“You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan
If we want to understand and change the game in cannabis, we have to first learn where it comes from. This is the first installment in a series of broken up history lessons to learn about something that we all have in common- cannabis.
Cannabis sativa L. is possibly one of the oldest plants cultivated by man, but has remained a source of controversy throughout its history. Mind-altering plants can produce various altered states of consciousness and have thus played important roles in ritual and/or religious activities in various areas of the world. In prehistoric and early historic Central Eurasia, many plants were used for their secondary compounds. Plants in the Cannabis genus represent a hybrid complex, with ongoing controversy relating to taxonomy (the classification); and the lack of taxonomic clarity combined with continual gene flow between wild and domesticated populations has hampered attempts to study the origins and dispersal of this plant. Wild cannabis grows across many of the cooler mountain foothills from the Caucasus to western China, especially in the well-watered habitats of Central Asia.
The earliest known origin of the hemp plant is likely Central Asia. The plant is remarkable in its genetic variation and polymorphic capacities (wide genetic variations) and versatility as a foodstuff and fuel (seeds), fiber (stalks), and pharmaceutical (unfertilized flowering tops). Its biochemical diversity, while possibly exceeded in sheer numbers by other herbs and common food plants, is likely unrivaled with respect to its extensive complement of bioactive compounds (cannabinoids and terpenes) and their potential medical applications.
It’s not possible to say exactly where and when cannabis came into existence as a medical plant, but fragments of report occur centuries before the birth of Christ in China and Egypt. The well-known Chinese doctor Hua T’uo reportedly made use of a hemp and wine recipe called “Ma-yo” as an anesthetic for surgical operations.
Approximately 800 years B.C., the plant appeared to have reached India. Due to its narcotic effect, cannabis was used in certain rituals and soon became established among Indian medicinals and narcotics. Even centuries later, cannabis retained its place in the Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Hemp has also been mentioned previously in a medicinal context in the Vedas, the oldest Indian religious texts.
Persian and Tibetan traditions of cannabis use also stem from before the birth of Christ. Even in the time of Buddha (500 B.C), cannabis was allegedly used as an anesthetic to perform extraordinary surgery. Assyrian fragments of herbal literature suggest that they knew about the psychoactive effects of cannabis and used it as incense since the 9th century B.C. It’s also possible that, before the Christian Era, Assyrians used the plant externally for swellings and bruises; and internally for depression, impotence, arthritis, kidney stones, ‘female ailment’, and for the ‘annulment of witchcraft’.
In Europe, historical and archeological evidence suggests the presence of cannabis before the Christian Era. It seems the plant was brought by Scythian invaders, who originated from Central Asian and reached close to the Mediterranean. In the year 450 B.C., Herodotus described a Scythian funeral ceremony, and stated that they inhaled the vapors obtained from burning cannabis seeds with ritualistic and euphoric purposes. That description was later confirmed by archeologists who found charred cannabis seeds in Scythian tombs in Siberia and Germany. Other artifacts in these tombs suggest ritual practices—for example, the presence of an angular harp, an important musical instrument in ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies. In addition, many of the artifacts from these tombs have clear burn marks on them. We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.