Sunday 5th December, 2021

Issue No.69

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Cannabis plant history: Which was the first civilization to use cannabis?

A study published in 2019, by the American magazine Science Advances points out that human civilization has already smoked cannabis for about 2,500 years. Researchers found remnants of the plant burned in pipes unearthed in a cemetery in Jirzankal, in China's far West. Cannabis plant history dates much further back than initially thought.

The analyzes showed that the main component present in the material was cannabinol (CBN), a cannabinoid product of the oxidation decomposition of the most psychoactive component of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Thus, this is the oldest record of the use of cannabis through smoking and, most likely, for psychoactive purposes, among others.

Still, even in BC times, this is not the longest-running documentation of human cannabis use. In Asia itself, there is evidence of domestication of hemp more than 3,500 years ago. Cannabis plant history references indicate its use as food (seeds) and for obtaining oil and applications involving the fibre, in particular the stems, to make fabrics and medicinal use.

Cannabis plant history is remoted to ancient times

The first civilization to use cannabis for medicinal purposes

In cannabis plant history, the first historical record of the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes happened around 2700 BC, in the Chinese book Pen Tsao, considered the first pharmacopeia in history. The medicinal use of cannabis was described for the treatment of joint pain.

Medical cannabis is also present in the early days of Indian civilization. In ancient Hindu scriptures known as The Vedas, cannabis is considered one of the five sacred crops, along with barley and soma (an unidentified plant from which the juice became a ritualistic drink). Cannabinoid therapies are believed to be part of Ayurveda (traditional medicine). However, the first mention of ‘bhang’ – the Sanskrit word for cannabis – as a medicine was found much later, in the works of Sushruta, believed to have been written between 500-600 AD.

In Egypt, ancient scrolls occasionally quote the word ‘Shemshemet’, particularly in reference to medicine. Many experts believe that Shemshemet is the name given to cannabis in the ancient civilizations of the country, holder of advanced medical techniques at the time. One of the most interesting instructions found for the use of cannabis was to crush the plant with celery and, the next day, apply it to wash the eyes of patients with glaucoma. Surprisingly, there is modern evidence supporting the use of cannabis compounds to help treat the disease, as THC has the potential to lower intraocular pressure.

person walking near The Great Sphinx. Egypt has a lot of Cannabis plant history

Also in Egypt, the Ebers papyrus, celebrated as the oldest complete medical journal ever discovered, dating back to around 1500 BC, points to a medicinal formulation where Shemshemet (cannabis) must be crushed in honey, before being applied inside the vagina to “to cool the uterus and eliminate its heat”. Cannabis' well-documented anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties likely played a role in this treatment.

In cannabis plant history, another ancient Egyptian papyrus, the Berlin Papyri, shows the indication of Shemshemet (cannabis) as “ointment to ward off fever”. The Chester Beatty papyrus, which is also believed to have been written around 1300 BC, makes references to cannabis in the treatment of some colorectal diseases, probably including cholera.

Already in the modern era, in 1464, the physician Ibn al-Badri, from the medical faculty of Calcutta, describes the use of cannabis in the treatment of refractory epilepsies for the first time.

Cannabis plant history: spiritual and ritual uses

In Egypt, cannabis was part of funeral rituals. Scientists and archaeologists have discovered cannabis pollen in the remains of Ramses the Great, pharaoh in 1213 BC Traces of cannabis have also been found in other ancient Egyptian mummies. A mummy believed to have been buried around 950 BC had significant amounts of THC, along with nicotine and cocaine, in its tissues.

low angle photography of brown concrete building under blue sky during the daytime. Cannabis plant history includes Egyptian deities and gods!

In addition, the Egyptian goddess Sheshat, the writing deity, was often depicted with a seven-pointed star-shaped leaf above her head. Many believe it to be an illustration of the cannabis leaf, indicating the importance attached to the plant in ancient Egyptian society.

In Hinduism, a traditional Indian religion, cannabis plant history is associated with one of its main gods: Shiva. Several Hindu legends speak about Shiva and his consumption of bhang. A well-known story relates that the Hindu gods churned the cosmic ocean to access the elixir of immortality (Amrit). Some versions of this legend claim that cannabis began to grow where the drops of this elixir fell.

In another version, when Shiva was called to drink the poison produced in the churning ocean, his throat turned blue. It is said that he felt immense pain, even receiving bhang from his wife, Parvati.

The link between the plant and the divine in ancient Hindu culture resulted in the use of cannabis by many people in attempts to become closer to their chosen God, Shiva. In cannabis plant history, cannabis is technically banned in India to this day, but the law does not include the plant's leaves. Therefore, it is common to witness the consumption of bhang, especially on the night of the Shivaratri festival (Great Night of Shiva or Night of Shiva).

The ritualistic use of cannabis was also recorded in Israel. More than 2,700 years ago, the faithful of a “holy of saints” sanctuary may have used the plant. Researchers found burning cannabis and incense at the site, which is in the Kingdom of Judah, a region that now includes parts of the West Bank and central Israel.

Cannabis plant history: industrial purposes

aerial view photography of brown pagoda temple during daytime. Cannabis plant history tells that hemp ropes have been found in ancient sites across Asia and the Middle East.

In ancient times, cannabis was also widely used in the production of textiles, paper, and food. Hemp ropes have been found in ancient sites across Asia and the Middle East.

In cannabis plant history, it is believed that the fibre from cannabis was used in Egypt even by workers as part of an ingenious way of breaking larger stones. The hemp cloth was squeezed into the cracks of a large rock and covered with water. When the tissue began to expand, so did the crack, resulting in the stone breaking.

In India, the ancients would also have used the hemp plant for industrial purposes, similar to what was seen in other regions. Evidence shows Indians as the first to practice the technology of 'hempcrete' – a form of plaster that contains 'bhang' mixed with clay or lime.

Cannabis plant history: From the first civilization to use cannabis to the present


The Ancient Age ended in 476 AD, but the use of cannabis did not go along with it. The plant arrived in Europe, spread to the West, and landed in South American lands, such as Brazil, together with the Portuguese caravels – the sails were made of hemp fabric.

Since then, cannabis has been criminalized in many places, already decriminalized in so many others, and we continue to discover (or rediscover) its potential every day. Today, there is no doubt that this plant could be the centre of a large market.

Did you learn about cannabis plant history? You can read some more good history right here:

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