The Rise of Hemp In Ancient Times
In our introductory History of Hemp segment we covered the biology, composition, and growth specifications of the cannabis plant. Today we begin walking the timeline of hemp’s use in society, dating back 10,000 years when the plant was first cultivated by humans. From ancient China and India to Europe and the Middle East, hemp’s value expanded as early civilizations broadened.
For health, wellness, and nutrition to textile, spiritual and entheogenic practice, hemp has been noted as one of the earliest plants cultivated in large quantities by human civilizations. Did you know the oldest hemp relic to be discovered is a hemp-wound rope found in Czechoslovakia in 1997 that dates back nearly 30,000 years?
Roughly 12,000 years ago ancient hunter-gathers began to settle (to a certain degree) and practices of farming were initiated. Agriculture by ancient groups started slowly. Determined by terrain and climate type, ancient groups cultivated simple crops on small parcels of land. In areas of present-day China, millet and wheat were grown in northern mountainous regions, while rice, soybeans, peaches, and plums were cultivated in southern lowland areas of the region. An important fiber and oil crop, hemp was also farmed and harvested in both of these regions. Researchers believe cannabis’ cultural use and growth evolved significantly in Central Asia—particularly in regions like Mongolia and southern Serbia.
Within the same time frame—in the Fertile Crescent of modern day Middle East— groups of early people, isolated from one another for thousands of years and with relatively no genetic similarities, were growing crops that included peas, lentils, barley, and yes, hemp. As centuries passed these early ancestors migrated to Europe and areas of Asia, bringing with them their agricultural cultivating and harvesting techniques. Archaeologists studying in both Mesopotamia, bordering the Fertile Crescent, and in areas of Asia, like modern day Taiwan, have found separate scraps of hemp cloth that date back to 8,000 BC.
The degree of hemp’s cultivation output at this time varies by location and civilization, but its use undoubtedly rose in popularity over the course of the next thousands of years.
A reliable textile fiber, hemp was used for a number of tangible purposes. Rope, paper, weaponry, pottery, and clothing were all made from hemp fibers. Its trade value skyrocketed because of its durability. From 5,000 to 3,000 BC the economy of Yangshao, an ancient Chinese culture, was supported by the cultivation and production of hemp and early manufacturing of hemp products.
As time progressed and hemp’s growth and uses became more prevalent, early healing practitioners began experimenting more with hemp for health purposes. Shen-Nung, a ruler in ancient Chinese religion, considered the father of Chinese agriculture and medicine often looked to hemp crops for solutions to his subject’s sufferings and ailments.
A pharmacologist well before it was even a term, Shen-Nung believed—and it’s noted in his medicinal encyclopedia the Pen Ts’ao—that cannabis was a unique botanical, containing traits of both Yin and Yang. The Yin represented the passive female influence in nature, while Yang, the active male force. For over 100 ailments and deficiencies, Shen-Nung would create an elixir known as Ma’ or “The Herbal.” Ma’ was made from a mixture of hot water, Cannabis flower, and Cannabis leaves. This elixir was said to have balanced the Yin and Yang relationship internally, thus restoring health to the body and mind.
In our next History of Hemp post we’ll discuss the introduction of hemp in classical medicine and how the advent of the printing press helped ancient scholars and early physicians better understand hemp and its uses at a faster rate.