Cannabis: Ancient Origin

Cannabis: Ancient Origin

Updated: May 25, 2018



Cannabis probably originated somewhere in Central Asia. Archaeological evidence indicates that hemp reinforced pottery was in use 12,000 years ago in present-day Taiwan.[1] The earliest record of psychoactive use was discovered in the 2,700 year old tomb of a Gushi Shaman in China.[2] He was interred with two pounds of cannabis flowers and a resin-laden pipe. By the turn of the millenia, hemp paper and clothing were common in China and Cannabis was listed in the Pen Ts’ao.[3] Both fiber and medicine come from the same plant, so as hemp spread around the world, so did the drug.


The Shaman buried with cannabis likely spoke Tocharian, a Indo-Aryan language. His Gushi relatives migrated to China from the Central Eurasian Steppe ecoregion, roughly modern day Kazakhstan.[4] The movement of cultures from this ecoregion outward to India, Pakistan and Nepal is called the Indo-Aryan Migration of 2,000-1,600 B.C.[5] The first global expansion of cannabis was likely facilitated by this migration pattern. As these cultures crossed continents, they brought their language, culture and seeds to their new homes in India, Persia and Europe.


Cannabis In India: The Hindu Vedas


Around the time of the Indo-Aryan migration, references to cannabis appeared in the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts. In the Atharthaveda, the Lord Shiva brings cannabis down from the Himalayas for mortal use and enjoyment. It is extolled as being among the “five kingdoms of herbs...which release us from anxiety.”[6] This reference indicates that cannabis likely arrived in South Asia about 2,000 years ago.


Cannabis in the Middle East


Waves of Indo-Aryan migrants flooded Persia around 1,500 B.C. and 700 B.C. bringing cannabis seeds with them. The Scythians burnt cannabis seeds as incense in funeral rituals, eliciting a euphoric state in mourners[7] Cannabis is described as the prophet Zoroaster’s “good narcotic” in the Zend-Avesta, written sometime around 200-500 A.D.[8] Arab merchants likely brought cannabis to Africa sometime around 1300 A.D.


Cannabis in Ancient Europe


Cannabis appears in the Greek Materia Medica, the western equivalent of the Pen Ts’ao, around 70 A.D.[9] Ancient relics of cannabis found in a fifth century B.C tomb near Brandenburg, Germany suggest that the movements of ancient people distributed cannabis throughout Eurasia before the dawn of modern history.[10]


Global Distribution of Cannabis


Beyond ancient times, the diffusion of cannabis around the globe was steady due the economic demand for hemp fiber and its use for ropes and sails on colonial ships. Hempen ropes have been found in Roman forts in England dating back to 140 A.D. Pollen samples show that hemp cultivation began in England around 400 A.D.[11] Hempen clothing, fishing line and cannabis seeds exist in Viking artifacts from 850 A.D.[12]


Hemp textile and ropes were the most important commodities of the Age of Exploration. Hemp rope was the best rigging for sailing ships because of its strength and durability in wet conditions. Venice dominated the Mediterranean sea during the Middle Ages because their navy had superior hempen ropes and sails.[13]


The imperial navies needed hemp and they disseminated it to colonies around the world. Every British ship carried hemp seeds for sowing. The king ordered all British colonies to grow hemp because England could not produce enough domestically.[14] During the American Revolution, colonists defied the mandate and kept their hemp textiles to support the resistance.[15]


The Next Big Thing


In two thousand years Hemp has spread from central Asia to six continents. Seeds were carried by ancient cultural migrations and traders and it has been used by humans since the dawn of history. Cannabis became prolific in the Age of Exploration. Hemp provided rigging and sails for imperial ships and the seed was spread widely throughout the colonies of the world. Cannabis may seem like a new thing, but it’s actually as old as human history.

  1. K. Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 111-12; C.T. Kung, Archeology in China (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), 1:131.

  2. E. B. Russo et al., Phytochemical and Genetic Analyses of Ancient Cannabis from Central Asia (Lancaster: Journal of Experimental Botany, 2008) Vol. 59, No. 15, pp. 4171–4182, 2008

  3. Zuardi, Antonio Waldo. (2006). History of Cannabis as a Medicine: a Review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), 153-157.

  4. Gushi culture. (2016, November 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:06, November 28, 2016

  5. Indo-Aryan migration theory. (2016, November 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:59, November 18, 2016

  6. G.A. Grierson, On References to the Hemp Plant Occurring in Sanskrit and Hindi Literature, in Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report (Simla, India: 1893-4), 3: 247-8.

  7. Herodotus, Histories 5.72-5.

  8. J. Darmester, ed., The Zend-Avesta (London: Oxford University Press, 1882), pp. 267-8.

  9. Dioscorides, Materia Medica 3.165.

  10. W. Reininger, "Remnants from Prehistoric Times," in The Book of Grass, ed. G. Andrews and J. Vinkenoog (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 14.

  11. H. Goodwin, The Ancient Cultivation of Hemp, Antiquity, 41 (1967): 44.

  12. Ibid., pp. 46-7.

  13. Quoted in F.C. Lane, The Rope Factory and Hemp Trade in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Journal of Economic and Business History 4 (1932): 834.

  14. L.C. Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958), 1: 25.

  15. L. Carrier, The Beginnings of Agriculture in America (New York: Johnson Reprint Co., 1962), p.96.

    Cannabis seeds contain the past and the future.