Cannabis In The Ancient World: Where Pot Comes From

You know how sometimes you’ll be listening to music with a friend, and he’ll be all “yeah, this band was formed in 2011 by three University of Georgia students – Athens campus, of course – whose parents were business travelers so they were all stuck on campus for an entire summer, so they got bored and formed a band.” Or that comic book friend who’s read every episode of every X-Men book since the Sixties? Haven’t you ever wanted to be that friend who’s eminently knowledgeable about a subject, but isn’t a total jerk about it?

You’re in luck, of course. Here’s where you can learn all the basics about how cannabis came to be. Where it came from, who first cultivated it, what it was used for in its beginnings – all the good stuff, so you can wow your friends next time you’re sparking up. Of course, most potheads already seem to have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of weed, its history, its culture and its future, soooooo maybe just read this article for your own edification instead of trying to impress people? No judgement.

When was it domesticated? According to one story set forth by the Islamic historian al-Maqrizi, the founder of the Persian Sufi Hyderi sect – a guy named Haydar – went walking and found a strange plant that grew fruitful despite the intense dry heat of the area. Sampling some, he found himself transformed from a taciturn ascetic into a chatterbox with a cheerful hello for everyone he saw. What he’d discovered was cannabis, and it changed his life forever.

Those kinds of stories abound. We’ve talked before about the Scythians, the ancient equestrians who used cannabis in their religious rituals, as described by ancient Greek historian Heredotus. But while the Scythians used their mastery of horsemanship to spread cannabis throughout the ancient world, it doesn’t mean they were the ones who first domesticated it. 

The plant we call cannabis has been around for a long time. There’s a decent chance it predates humans. It certainly predates human civilization, which is marked primarily by agriculture; if you’re gonna grow plants, you’re gonna need wild plants to cultivate. And when humans in central Asia were considering the contents of their environment for cultivation, it’s highly likely they found wild weed and turned into something profoundly useful. 

Humans have been cultivating cannabis since at least the 10th millennium BCE – possibly as far back as the 12th. The earliest recorded human use of cannabis use was on Taiwan, which was densely populated at the time – about 10,000 years ago. But cannabis isn’t just old; it’s prolific, showing up throughout history in ways that will come as a surprise to almost no one. 

Archaeologists and historians have found broken pieces of early pottery which had been decorated on the sides – by pressing cords of hemp into the wet clay as it was drying. Those pots alone suggest that humans have been using hemp since they were making tools – thus making hemp central to the human experience from the very beginning. 

Why was it domesticated? The big question here is: Was wild cannabis domesticated for its psychoactive properties, or its use as a tool? Did early humans prefer getting high to making rope and clothing? And of course the most accurate answer is that it was probably both. In any area that humans settled, they bred the plant for what they needed in that environment – whether it was food, fiber or reefer. 

Would those early generations of humans have used cannabis if hemp wasn’t so useful? It’s a good bet the answer is yes. We tend to think of ancient peoples as staid, steadfast pillars of reliability and responsibility, but the fact is those guys were drunken potheads just like the rest of us. Research the creation of any type of booze, for instance – whether it’s beer or wine or liquor, they were downing it like there was no tomorrow. Hemp was useful, sure – as useful as iron or wood. But if ancient peoples could get high by smoking iron and wood, they’d almost certainly have done that too.

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans use it? What about Egypt? There’s a whole academic community of people who study the Classical period, and they’re pretty divided about whether the Greeks and Romans used hemp for recreation or intoxication. There’s simply not a lot of work devoted to it; for many years, scholars considered it beneath the Classical societies to smoke weed, and the stigma has been hard to break. Part of this is the field of study itself; Plato and Aristotle argued that moderation was the key to a happy and successful life. Thus many scholars view the ancient world as one of sobriety. But to answer the question: There’s no question the Greeks and Romans smoked weed; we just don’t know much about it.

As for Egypt, cannabis seemed to make its first appearance in 2350 BCE, and the heiroglyph shemshemet meant “cannabis” or “hemp.” It was also used in Egyptian medicine until the 1800s.

When did we start calling it by its name? In 1753, in a book called Species Plantarum, a naturalist and biologist named Carl Linnaeus named Cannabis sativa, a single species of hemp, for the first time. Thirty years later, another biologist, Jean-Baptiste de LaMarck, proposed that there were two distinct species of the plant: C. sativa and C. indica. There’s still a broad-ranging debate in the botanical community about whether sativa and indica are two separate species or simply variations within the same species (like, say, the difference between a cocker spaniel and a German shepherd). We call such species “polymorphic.”

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