Part 4: Ancient Europe.
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.
In this blog series, we’ll explore cannabis use throughout the eras leading up to modern times. This blog explores cannabis and hemp throughout ancient Europe.
There is no exact date for when cannabis made its way from Asia to Europe, but archeological evidence suggests that nomadic tribes such as the Yamnaya and the Scythians brought it with them to Eastern Europe sometime between 2,600 and 2,000 B.C. The map above suggests distribution between East and West Europe between 2,000 BC and 1,200 AD. but the earliest evidence of the plant in Europe is from 500 BC in modern Berlin, where an urn containing cannabis leaves and seeds was found.
As is the case across many civilizations, hemp was found to be a reliable crop that produced useful fibers to be woven into clothing, ropes and boat sails. It became more popular in the 1st century CE under Roman rule, and Romans brought the plant north to England around 70 CE. The plant was well established by 400 CE and by 600 CE, the English, Germans, Franks and Noresemen were using hemp for sails, paper, rope and clothes. Hemp butter was introduced in 1000 CE, and knights in the Middle Ages were reported to drink hemp beer.
In Northern Europe, scientists found evidence of a Viking hemp farm dating back to 650 CE. While the article says no evidence has been found of smoking and the Vikings likely only used cannabis for textiles, I think that’s dramatically underestimating the willingness of human beings to experiment (but I’m certainly not a scientist).
Some of the oldest references to cannabis in literature come from the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, also known as “The Father Of History” in 4th Century BCE. He told of a nomadic society in southern Siberia called the Scythians, who inhaled vapor from heated cannabis flowers and seeds (Siberia is in the region of Asia where cannabis is thought to have originated). Around the same time, the philosopher Democritus write of a drink called potamaugis, a blend of wine, myrrh and cannabis.
It’s thought that by the 14th and 15th centuries, hemp was so important to Europe that up to 80% of clothing and textiles were made from it and the shipping industry was almost entirely dependent on hemp canvas, rope and oakum (loose fibers). By the 14th century CE, Islam had spread to Southern Spain, where the Muslim population used cannabis as a psychoactive drug until the reclamation of the area by the Roman Catholic Church under Isabella the Catholic.
In 1533, the English King Henry VIII passed a law demanding landowners grow hemp on 1/4 of an acre for every 60 acres they owned. 30 years later, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I passed a similar law to encourage fiber production to support her growing navy. The penalty to farmers who didn’t comply was steep.
To the south, cannabis didn’t take off in France until the 1800s after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt where his troops discovered hashish, the Egyptian term for cannabis and bright it back. Popularity of hashish increased in the mid 1830s when France conquered Alergia. Napoleon even invaded Russia over cannabis, when he tried to force the Czar of Russia to stop trading hemp with the British Empire.
Recent studies suggest that once the plant grew unchecked across European tundras (you may even say like a weed) during the Stone Age, but faced regional extinction 9,000 years ago as the Ice Age ended and the climate warmed.