Scientists have confirmed that people have been consuming the cannabis plant for ages, since the time of the ancient civilizations. The marijuana plant has been a popular source of food and clothing production for nearly 10 000 years, as well as a medicine. But has marijuana been used for its psychoactive properties longer than it was previously believed?
Both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are the most common cannabinoids found in marijuana and have been enjoyed by cannabis enthusiasts since people first discovered how beneficial marijuana actually is for various purposes.
Even though nowadays marijuana legalization laws are being discussed all around the world, ancient cultures didn’t grow the plant only for its psychoactive effects, but as herbal medicine and a source of food and clothing. The history of cannabis use is long and varied, with some cultures even cultivating strains with higher THC content.
So, can we pinpoint exactly how long people have been smoking cannabis?
The History of Cannabis and How Marijuana Spread Around the World
“The cannabis plant originally flourished in steppe – an open treeless habitat”, as researchers write. It initially grew on its own before people started to cultivate it to make clothes, paper, sails, and rope, and the seeds were used as food. (McPartland et al, 2019)
By studying cannabis fossil pollen meticulously, scientists were able to approximate the origin of cannabis to the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. These early hemp plants initially had low concentrations of THC, although people cultivated cannabis with higher levels of THC later on, to use in religious ceremonies or healing practices.
Apart from using hemp fiber as a cheaper alternative for making clothes, the ancient Chinese also smoked marijuana. The first traces of cannabis use as a psychoactive ingredient have been linked to the graves of shamans in China and Siberia.
A study published in Science Advances contained chemical evidence of early cannabis smoking.
Photographs made by Xinhua Wu show the discovered wooden braziers found at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Plateau of western China which were used to burn plants. The analyzed burnt residue on the hot stones inside the bowls contained traces of cannabinol (CBN), suggesting that cannabis plants were indeed burnt there. (Men Reng et al, 2019)
Robert Spengler, the laboratory director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and his fellow researchers used the identification technique gas chromatography-mass spectrometry in order to reach conclusions. This analytical forensic research method identifies different substances within a test sample and analyzes organic material.
When compared to the ancient cannabis sample from the Jiayi Cemetery in Turpan, the researchers found that the people of Jirzankal could have hybridized local cannabis strains with strains from other areas, since there were higher THC levels than the ones found in wild plants.
According to Mark Merlin, “this is a real indication of how long people have been manipulating cannabis”. It’s highly possible that ancient civilizations then spread cannabis from the Pamir Plateau that connects Central Asia and China to southwest Asia. After that, weed spread throughout the northern hemisphere through the Silk Road exchange route.
From China, cannabis spread to India where it was considered as “sacred grass”- one of the five sacred plants of India and was used as a herbal remedy and ritually, as an offering to the goddess Shiva.
Cannabis was introduced to Europe from the Middle East by the Scythians. They were a nomadic race who ravaged Euroasia for 1000 years and were feared by both the Greeks and Persians. Scythians used cannabis as early as 500 BC and apart from using it medicinally and in rituals, they also used it recreationally. (Barney Warf, 2014)
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Scythians and reported on their use of cannabis in rituals and recreation. Herodotus wrote “Scythians used a plant to produce smoke that no Grecian vapour-bath can surpass and that “transported by the vapour, [they] shout aloud.”
Russian archeologist Andrei Belinski also confirmed this theory with the discovery of 2,400-year-old gold vessels in a type of ancient burial mound called a kurgan, which were probably used by the Scythians to consume cannabis. Anton Gass, from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, called it a “once-in-a-century discovery”.
Historians believe that Scythians used to smoke and possibly brew a strong concoction made of cannabis and opium which they believed gave them advantages against other warriors.
About a thousand years ago, a new form of cannabis started spreading throughout the world. Hashish is a purified form of cannabis that is smoked with a pipe, and it was widely used throughout the Middle East, as the Quran clearly forbade alcohol and intoxicating substances, but not cannabis.
This is how cannabis was probably introduced to eastern Africa from southern Asia. Cannabis and hashish were both used with a pipe. It was used in African tribes and it gained popularity rapidly.
Australia’s history with marijuana dates back to the 1770s when the country was colonized for cannabis cultivation. The first settlement in Australia was New South Wales which, according to many historians, was planned to be colonized to grow cannabis and make Australia a marijuana farm.
As the fears of psychedelic effects began to spread in the 1920s, there was less and less demand for cannabis in Australia. The recreational use of cannabis was banned in the following years as a result of the Geneva protocol convention.
Weed came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It was brought by Mexicans who were fleeing their country as a result of the Mexican revolution. But just as marijuana use was starting to gain popularity, acts were passed to ban its use around the states.
This culminated in cannabis being classified as a Schedule I drug with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 signed by President Richard Nixon as part of the “War on Drugs” campaign and the use of cannabis was prohibited.
After 1996, regulations around the use of medical marijuana were changed as California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis, and Oregon, Alaska, and Washington followed its lead by legalizing medical cannabis through ballot measures.
As a result of the legalization laws, today you can buy weed at local dispensaries in states like Colorado and Washington where marijuana has been legal for both medical and recreational use since 2012. Today the medicinal use of cannabis is legalized in 33 states in the US, and you can use it both medically and recreationally in 11 states.
Marijuana use is far from a modern practice- it’s been with us for around 10 000 years. People have been using this powerful plant for its healing powers, as well as for food and clothes since ancient times. But around 2500 years ago, people from Central Asia started smoking psychoactive cannabis as a way to pay their respects to their loved ones at funerals.
And so, the use of psychoactive cannabis began. It later spread to Europe, where according to Herodotus, the Scythians used cannabis in rituals, and it’s suggested that it was the reason they were such ferocious warriors. Later, the use of cannabis spread in Africa, the Americas, and Australia, until it was finally banned by the 20th century United Nations treaties.
Today, weed is one of the most used substances around the world, second only to alcohol. Smoking marijuana today is legal in some countries with marijuana legalization laws pending in others, although the use of cannabis is still mostly illegal around the world.
McPartland, J.M., Hegman, W. & Long, T. Cannabis in Asia: its center of origin and early cultivation, based on a synthesis of subfossil pollen and archaeobotanical studies. Veget Hist Archaeobot 28, 691–702 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-019-00731-8
Ren, Meng & Tang, Zihua & Wu, Xinhua & Spengler, Robert & Jiang, Hongen & Yang, Yimin & Boivin, Nicole. (2019). The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs. Science Advances. 5. eaaw1391. 10.1126/sciadv.aaw1391.
Warf, B. (2014), High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis. Geogr Rev, 104: 414-438. doi:10.1111/j.1931-0846.2014.12038.x
Warf, Barney. (2014). High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis. Geographical Review. 104. 10.1111/j.1931-0846.2014.12038.x.