Cultural and Medicinal Cannabis Use in Prehistoric Times

Cannabis isn't a new topic, nor are its diverse cultural and medicinal uses. We have resurrected something ancient.

By Heather Ritchie, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

In 1997, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC was found in Czechoslovakia. It was the oldest evidence of hemp fiber. Botanists accepted that the cannabis plant originated in Central Asia.” Over the millennia its been used for clothing, textiles, paper making, and rope. The leaves and flowers were used for ceremonial, cultural, and medicinal purposes.

For centuries, people have used the seeds for oil and food. It's probably one of the most useful plants in the world because of its multi-purpose utility. Across any given society it’s rare to find a plant that provides so many functions.

Human Development and Evolution

Cannabis has played a pivotal role in human development and evolution, yet we’ve lost years of the plant’s therapeutic benefits because of its illicit status in many countries. “It’s believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia,” according to a study by Barney Warf, a geography professor with the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Cannabis and hemp are some of the oldest crops cultivated by humans. The plant likely thrived in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric gatherers and hunters.

Cannabis drove the economy of the oldest Neolithic Chinese culture, the Yangshao from 5000 to 3000 BC. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists illustrated that they wore hemp, produced pottery made from hemp, and wore clothing, also made from hemp.

Ancient Chinese Use

Shen Nung, who is said to have been the emperor of China around 2737 BC, is also believed to have documented the first recorded use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. He wrote that it helped gout and rheumatism pain. Ancient Chinese people used both hemp and cannabis. Cannabis seeds were one of the staple grains in early China.

Hemp was so integral to society that the ancient Chinese filled sacrificial vessels with the plant for use in the afterlife. Even the first medical journals in this area were fashioned from hemp, which eventually replaced papyrus. Cannabis was elemental to passing written knowledge down to new generations and spreading it to other regions. It was eventually used to document history and, in the end, replaced expensive silk and clay tablets.

Shen Nung is said to have prescribed cannabis for beriberi, female disorders, malaria, absent-mindedness, rheumatic pains, and constipation. The root was often ground into a paste and applied to areas of the body that were operated on and broken bones for pain relief.

As ancient Chinese civilization advanced and new technologies developed, the Chinese learned to heat and press cannabis seeds to extract the oil. The oil was used for lubrication, to fuel lamps, and as a base in varnish, soap making, and paint. The residue from the oil extract, “hemp-cake” was 30% protein and 10% oil. It was used to feed domesticated animals.

Cannabis Use Spreads Globally

Around 2000 BC the Chinese took cannabis to Korea, and its use extended to India between 2000 to 1000 BC when the area “was invaded by a group that spoke an archaic Indo-European language, the Aryans.” Their religion spread via oral tradition. It was recorded in a segment of books called the Four Versas composed between 1400 to 1000 BC. The Aryan religion worshiped animal and plant spirits. Cannabis played a crucial role in the group’s rituals, and the Indian people also used hemp for medicine and clothing.

Around the same time frame, cannabis arrived in the Middle East and was likely used by a nomad group of Indo-Europeans, the Scythians. They probably carried the plant into the Ukraine and southeast Russia. Germanic tribes conveyed cannabis into Germany, and from there it migrated to Britain with the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century.

Cannabis seeds were also discovered in the ruins of Viking ships that dated as far back as the mid-ninth century. It then journeyed to other regions in the world like Africa and South America, and eventually North America by way of the Spanish in the middle of the 1500s. The English introduced it to Jamestown in 1611.

Cultural and Spiritual Use

Another early recorded instance of the medical use of cannabis occurred in 700 BC, in The Vendidad. The Vendidad was an archaic Persian religious manuscript allegedly written by Zoroaster. The Greeks mentioned it as a medical solution for edema, inflammation, and earache around 200 BC.

When Napoleon brought the herb back to France after finding it in Egypt, Parisians investigated it for its sedative and pain-relieving qualities. In Africa, Islam strongly influenced cannabis use. Many tribes used it for recreation and rituals. “The ancient Riamba cult is still practiced in the Congo. According to Riamba beliefs, cannabis is a god, a protector from physical and spiritual harm.” Business transactions and treaties are sealed with a smoke from a pipe throughout Africa.

In many instances, the past is often the key to the future. Unfortunately, society as a whole has lost past knowledge of cannabis and its medical uses. Many old chemovars are extinct, forever gone from the world. As cannabis becomes legal again, research will continue, and technology will evolve our understanding of the herb, making therapeutic medical treatments all the more conventional.

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