Hemp’s ancient history

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Our ancestors have cultivated cannabis and incorporated it into their lives for thousands of years. Their ancient ways can teach our modern civilization a lot about health and well-being through natural substances. The most surprising thing is that cannabis use bridges cultural differences. Written history shows that almost every culture in the world has used cannabis in some form for its medicinal benefits. Let’s take a journey through the centuries to understand the role that cannabis has played alongside humanity.

Table of ContentsMedical History of Hemp and Cannabis

With the recent surge in people’s interest in using cannabis for health and other purposes, it is worth remembering that cannabis is not a new drug. It has been used for a very long time in many parts of the world, from ancient Egypt and China to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Before analyzing the possible holistic benefits of hemp, there is something useful to learn by remembering a bit of history.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis known since ancient times and grown almost everywhere in the world. It is mainly known as a source of fiber used to make cloth and rope. In most fiber-producing regions hemp is not considered a medicine. This is because fiber hemp lacks flowers, which contain medicinally important compounds.

Geography of hemp

Geographical and climatic factors alter the cannabinoid, terpenoid and flavonoid content of the hemp plant. The result is a special type of ‘Indian hemp’. This leads to the discovery that cannabis, and especially its resin, has a significant narcotic effect. Apparently these effects were first known in the Himalayan region in Central Asia. Later, this knowledge gradually spread to India, Asia Minor, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the African continent [Rousseau].

Hindi names for hemp

  • Bang is a seed mixture of cannabis flowers, leaves and stems
  • Ganja (also known as Cinnamilla in the USA) is a seedless, unfertilized female flowering tip
  • Charas (also known as Hashish in Arabic) is obtained from cannabis flowers by rubbing or sieving the resinous gland (trichomes); The resulting pollen or kief is then pressed

Cannabis diversity

Selective breeding occurs when people choose to reproduce or propagate plants to emphasize certain characteristics. In the case of cannabis, the plant has largely co-evolved with humans due to selective breeding. Ethan Russo (2007) explains:

“Selective breeding in narcotic cannabis varieties has favored more intoxicating strains, especially in the last generation of controlled indoor cultivation. In past generations, cannabis plantations in specific locations such as Morocco and Afghanistan have tended to yield equal proportions of THC and CBD in pooled samples of combed trichomes. In contrast, due to selective breeding for THC content over the last two decades, cannabidiol is virtually absent in North American and European drug strains. This enforced absence of CBD in modern black market cannabis strains has implications for medicinal potency and tolerability.”

Traditional Uses of Cannabis

Cannabis has historically been used for both medicinal and non-medicinal purposes [Clarke]. In many parts of the world, such as China and Egypt, hemp varieties have been used to produce fabric, rope, paper and building materials. Unlike industrial hemp used for CBD, this type of industrial hemp produced more fibrous stalks rather than cannabinoid-rich flowers.

Hemp was also part of the therapeutic material of traditional medicine, and many of its uses were similar to those discussed in our society today. It was noted to be useful in the treatment of alcohol and opioid withdrawal, with sedative, relaxant, anxiolytic and anticonvulsant properties; recognized for its analgesic, antipyretic and antibacterial properties; and used to stimulate appetite and relieve diarrhea.

The evolution from pharmaceuticals to cannabis for general health has largely been marked by a gradual transition from drugs of variable composition to the use of pure active compounds of specific composition, stability, dosage and pharmacology. Cannabis still faces many hurdles as a modern medicine due to its unknown individual effects, unwanted effects, unregulated production and fundamental differences with pharmaceuticals.

Hemp faces similar challenges, but has the advantage of being naturally very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and people do not get high from it. Hemp is rich in cannabidiol (CBD), another cannabinoid, which means that hemp can provide its natural benefits with less devastating effects.

Traditional Medicine: Hemp vs. Drugs

Cannabis, including hemp, is fundamentally different from drugs and is not considered a medicine in most places and under most laws. Medical marijuana programs are attempting to fill this gap, but there is not yet an understanding among regulators, consumers, doctors and cannabis companies that cannabis is a “medicine” in its own right. Because it cannot meet pharmaceutical manufacturing standards, regulations must consider how it can be safely produced and used. Consumers also need to be prepared for a non-standardized product that is highly variable in its effects and quality and requires trial and error to discover good dosage.

The fact that cannabis and hemp have such inherent variability is both a virtue and a curse. Many of its perceived benefits lie in consumer expectations, product choices and usage habits. While finding a natural home remedy is a blessing for many, the side effects, drug interactions and adverse effects of hemp and cannabis can also lead to bad experiences.

World Hemp Chronology

5,000-year-old hemp cord marked with weed

10,000 years. BC: Japan

Ancient archaeological sites near the Oki Islands in Japan show evidence of hemp cultivation in the Bronze Age, about 12,000 years ago

This makes hemp one of the oldest crops in the era of human agriculture. All available evidence suggests that hemp predates the invention of the wheel and writing.

3,000 BC: Chinese Hemp

The Chinese emperor Shen Hong recorded the first medicinal use of hemp in 2737 BC. He mentioned the incredible effectiveness of hemp in treating rheumatism and gout. Many ancient East Asian cultures used every part of the plant.

The ancient Chinese powdered hemp roots for medicine, wove the fibers of the stalk into textiles, rope and paper, and consumed the flowers for pleasure and medicine. Even the seeds were consumed and used to make oil.

2,000 BC: Egyptian Hemp

The Egyptians also recorded medicinal uses of hemp as early as 2,000 BC. Pollen from the cannabis plant was found in numerous Egyptian mummies, including the mummy of Ramses II.

1000 AD: Arabian Cannabis

Arab physicians used the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant from the 8th to the 18th century.

Written records describe important medicinal properties including diuretic, antiemetic, antiepileptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic effects.

Medieval France

In medieval France, the cannabis plant was widely known for both its medicinal and recreational effects. When the queen of France ordered a book describing agricultural plants, the authors decided to include the cannabis plant twice.

Today

In modern times we continue to discover new uses for the cannabis plant. For the past 100 years our society has been polarized about the use of the cannabis plant. We can now understand our current expectations and misconceptions about hemp as merely a break in the course of humanity.

YouTube video: Hemp’s Ancient History


References

  1. Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016). Cannabis domestication, breeding history, present-day genetic diversity and future prospects. Critical reviews in plant sciences, 35(5-6), 293-327. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07352689.2016.1267498
  2. Russo, E. B. (2007). The history of cannabis and its preparations in myth, science and sobriety. Chemistry & Biodiversity, 4(8), 1614-1648. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cbdv.200790144
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