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Category: A History of Cannabis

A History of Cannabis

Once upon a time… in the Stone Age?

Chapter 1:

It is generally believed that cannabis was first used, and possibly domesticated, somewhere in China or Central Asia about five millennia ago(1). Doctors Ethan Russo and Franjo Grotenhermen, for instance, say in their book Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutic Potential that “Central Asia seems to be the origin of the hemp plant”.(2)

The main reason why biogeographers point at Central Asia when asked about the origins of cannabis use is the rise of transcontinental trade between Europe and the East—mostly based on wild plant distribution data—at the beginning of the Bronze Age.(3) Central Eurasia’s Yamnaya people are considered one of the main tribes that started European civilization. The Yamnaya migrated eastwards about 5,000 years ago, and are thought to have spread cannabis, and possibly its psychoactive use, throughout Eurasia, which comprises all of Europe and Asia.(4) The pollen, fruit and fibers of cannabis have been turning up in Eurasian archaeological digs for decades.(5)

However, cannabis use might have more complex and older origins. Professors Tengwen Long and Pavel Tarasov (Free University of Berlin, Germany) came up with an alternative to the Asian origins of cannabis theory in 2016. Their work suggests that cannabis entered the archaeological record of both Japan and Eastern Europe almost exactly the same time, between about 11,500 and 10,200 years ago, still in the Stone Age. According to Professor Long, “the cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early as 10,000 years ago, or even earlier.”(6) He goes on to suggest that a whole plethora of groups of people across Eurasia independently began using cannabis at this time for its psychoactive properties or as a source of food or medicine, or even for textile reasons. Therefore, it seems plausible to think that it was in western Eurasia that cannabis was first used regularly by humans around ten millennia ago. The fact that nomadic pastoralists on the Eurasian steppe had mastered horse riding by this time—which allowed them to cover long distances and start transcontinental trade networks—supports this hypothesis.(7)

It would not be until 5,000 years later then, when the melting and smelting of copper revolutionized history, that the use of cannabis in eastern Asia became commonplace. Ernest Small, research scientist and expert in medicinal plants, says that because people can use cannabis in so many ways, we can’t be sure that its Bronze Age spread was linked specifically to its psychoactive properties. However, Some researchers have suggested that burned cannabis seeds found at archaeological sites hint that the Yamnaya spread the habit of smoking cannabis with them across Eurasia. According to expert in the Yamnaya David Anthony (Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York), “The expansion of cannabis use as a drug does seem to be linked to movements out of the steppe. Cannabis might have been reserved for special feasts or rituals.”(8)

“[Cannabis use origins 10,000 years ago] is a hypothesis that requires more evidence to test,” concludes Long, but he points out that the high value of cannabis would have made it an ideal exchangeable good at the time—a “cash crop before cash”.(10)

  2. Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutic Potential, The Haworth Press, Inc., 2002.
  4. See 1.
  5. See 4.
  6. See 1.
  7. See 1.
  8. See 1.
  9. See 1.