The History of Cannabis

Part 3: Ancient Africa

Evidence of cannabis in civilization dates back to at 8,000 BCE. First in its native growing region of Central Asia, the plant was spread throughout Asia and the lower Asian subcontinent before making its way to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The plant was used in its entirety. Hemp fabrics and ropes have been found at archeological sites from China to Persia and the psychoactive properties have long been a source of medicine and ritual worship.

We’ll explore cannabis use throughout the eras leading up to modern times. In this blog, we’ll explore how cannabis was used in Ancient Africa.

The map shows how cannabis may have spread from its place of origin in Central Asia throughout the world. (Image credit: Barney Warf, University of Kansas)

A note before we begin: Africa is a vast continent, home to many different cultures and ethnic groups. In the Western world, African history is grossly ignored and vastly underrepresented to due centuries of pervasive racism. While other blogs focus on specific cultures, research on the history of cannabis across the continent of Africa is slim and easiest to find when we look at the continent as a whole. It is not meant to be disrespectful of the millions of people who call Africa home. Additionally, much of what we know today comes from the notes of colonizing Europeans and perceptions of cannabis drug use were entangled in ideas about class and race.

Cannabis in Ancient Africa

It is thought cannabis was first introduced to Africa by early Arabic or Hindu travelers, and brought south throughout the continent by Bantu settlers. The first use of cannabis in Africa was in Egypt, dating back over 4,000 years. Outside of Egypt, the next earliest evidence comes from 14th century Ethiopia where ceramic smoking-pipe bowls containing traces of cannabis (often called dagga) were discovered. The plant was already popular in South Africa by indigenous Khoisan and Bantu tribes prior to European settlement in the Cape in 1652, and had been carried from the east coast to the Congo Basin by the 1850s.

Smoking was slow to spread throughout Africa until the 1700s and prior to this, native tribes would eat cannabis leaves, and those who ate to excess would enter an “intoxicated [state] as if they had drunk a large quantity of wine.” Once smoking was popularized, the use of cannabis increased and smoking became a communal activity. Pipes were made from wood, stone, and pottery, and often fitted to a horn with water. Think 18th century bongs.

A typical “smoke-in” is descibred as such:

“A quantity of water was put into the horn, the mouth was applied to the large orifice of the horn, and the smoke, after being drawn through the water, was inhaled quickly three or four times and then exhaled in a violent fit of coughing, causing tears to stream down the cheeks: “This was considered the height of ecstasy to the smoker.”

The process continued until the fumes of the dagga produced a kind of intoxication or delirium and the devotee commenced to recite or sing, with great rapidity and vehemence, the praises of himself or his chief during the intervals of coughing or smoking.”

Well, you gotta cough to get off right?

Cannabis was used by white colonizers as a way to keep their enslaved populations under control, but it was also used by some native tribes like the Zulus and the Sothos as a preparation for battle. Evidence of cannabis use by the Zulu tribe is well recorded; they even played a game with another tribe called the Thronga, where two men would inhale deeply, hold their breath for as long as possible, and then attempt to spit a circle around their opponent. (Making cotton mouth fun!)

Other tribes like the Ja-Luo prohibited their warriors from smoking before battle. Some tribes forbid the use of cannabis by women as it was said to have an evil effect on children in the womb. (Modern science has done insufficient studies to find a conclusion on the effect of smoking weed on pregnant women and their babies.)

The Ben-Riamba

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories concerning cannabis in ancient Africa is that of the Ben-Riamba, “Sons of Hemp”.

European reports tell of the Bashilange tribe, a fierce warring tribe that was constantly at odds with their neighbors. The men wore their scars from battle as a mark of honor and pride and lived with “daggers drawn.” Then in the 1850s, the Bashilange discovered riamba, their word for cannabis. Within 25 years, the entire culture of the Bashilange people had changed from warlike to peaceful. An entire religion, the Ben-Riamba, was created around cannabis. Ceremonies included nightly rituals where the men would strip naked, shave their heads, and smoke cannabis from pipes. (It’s worth noting that this consumption applied only to men- Bashilange women rarely smoked cannabis. The position of the woman was seen as too busy to permit riamba-induced idleness). Cannabis became a large part of their justice system as well, with any accused forced to smoke until they confessed to the crime or passed out.

The religion lasted less than 50 years, but cannabis remained an integral part of the Bashilange peoples.

Racists Regulations

Cannabis use in ancient Africa has been compared to alcohol use by the Europeans. Throughout their time colonizing the continent, Europeans sought to control or ban the use of dagga as they believed it to be immoral and proof that they were a superior people. In the 1840s, sugar plantations rose in popularity and more manpower was needed. Low-caste Indians were brought over from the British colony of India, and they brought with them their love of cannabis as well. Europeans were so disturbed at the notion of people who didn’t look like them living differently than them that they outlawed all growth, use, and consumption of cannabis.

Like most cannabis laws, this had little effect on consumption. However it did lay the groundwork for subsequent laws to come in the early 20th century.


Published by Jessica Reilly, Writer

Writer, cannabis aficionado, and poetry lover

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