Cannabis is a very ancient plant, probably more ancient than you might think. Palaeobotanical studies reveal that this plant -according to some sources- existed in Asia about 12.000 years ago, in the areas corresponding to modern Mongolia and Kazakhstan 1. It is likely that our ancestors domesticated this plant already then, exploiting its fast-growing rate and its adaptability to a wide range of environments to obtain fibres, food and seeds. The oldest concrete evidence of cannabis as a psychoactive substance, instead, was obtained thanks to the excavation of tombs dating to 750 B.C. near Turpan, China. A shaman was found carrying nearly 800 grams of cultivated, high-THC cannabis! Thanks to their multidisciplinary analysis, the authors concluded that the flowers were likely gathered from several, cultivated female plants and carefully selected for their THC content 2. Certain things appear to never really change…
The exact historical path that cannabis took is hard to determine, but it surely followed humans around the world. In fact, most of humanity’s ancient empires have some form of written record of cannabis use for medical and ritual purposes. In Ebers Papyrus (1600 B.C.), ancient Egypt, the topical application of cannabis for inflammation is described. Furthermore, a Chinese compendium of 365 medicinal herbs, dated between 221 B.C – 220 A.D., includes cannabis as an anaesthetic agent 3.
Cannabis in Europe was described by Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), who provides a record of recreational cannabis use. He tells the story of a Scythians ritual who, after the death of the King, would throw hemp on hot stones while closed in a chamber and effectively get high from the smoke 3. Probably the oldest hot box in history!
Cannabis was also present in the Roman Empire, with records of both medical and recreational use. The Naturalis Historia (“Natural History”) by Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) describes hemp as material for ropes and nets, as well as an ingredient to medicines for arthritis or gout, illustrating its pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. Claudius Galen (122-199AD) describes how it was common in Italy to serve small cakes containing cannabis (basically edibles!) as desserts, and how the seeds could “affect the head” when consumed in substantial amounts 3.
These early records prove the existence of medical and occasional recreational use of cannabis in Europe. However, in the years to come, the gained insights seem to have been forgotten or disregarded and only in the mid-1800s medicinal use of cannabis gained in popularity again. Scholars and scientists rediscovered its medicinal and psychoactive properties through the translation of Arabic manuscripts and, until its prohibition in the early 1900s, various tinctures and other products were readily available at local pharmacies. The Irish William O’Shaughnessy (1809 – 1889), who researched the plant in India, significantly contributed to its proliferation in Europe. He studied the potential for treatment of various conditions, obtaining positive results for epilepsy and pain relief 4. Unfortunately, the scientific study of cannabis was hindered by a wave of prohibitionist laws in the early 1900s, particularly in the western world. One can only imagine how far scientific discovery would have come by now if political interests had not put a hold on scientific research into cannabis.
If there is anything to take away from this story, it is that throughout much of human history, we have coexisted with cannabis, and it has been a critical part of most ancient and many modern civilizations. Only in recent times, with the legal status of cannabis slowly changing across the globe, modern scientific research can start to unravel the science behind cannabis and its potential for medical and recreational use.
- Pisanti, S. & Bifulco, M. Medical Cannabis: A plural millennial history of an evergreen. J Cell Physiol 234, 8342-8351 (2019). [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jcp.27725]
- Russo, E.B. et al. Phytochemical and genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia. J Exp Bot 59, 4171-82 (2008).
- Crocq, M.A. History of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. Dialogues Clin Neurosci 22, 223-228 (2020).
- Pisanti, S. & Bifulco, M. Modern History of Medical Cannabis: From Widespread Use to Prohibitionism and Back. Trends Pharmacol Sci 38, 195-198 (2017). [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28095988/]