Part 1: The Roots
Modern cannabis is a tricky plant to successfully cultivate.
It’s sensitive, requiring precise temperature, humidity, and soil conditions to provide the most bountiful harvest. Beginner home growers may find themselves knee-deep in purchases they didn’t expect to make, and professional growing rooms can house millions of dollars worth of equipment.
But cannabis didn’t start off this way; a finicky houseplant that take months of tender care and attention; before, during, and after harvest. So where does the story of cannabis start?
Particularly in America in the 20th and into the 21st centuries, we have a tricky relationship with cannabis. Though this plant has been in use in cultures and empires throughout the world dating back over 10,000 years, the last 120 years have seen cannabis demonized at the expense of the minority community for corporate profit. (We’ll get into this in a later blog)
But to begin to understand this plant which has evolved alongside humanity, we must go back to the beginning, to where it all started.
The two most popular strains of cannabis in modern days are the psychoactive ones, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. These two subspecies make up 50% of the cannabis family tree. The non-psychoactive half is made up of Cannabis sativa L (better known as hemp) and Cannabis ruderalis, which is uncommon. The cannabis family tree plants its roots 12,000 year ago in the Steppes of East and Central Asia, in what is now Mongolia and Southern Siberia.
Yes, cannabis originated in the harsh and unforgiving grasslands of Sibera. It was (once) a hardy and resistant plant, capable of surviving and blooming after long, dark winters with unbearably low temperatures.
Cannabis is regarded as one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, and indeed one of the oldest cultivated crops in the history of humankind.
But when you dig a little deeper, cannabis’ origin story takes a… smelly turn.
In his 2014 study High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis, author Barney Warf posits that “[Cannabis]…likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers” which is a pleasant way of saying cannabis grew in pre-historic poop piles.
Evidence of human use of cannabis dates back to at least 4,000 BCE in ancient China, where it was used as an aesthetic. Chinese travelers took the drug with them as they traveled the Asian subcontinent, between 2,000 and 1,000 BCE. It was recorded in Korea, India, and throughout the Middle East. An ancient Sanskrit Vedic poem celebrates the plant as one of “five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety”
Cannabis use at this time looked dramatically different from our use today. In Central Asia, ancient consumption was heavily oral, or through smoke inhalation. The practice of inhaling cannabis fumes is well documented in the 5th Century BCE Persian Empire by the historian Herodotus. But this was not smoking as we know it today, with the controlled container and open airflow of a pipe or rolled paper. This would have been the inhalation of fumes from the burning plant in a fire.
Now it bears saying that wild cannabis still grows across Central Asia, and all wild varieties which are closest in relation to the plant our ancient ancestors had access to is significantly lower in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). It remains an ongoing question in science as to when and where cannabis was first bred for increased THC production.
In addition to use in medical and recreation practices, hemp has long been cultivated with remnants of hemp clothing from as early as 8,000 BCE. But that’s a deep dive for another day.