Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread Through the World
From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for ages, and a new report presents the drug’s colorful history.
In the report, author Barney Warf describes how cannabis use originated thousands of years ago in Asia, and has since found its way to many regions of the world, eventually spreading to the Americas and the United States.
“For the most part, it was widely used for medicine and spiritual purposes,” during pre-modern times, said Warf, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. For example, the Vikings and medieval Germans used cannabis for relieving pain during childbirth and for toothaches, he said.
“The idea that this is an evil drug is a very recent construction,” and the fact that it is illegal is a “historical anomaly,” Warf said. Marijuana has been legal in many regions of the world for most of its history.
Where did pot come from?
It is important to distinguish between the two familiar subspecies of the cannabis plant, Warf said. Cannabis sativa, known as marijuana, has psychoactive properties. The other plant is Cannabis sativa L. (The L was included in the name in honor of the botanist Carl Linnaeus.) This subspecies is known as hemp; it is a nonpsychoactive form of cannabis, and is used in manufacturing products such as oil, cloth and fuel. [11 Odd Facts About Marijuana]
A second psychoactive species of the plant, Cannabis indica, was identified by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and a third, uncommon one, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by Russian botanist D.E. Janischevisky.
Cannabis plants are believed to have evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, specifically in the regions that are now Mongolia and southern Siberia, according to Warf. The history of cannabis use goes back as far as 12,000 years, which places the plant among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, according to information in the book “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” (Springer, 1980).
“It likely flourished in the nutrient-rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers,” Warf wrote in his study.
Burned cannabis seeds have also been found in kurgan burial mounds in Siberia dating back to 3,000 B.C., and some of the tombs of noble people buried in Xinjiang region of China and Siberia around 2500 B.C. have included large quantities of mummified psychoactive marijuana.
Both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were used widely in ancient China, Warf wrote. The first record of the drug’s medicinal use dates to 4000 B.C. The herb was used, for instance, as an anesthetic during surgery, and stories say it was even used by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. (However, whether Shen Nung was a real or a mythical figure has been debated, as the first emperor of a unified China was born much later than the supposed Shen Nung.)
From China, coastal farmers brought pot to Korea about 2000 B.C. or earlier, according to the book “The Archeology of Korea” (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cannabis came to the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., when the region was invaded by the Aryans — a group that spoke an archaic Indo-European language. The drug became widely used in India, where it was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs . which release us from anxiety” in one of the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems whose name translate into “Science of Charms.”
From Asia to Europe
Cannabis came to the Middle East between 2000 B.C. and 1400 B.C., and it was probably used there by the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group. The Scythians also likely carried the drug into southeast Russia and Ukraine, as they occupied both territories for years, according to Warf’s report. Germanic tribes brought the drug into Germany, and marijuana went from there to Britain during the 5th century with the Anglo-Saxon invasions. [See map of marijuana’s spread throughout the world.]
This map shows how marijuana spread throughout the world, from its origins on the steppes of Central Asia. (Image credit: Barney Warf, University of Kansas )
“Cannabis seeds have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-ninth century,” Warf wrote in the study.
Over the next centuries, cannabis migrated to various regions of the world, traveling through Africa, reaching South America in the 19th century and being carried north afterwards, eventually reaching North America.
How did marijuana get to the United States?
After this really long “trip” throughout the pre-modern and modern worlds, cannabis finally came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It arrived in the southwest United States from Mexico, with immigrants fleeing that country during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1911.
“Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers,” Warf wrote in his report. “Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees.”
Americans laws never recognized the difference between Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis sativa. The plant was first outlawed in Utah in 1915, and by 1931 it was illegal in 29 states, according to the report.
In 1930, Harry Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and undertook multiple efforts to make marijuana illegal in all states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act put cannabis under the regulation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, criminalizing possession of the plant throughout the country.
“Today, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD, indicating it has high potential for abuse and addiction, no accepted medical uses and no safe level of use,” Warf wrote.
History of Cannabis in Ancient China
Cannabis Sativa is an old plant with a long history.
Cannabis Sativa is an old plant with a long history. The word, sativa, comes from Latin and means “sown” or “cultivated.” And, in fact, the hemp plant, Cannabis Sativa, has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Cultivated primarily for its strength as a fiber and for its medicinal uses, it has even been grown for food. Some of the earliest archeological hemp evidence, about 10,000 B.C., comes from rope imprints on broken Chinese pottery. Fragments of hemp cloth have also been found in Chinese burial chambers dating from the Chou Dynasty (1122-249 B.C.). In addition to archeological evidence, written documents refer to hemp as a source of clothing. For example, The Shu King, a book dating to about 2350 B.C., refers to the soil in Shantung as rich with silk and hemp while ancient poetry mentions young girls weaving hemp into clothing (Abel, 1980).
The Chinese also relied on hemp for warfare. Due to its strength and durability, Chinese archers made bowstrings from hemp. Because these hemp bowstrings were stronger than the enemy’s bamboo ones, the Chinese arrows could fly further. This was a large advantage in war. In fact, hemp was so important that Chinese monarchs allocated large portions of land specifically for growing hemp—the first war crop.
Then, there is paper. Yes, paper. Paper is probably one of the most significant Chinese inventions. Fragments of paper containing hemp fiber have been found in Chinese graves dating to the first century B.C. The Chinese made paper by crushing hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark into a pulp and putting the mixture into a tank of water. The tangled fibers rose to the top of the water, were removed, and placed in a mold. After drying, the fibers formed sheets that could be written on. The Chinese kept paper making a secret for many centuries. Eventually, the secret became known to the Japanese during the 5th century A.D. and finally to the Arabs through Chinese prisoners in the 9th century. For some fascinating images of this ancient Chinese craft of paper making, follow this link.
So, the Chinese used the hemp plant for rope, clothing, bowstrings, paper, and, of course, medicine. The ancient emperor, Shen-Nung (c.2700 B.C.), is known as the Father of Chinese Medicine. Because he was a good farmer and concerned about his suffering subjects, he looked to plants for cures. According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes on himself and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called, Pen Ts’ao. The Pen Ts’ao list hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal, and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, “ma.”
Ma was a unique drug because it was both feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang. Yin represented the weak, passive, and negative female influence in nature while yang represented the strong, active, and positive male force. When yin and yang were in balance, the body was in harmony and healthy. When yin and yang were out of balance, the body was in a state of disequilibrium and ill. Realizing that the female plant produced more medicine, the Chinese cultivated it instead of the male plant. Ma was used to treat absences of yin, such as female weaknesses (menstruation), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness (Abel, 1980).
During the second century A.D., the Chinese surgeon, Hua T’o, began to use cannabis as an anesthesia. He combined cannabis resin with wine (ma-yo) and used it to reduce pain during surgery. He performed painful organ drafts, resectioning of the intestines, loin incisions, and chest incisions while the patient was anesthetized with ma-yo.
Cannabis was a multipurpose plant to the ancient Chinese. It has been cultivated and used for over 4,000 years. It was used for war, writing, food, and medicine but there is very little mention of its psychoactive properties by the Chinese. It wasn’t until India came upon cannabis that it became a widespread religious and medicinal intoxicant.
Abel, E.L. (1980). Marijuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: Plenum Press.