The History of Cannabis

Part 5: Ancient Asia

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.

The cannabis plant originated in Asia around 12,000 years ago on the Steppes of Central and East Asia, present-day Mongolia and Siberia. It’s regarded as one of the oldest cultivated plants in Asia.

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)

In exploring cannabis use in ancient Asia, it is here we find some of the most robust proof of humanity’s ongoing fascination and use of the plant. It’s estimated that cannabis evolved about 28 million years ago on the Tibetan Plateau. Even today, cannabis still grows wild across central asia.

Determining when humans began to cultivate cannabis is tricky. The first traces of cannabis culivating in human socieity date back to the Jomon Period in Japan, between 10,000 and 300 BC. So distinguishable is the cannabis plant that archeologists have found cave paintings of the plant, with the tall stems and iconic 7-pointed leaves we still know today. Physical evidence of cannabis use was discovered in the Oki islands of Japan and dates back to pre-Neolithic Japan, or around 8000 BC. Cannabis achenes (the dried fruits) were found, and indicates use of the hemp plant in everything from fibers to food and spiritual work. In Stone Age China, around 4000 BC, hemp was considered a major grain in the Neolithic Pan P’o Village and was farmed as a food crop.

One theory of consumptions states that cannabis use was restrcited to elites only, until the Silk Road linked China with Iran and pot began to spread. A 2400-year-old Scythian tomb was unearthed with gold vessels that had cannabis (and opium) residue, supporting the idea that cannabis use began with elites.

Some of the earliest evidence for human smoking of cannabis comes Assyrian tablets from the 7th and 8th centuries BC, where the text describes the use of hemp for intoxicating purposes. Cemetaries in Western China dating back to 500 BC show chemical proof that mourners would sit in an enclosed space with cannabis burning and inhale. Interestingly, the cannabis that scientists found was high THC (for the time), suggesting that humans had already begun to breed cannabis strains for potency.

The first written traces of cannabis in Asia are from the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung around 2737 BC. Considered the Father of Chinese Medicine, he prescribes hemp resin (or ma, as they called it) as treatment for “female weakness, gout, rheum, malaria, flu, fainting”. His text is the oldest recorded name for the hemp plant.  

Less than 100 years later, hemp is referenced in the oldest book of Chinese medical literature, the Nei-Ching. This was authored by emperor Kwang-Ti during his life between 2698 and 2599 BC. He writes that ma-p’o (the flowers) were used to treat open wounds, while ma-len (the seed peels and resin) would stimulate the nervous system, and ma-jen (the seeds) had anti-inflammatory properties and worked well as a laxative for babies and animals. He also included the oil (ma-yu) as a hair treatment and tonic against sulfur poisoning. Not to leave any part of the plant out, he also wrote that the fresh juice of the leaves would remedy scorpion bites and the hemp fibers made cordages and fabrics.

Other recorded mentions of cannabis show that by 500 BC citizens could paid taxes with hemp. By 220 BC, hemp resin was mixed with wine to create ma-feisan, an anesthetic. This is credited to Hua T’o, the Father of Chinese Surgery and is widely considered the first anesthetic.

The first paper was created in China from hemp. Paper from the 2nd and 3rd centuries was tested at the British Museum and found to be “a mixture of bark and old rags, made mainly of hemp”. The Dharani Book, also called the book of prayers, was printed in 700 AD and made from hemp paper.

Cannabis holds a strong position in Ayurveda healing, an alternative Indian medicine. It’s mentioned multiple times in the Vedas, a series of ancient texts on Hinduism. The texts Rigveda and Athrava Veda mention cannabis by name.

In the Rigveda, which is a collection of ancient Indian hymns, cannabis is mentioned in Soma, an immortality elixir. Soma is an intoxicating drink that contains cannabis alongside other holy herbs. In the Athrava Veda, cannabis is mentioned again in the drink Bhanga. Bhanga is made from cannabis milk, and cannabis is described as one of the 5 sacred plants that bring freedom and happiness and relive anxiety.

Cannabis is mentioned again in the Sushruta Samhita, a foundational piece of literature for Ayurvedic medicine published around 600 BC. In this text, cannabis and hemp are described as remedies for catarrh (excessive mucus build-up) and diarrhea

Sources:

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