The cannabis plant has a long history, and its history is probably as long as human agriculture. According to archeological research, Cannabis Sativa has been growing on its own throughout tropical and humid climates from as early as 10,000 BC (Zhang et al, 2009; Charitos et al, 2020; Warf, 2014).
The word Sativa comes from Latin and it means “sown” or “cultivated”, and this plant has been used since the time of the ancient civilizations, initially as a food source, but also for making clothes and rope. As the knowledge about cannabis expanded in ancient civilizations, people started using the marijuana plant for its psychoactive properties as well as its medicinal properties.
The main reason cannabis has been enjoyed throughout the years comes from the main cannabinoids present in the plant, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). When heated to appropriate temperatures THC has psychoactive effects on users, while CBD is mainly known for its medical benefits and treating conditions such as chronic pain, depression, insomnia, and others.
In this article we’ll focus on the history of the cannabis plant, how it spread around the world, and how it’s used today.
Initial Use of the Cannabis Plant
The wild cannabis plant has flourished on its own for many years before being used by people. Early hemp plants had lower levels of THC, although through cultivation plants with higher THC contents were grown.
After the discovery of cannabis some 10,000 years ago, people started to grow this plant and used it to make clothes, paper, sails, rope, and food, as they saw that the plant could be used for different purposes. (McPartland et al, 2019)
The hemp fiber was used as a cheaper alternative to making clothes in ancient China, and so cannabis use started to spread around Asia, and later on every other continent.
Cannabis Used in Religious Rituals
Cannabis has been traced back to the graves of shamans and healers in China and Siberia who used this powerful plant in religious practices. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nung has even recorded cannabis use as early as 2727 BC.
Chemical evidence of early cannabis smoking was elaborated in a study published in Science Advances. The photographs taken by Xinhua Wu show the wooden braziers found at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Plateau in western China. The burnt residue on the hot stones inside the bowls was analyzed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and the evidence suggested that a cannabis plant had been burnt inside the wooden braziers. (Men Reng et al, 2019)
The main researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Mark Merlin and Robert Spengler, used this analytical forensic research method that identifies different substances within a test sample and analyzes organic material. This proves how ancient Chinese civilizations spread cannabis from the Pamir Plateau to Central Asia and around the world through the Silk Road exchange route.
The Chinese spread cannabis to India where it was used in religious rituals as an offering to Shiva. In ancient India, the use of marijuana is connected to bhang which Hindus have been drinking as early as 1000 BC.
Bhang is a concoction made of the leaves of female cannabis plants which are ground in a paste and mixed with milk, sugar, fruit, and other spices. Apart from using bhang in rituals, it was also used as a form of medicine.
Medical Use of Cannabis
Since ancient humans used the marijuana plant for food, it was only a matter of time until they found the plant’s medicinal properties. The psychoactive effects of cannabis have been described in the Chinese book of agriculture and medicinal plants The Classic of Herbal Medicine or Shennong Ben Cao Jing. Cannabis was used by mixing it with other ingredients, placing the mixture in incense burners, and inhaling the smoke.
Cannabis was even used as an anesthetic in ancient China. The Chinese physician and surgeon Hua Tou (c. 140-208) is the first person who used it as an anesthetic, hence the Chinese term for anesthesia mazui, means cannabis intoxication. He would ground the cannabis plant into a powder, mix it with wine, and administer it to his patients prior to performing surgery on them.
Ancient scriptures on papyrus, like the Ebers Papyrus, mention prescriptions for medical marijuana as a topical treatment for inflammation. The text dates back to Ancient Egypt and describes medical cannabis and its uses.
Other ancient Egyptian papyri where cannabis is mentioned include the Ramesseum III Papyrus (1700 BC), the Berlin Papyrus (1300 BC), and the Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus VI (1300 BC). Ancient Egyptians used this plant as treatment for conditions like sore eyes, hemorrhoids, and as a way to relieve a fever.
People in ancient India have been using the marijuana plant to treat various illnesses and ailments like insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, and as a pain reliever during childbirth. Ayurvedic medicine mentions the use of cannabis and the neurological effects it produces in users.
Bhang was also used as a way to combine the medical and religious use of cannabis. People in India used it to treat sunstroke, clear phlegm, increase appetite, improve digestion, and other conditions by using bhang.
Recreational Use of Cannabis
Scythians, the Euroasian nomadic race feared by both Greeks and Persians, were the ones to introduce cannabis to Europe from the Middle East as early as 500 BC. They were even described by the Greek historian Herodotus as a large group of nomads who inhaled the smoke from the smoldering cannabis seeds and flowers in order to get high. Herodotus wrote about the Scythians’ use of cannabis in ritual and recreation, meaning that marijuana may have been used instead of alcohol as an intoxicant.
Archeologist Andrei Belinski from Russia discovered 2,400-year-old gold vessels in a type of ancient burial mound called a kurgan, which may have been used by the Scythians to consume cannabis. Historians believe that the Scythians’ advantage on the battlefield may have been a result of the use of concoctions they made of cannabis and opium.
Cannabis was brought in Africa through the Middle East where people consumed hashish in pipes. Hashish is a purified form of cannabis that may have been used instead of alcohol, as the Quran forbids alcohol and other intoxicating substances, but not cannabis.
African tribes used hashish and cannabis by smoking it in pipes, similar to how cannabis was used in the Middle East, and it rapidly gained popularity.
Weed came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century and it immediately gained popularity. Mexicans brought it after fleeing their country as a result of the Mexican revolution. Shortly after, laws were passed in order to ban its use around the states and the “War on Drugs” campaign prohibited the use of cannabis. As a result of the campaign, cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 passed by President Richard Nixon.
Some twenty years later, the regulations regarding the use of medical marijuana changed, and California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. Other states followed quickly after, including Oregon, Alaska, and Washington.
As the legalization laws concerning marijuana changed in recent years, today medical marijuana is legal in 33 states in the US, and marijuana for recreational use is legal in 11.
Final Thoughts on the Discovery of Marijuana
The discovery of marijuana is tightly aligned with the discovery of agriculture in the Asian continent. There, marijuana has been growing on its own in tropical and humid climates as early as 10,000 BC. People initially used it as a food source, and as a way to make ropes and clothes.
It wasn’t until 2500 BC that people from Central Asia discovered the effects it had and started smoking the psychoactive cannabis in many rituals. From there cannabis spread to Europe and the other continents until it was banned by the 20th century United Nations treaties.
Nowadays, the legalization laws are changing as more and more countries are starting to legalize the use of medical marijuana, and some have even legalized it for recreational use.
Zhang, Chi & Hung 洪曉純, Hsiao-Chun. (2009). The Neolithic of Southern China–Origin, Development, and Dispersal. Asian Perspectives. 47. 10.1353/asi.0.0004.
Charitos, I. A., Gagliano-Candela, R., Santacroce, L., & Bottalico, L. (2020). The Cannabis spread throughout the Continents and its therapeutic use in history. Endocrine, metabolic & immune disorders drug targets, 10.2174/1871530320666200520095900. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.2174/1871530320666200520095900
Warf, Barney. (2014). High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis. Geographical Review. 104. 10.1111/j.1931-0846.2014.12038.x.
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.