several other countries, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that the world experienced an extensive wave of cannabis bans. Over the last two decades, countries around the world have been decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis for both medical and recreational uses.
Some Key Points on the Global Cannabis Timeline
We don’t know everything about humankind’s historical use of cannabis, but based on early writings and archeological evidence such as preserved cannabis fibers, residue of the burned seeds or the whole plant, resin left in ancient pipes, and more, we do know a lot. We know enough that there’s no room for a comprehensive timeline here, but here are a few key points:
- 8,000 BC: Archeologists have discovered hemp cord used in pottery around this time, in a village site located in what is now Taiwan.
- 2,727 BC: China’s Emperor Shen Neng records use of cannabis as a medicine. This is the earliest record of medical cannabis use we have.
- 2,000-800 BC: The Atharvaveda (Science of Charms), one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, mentions bhang, though in the Atharvaveda it is called “sacred grass.” It is one of India’s five sacred plants, and is used both medicinally and as a ritual offering to Shiva.
- 430 BC: The Greek historian Herodotus writes about the recreational and ritual use of Cannabis by the Scythians, a nomadic people hailing from modern-day southern Siberia.
- 100 BC: Hemp paper is being used in China, and cannabis’ psychoactive properties and effects are mentioned in the Pen Ts’ao Ching.
- 127-46 BC: Plutarch mentions that after meals, Thracians would throw “plants that looked like oregano” into a fire. Afterwards, they appeared to become intoxicated, and then they fell asleep not long after.
- 23-79 AD: At some point during his 55 years of life, Pliny wrote and published The Natural History, in which he mentions that cannabis can be used to make rope or as a painkiller.
- 500-600 AD: The Talmud mentions cannabis’ ability to induce euphoria.
- 900 AD: Arabs learn how to make paper out of hemp.
- 1200 AD: The famous collection of Arabian tales, 1,001 Nights, describes the intoxicating and aphrodisiac effects of hashish, an extract made from cannabis resin.
- 1533 AD: King Henry VIII fines any farmers who are not cultivating industrial hemp.
- 1600 AD: At this time, every farm in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut is required to grow hemp.
- 1753 AD: Cannabis sativa is officially classified by Carl Linnaeus.
- 1842 AD: An Irish physician, William O’Shaughnessy, introduces cannabis to Western Medicine. He published writing stating that the plant has does not have any negative effects, and believed that that cannabis’ use in a medical context would increase dramatically very soon.
- 1910 AD: Mexican refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution come to the US, and introduce Americans (and through them, Canadians) to the recreational use of marijuana.
- 1923 AD: Canada criminalizes cannabis.
- 1924 AD: Cannabis ruderalis, a small, low-THC type of cannabis, is classified by Russian botanists.
- 1936 AD: Reefer Madness (either an anti-marijuana propaganda film or a poorly executed educational video, depending on who you ask) is released in the United States.
- 1937 AD: The U.S. passes the Marijuana Tax Act, criminalizing the drug. Dr. William C. Woodward testified as the face of the American Medical Association, and stated in front of congress that “the American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug.” Correct or not, he was ignored. Part of the testimony that Congress did use to support the decision came from articles from newspapers that were owned by William Randolph Hearst – a man who depended heavily on the timber industry to make his money.
- 2013: Uruguay legalizes recreational cannabis – the first country in the modern era to do so.
Uruguay’s decision to legalize cannabis marked a reversal of the wave of illegalization. In the West, this progress was slower, but began earlier: in 1973, the U.S. state of Oregon decriminalized cannabis. In 1996, California legalized medical marijuana, and Canada did the same on a federal level in 2001. After that… well if you’re old enough to smoke cannabis, you’re old enough to remember the rest.