Legal marijuana may be new in many parts of America, but marijuana itself is almost unfathomably ancient. Scientists estimate that the cannabis sativa plant evolved around 28 million years ago, far before recorded history. Evidence of humans using cannabis also predates written history but, thanks to the work of archeologists and scientists, we know that humans have been using cannabis in one form or another for over ten thousand years.
From creating ancient fabrics to performing sacred burials to using marijuana as a medicine, humankind has proved very resourceful in the ways we’ve found to use cannabis. Below, we’re exploring these varied uses and taking a tour through time. Read on to discover some of the most notable historical evidence of humans using cannabis.
The Oldest Evidence of Marijuana Use
Throughout history, humans have used cannabis plants for industrial, ritualistic, recreational, and medicinal purposes. The oldest evidence of humans using cannabis suggests that the first uses of cannabis were industrial. People in an ancient village in Taiwan used hemp fibers to make fabrics in 8000 BC. Hemp is actually thought to be the earliest crop that was cultivated for its fiber, which also makes it the oldest example of human industry.
We don’t know exactly when people started to use cannabis plants for more than just fiber and food, but archeological and written evidence provides some clues. Archaeologists found remnants of burned cannabis in Romanian burial mounds that dated back to 3500 BC, making that the oldest evidence of humans burning cannabis. The oldest evidence of using cannabis as medicine was recorded in the Pen Ts’ao Ching, the earliest book on Chinese medicine. The book, compiled by Emperor Shen-Nung and dated around 2727 BC, details over 100 medical issues that hemp could treat, including rheumatism and malaria.
Moving into the next millennia, you can find written descriptions that suggest people who were using cannabis were experiencing psychoactive effects. For example, the Hindu religious text the Vedas (written between 1500 and 500 BC) describes cannabis as a “joy-giver” and a “bringer of freedom.”
The oldest archeological evidence of people experiencing intoxicating effects from cannabis comes in the form of cannabis burning vessels that were found in a 2500-year-old gravesite in the Pamir Mountains of China. These wooden braziers contained unusually high amounts of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compared to wild cannabis. Some archeologists and historians suggest that this higher THC level occurred due to the high altitude in the Pamir Mountain region. Others suggest that people were already starting to breed cannabis to increase its potency. Either way, these burning vessels from 500 BC provide the oldest hard evidence of people using cannabis for its psychoactive effects.
Ancient Cannabis Use
Cannabis in Ancient Egypt
Like other ancient people, ancient Egyptians used hemp plants for various industrial purposes, such as making hemp fabric and hemp rope. Yet, ancient Egyptians also used cannabis in ways that were unique for the time. Ancient papyrus texts show that shemshemet, the hieroglyphic symbol for cannabis, appears to have played a particularly big role in ancient Egyptian medicine. Papyrus dating back as old as 1750 BC details the many ways cannabis was used as medicine in ancient Egypt. Over the ages, Egyptians used cannabis as a treatment for glaucoma, menstrual cycle pain, painful fingers or toes, fevers, and cholera.
Many mentions of cannabis in medical papyri called for topical application of the plant. However, thanks to the common Egyptian practice of mummification, we know that at least some Egyptians also inhaled cannabis smoke. Scientists have found significant amounts of THC in the lungs of several ancient Egyptian mummies.
Ancient Cannabis Use in China
Cannabis was a major part of commerce and daily life in ancient China. In ancient China, hemp fibers were used to make clothing, rope, baskets, shoes, and, after its invention, paper. Cannabis seeds were also a food source in ancient China. Cannabis plants were commonplace in China by at least 2350 BC, when the Shu King describes China as being “rich… with silk, hemp, lead, pine trees, and strange stones.” Trade records show that China was also one of the first major exporters of the plant, which was one of the most traded commodities on the Silk Road.
While cannabis played an important role in ancient Chinese industry, it also had a major place in Chinese medicine. The earliest record of the medical use of cannabis comes from an ancient Chinese text dating back to 2727 BC. Ancient Chinese medical texts refer to “Ma,” the Chinese word for cannabis, as being a very popular medicine that possessed both yin and yang.
Cannabis in Ancient India
Cannabis had a spiritual importance in ancient India, where people used cannabis medicinally and ritualistically as an offering to Shiva. Medically, cannabis was used to treat a variety of ailments, including pain, insomnia, and gastrointestinal issues. The drink Bhang, made of cannabis and milk, was used specifically as an anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic.
Of note, there’s evidence that people in ancient India were well aware of the fact that cannabis has psychoactive properties. For example, The Vedas refers to cannabis as a “source of happiness” that was compassionately given to humans by the gods as a way to help them “attain delight and lose fear.” Yet, due to its medicinal use and strong association with the god Shiva, cannabis was not thought of as merely a recreational drug. Instead, ancient Indians considered using marijuana sacred.
Cannabis in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece
Cannabis is indigenous to Central Asia and didn’t start to spread globally until around 1000 AD when it slowly started to make its way to Europe, Africa, and the Americas via travelers and traders. However, there’s evidence that people in ancient Rome and Greece were aware of the plant before it became widespread. The ancient Greek writer Herodotus famously wrote about the use of marijuana in Book IV of his Histories, which dates back to 440 BC. In this book, Herodotus describes the funeral rituals of the Scythian people, a nomadic group that migrated from Central Asia to Eastern Europe in the 7th or 8th century BC. According to Herodotus, Scythians would throw hemp seed on hot red stones and “shout for joy” when the hemp began to smoke and release a vapor.
Herodotus’s Histories is the earliest record of cannabis in ancient Greek and Roman history, but it’s not the only one. Between 50 and 70 AD, the Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides wrote a pharmacological text that detailed information about the medicines used in Greek and Rome at the time. Cannabis was referenced in the text as a source of fiber for rope, a treatment for reducing sexual desire, and as a treatment for earworms. The Roman physician Galen (129 – 210 AD) also wrote about cannabis during his lifetime, but he noted that it was being used recreationally. Galen wrote that people often shared “flowers of hemp” at social gatherings to “thin the humors.”
Modern History and Pharmacology of Medical Cannabis
People have been using cannabis for medicinal reasons since ancient times. And though many places banned cannabis around the 20th century, cannabis was still a popular medicine up through the 19th century during the time modern medicine started to take shape.
One of the first notable developments in modern medical marijuana application came in the 1830s when Dr. William O’Shaughnessy reintroduced cannabis to British medicine. The Irish doctor had found while studying in India that cannabis helped people with cholera and various other conditions. In Victorian Britain, people would use cannabis tinctures to treat muscle spasms, menstrual cramps, rheumatism, epilepsy, and insomnia.
In the 1840s, studies done by the French doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau would further help make marijuana a mainstream treatment in western medicine. Moreau’s studies found that marijuana aided sleep eased headaches, and increased appetite.
In the 1850s, marijuana was added to the United States Pharmacopoeia, which was an official document that provided public standards on treating conditions with medicines. The 1850 edition of the US Pharmacopoeia noted that “extractum cannabis” could be used to treat dozens of ailments, including neuralgia, gout, excessive menstrual bleeding, typhus, tetanus, alcoholism, opiate addiction, and more.
By the turn of the century, cannabis tinctures were a ubiquitous staple at pharmacies in America and in many pharmacies across the world. All of that would change, however, over the next 100 years, when cannabis experienced a prolonged period of prohibition in many countries.
The trend of marijuana prohibition and criminalization lasted for most of the 20th century, but the tides finally started turning around the year 2000. Around the turn of the 20th century, various countries and US states slowly began decriminalizing cannabis and/or making medical cannabis legal. Oregon was ahead of the curve here in the United States since they decriminalized cannabis all the way back in 1973. Over two decades later in 1996, California would start a wave of American medical marijuana legalization by legalizing it in the state of California. Many American states followed and medical marijuana is now legal in most states. Recreational legalization is also starting to spread in the United States. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana back in 2012. As of the end of 2020, medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and in Washington, D.C., while recreational marijuana is legal in 15 states.
Final Thoughts on the History of Cannabis
From the indigenous plants grown in ancient China to the refined cannabis strains, you’ll find in your local dispensary, marijuana has had quite a rich history. Looking back, it’s interesting to see the similarities between ancient and modern marijuana use, especially in the medical field. People who lived thousands of years ago used cannabis to treat some of the same issues, like epilepsy and pain, that medical marijuana is sometimes prescribed for today. It’s also interesting to see how short the recent period of cannabis prohibition and criminalization was from a historical perspective. To a modern person thinking about cannabis being outlawed for around 100 years, it may seem like marijuana was illegal for a very long time. However, when you zoom out and look at the thousands of years of widespread legal cannabis use, that recent century of cannabis prohibition looks like a tiny blip, a momentary anomaly, in the timeline of cannabis history.