The history of cannabis cultivation goes very far back, and people have been benefiting from cannabis plants in multiple ways ever since the plant was discovered. From medicine over food to biofuel, the possibilities are plentiful and researchers are set on discovering new ways to implement it into our daily lives. Every single nation on earth has taken advantage of the plant at least once and many never ceased to do so.
The relationship between cannabis and humans was formed thousands of years ago, and people swiftly began to grow marijuana for their purposes. Henceforth, cannabis continued to impact our lives in a multitude of ways. Looking back at where it all began, and how humans ended up cultivating cannabis everywhere they possibly could, reveals the astonishing journey the plant undertook as well as the very long history of cannabis and its cultivation.
The earliest use and cultivation of cannabis by humans
Mankind’s first encounter with cannabis occurred during the Stone Age, around the year 8,000 before Christ (BC). However, some people even claim to have found evidence hinting at cannabis plants being around since 10,000 BC, the beginning of the Neolithic era. The location from which cannabis originated, on the other hand, is more disputed.
With Asia being unanimously viewed as the location of origin, it still is not known for certain whether hemp originated in China, South Asia or Central Asia. What is known is that most cannabis strains have their roots going back to South Asia, more specifically Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountains.
Evidence of cannabis use and cultivation in China from around 8,000 BC to 6,000 BC is easy to find and demonstrates the different ways the ancient Chinese implemented the plant into their daily life. It also shows just how rich the history surrounding cannabis and its cultivation really is. Cannabis was used for pottery, and the hemp fibres were used in the production of textiles as well as a rudimentary form of paper. The seeds were used as food, and a method to harvest oil from the plant was invented.
The Chinese are also credited with the invention of farming, as emperor Shennong — who is said to have lived sometime between 3,494 BC and 2,857 BC — supposedly invented the plough, the hoe, the axe, modern irrigation, the Chinese calendar, preservation of seeds, farmers markets and the taming of oxen.
Whether Shennong was a real person or merely a symbol used by a clan is up for debate, as evidence is hard to come by. According to Chinese mythology, he possessed the head of a bull and the body of a man. His book ‘Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching’, which contains the earliest form of Chinese medicine, is said to be the oldest medical text in existence.
Cannabis was amongst 365 medicines that were listed in his book, all made entirely from natural ingredients, and was praised for its medical abilities. Shennong claimed cannabis to be harmless and said that, if taken in the right dose over a prolonged period of time, it would allow the communication with spirits. His affection for the plant and the invention of agriculture strongly suggest this period in time to be the one during which cannabis was first purposefully cultivated by humans.
In 1977, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan contemplated about the possibility of cannabis being the first crop to have ever been cultivated by mankind and wrote about how, if proven true, this would mean that marijuana has driven humans to invent agriculture and, subsequently, civilisation itself.
How cannabis spread across the globe
In 1,500 BC, the Scythians, who are nomads indigenous to Central Asia, imported cannabis seeds and started to grow cannabis themselves. They mainly used hemp for the fabrication of cloth since recreational use was unfamiliar to them at first, although it became more popular as time went on.
The next nation to come in contact with marijuana was Persia in 600 BC. A religious text originating from Persia refers to cannabis, which the Persians called ‘bhang’, as ‘the good narcotic’. This point in history marked the beginning of the unstoppable spread of cannabis. From this moment on, cannabis cultivation would go on to spread across the whole globe, with the rest basically being history.
During the same period in time, ropes made of hemp started to appear in Southern Russia, indicating the expansion of cannabis towards Europe. The next advancement was made by the Scythians, who introduced the population of northern Europe to hemp. Quickly, the use of the hemp plant proliferated across all of northern Europe, as the Europeans began to grow and process hemp.
The usage of cannabis by the Scythians was documented by the Greek writer and geographer Herodotus in his life’s work called ‘The Histories’. He describes the rituals they were partaking in, some of which involved leaving cannabis as offerings in tombs as well as the usage of marijuana in a recreational manner. The book dates back to between 500 BC and 425 BC, which makes it the oldest written report of marijuana being used solely for the purpose of inducing a high in a recreational fashion.
While it is safe to assume that the Greek cultivated cannabis since the time they fought against the Persians, the earliest documented evidence of the presence of cannabis in Greece is a hemp rope, which was declared to be only about 1,800 years old.
Around the time we associate with the birth of Jesus Christ, the cannabis plant continued to spread, being grown in more and more countries. The Roman empire was evidently one of them, as Pliny the Elder wrote about the analgesic effects of cannabis in his book ‘The Natural History’. Shortly after this, the English isles began importing hemp in order to make robes.
The medical effects of marijuana were actively put to use in ‘modern’ medicine by the Greek, with them being the first to prescribe medical marijuana. This indicates the cultivation of cannabis plants which were designated to be processed into medicine, thus, creating the first fields of medical hemp.
Chinese surgeons began using cannabis as an anaesthetic during operations and a woman from Jerusalem was allegedly treated with the herb during childbirth. The global interest in the plant grew, enticing an increasing amount of people to explore the abilities of cannabis, and to grow their own cannabis.
The Vikings took it upon themselves to bring hemp and hemp seeds to Iceland and Norway, acquiring the goods from traders during their journeys. While many attempts to cultivate the herb failed due to the colder climate, the adaptive and hardy cannabis plant managed to acclimate and endure the temperatures as well as the decreased availability of sunlight Iceland challenged it with.
At the same time, the Arabs came into contact with hemp, learning how to make paper and textiles. Despite the warnings about potential dangers from the Arabic alchemist Ibn Wahshiyya, cannabis spread through Arabia like a wildfire. During the 12th century, the neighbouring Persians claimed to have invented hashish, which sparked a newfound interest in the herb in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
The Arabs were, together with the Persians, directly responsible for the existence of cannabis in Africa. Traders brought the plant to the coast of Mozambique and introduced the locals to its effects and showed them how to use it. By the time the 14th century began, all of Africa was trying to cultivate cannabis, as the herb became popular wherever it appeared.
Nearly all of the globe was now supplied with marijuana. The missing part, America, came into contact with cannabis fairly late. It was most likely shipped to North America and Chile at the end of the 16th century by the Spanish, while, simultaneously, Angolan slaves were responsible for importing cannabis to Brazil.
The slaves were not only allowed to grow their cannabis plants amongst the sugarcanes but also to consume it during their downtime between harvests. Native Americans were allegedly also spotted growing cannabis in 1607 by Gabriel Archer.
The brief history of the modern cultivation of cannabis
By now, cannabis is found all around the world, being enjoyed by many, as regulations were pretty much nonexistent. Basically, the only rules that were issued forced people to grow even more hemp. For example, King Henry VIII fined farmers who refused to cultivate cannabis. Virginia called similar laws into life, requiring farmers to cultivate both Indian and English hemp on their fields. Due to good growing conditions, cannabis plantations in the United States flourished.
Beginning with the 19th century, the cultivation of cannabis for medical purposes became even more popular. Not only the Americans were putting their faith in the healing abilities of the plant, the Persians also offered hashish for sale in pharmacies, and research about cannabis became increasingly present in medical journeys of the time.
The plant is still being studied thoroughly, with new findings coming out by the minute. The first classification of a specific cannabis species was done in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, who identified Cannabis sativa L. Five years later, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was given samples that were raised in India. He found the plants to be different in appearance, having firmer stems, thin barks and differently shaped leaves and flowers. Declaring this variant as Cannabis indica, he became the first to classify this species.
The third species, Cannabis ruderalis, was first mentioned in 1924 by the Russian botanist Janischewsky, who found this deviant to be more resistant to colder climates and to be independent of daylight duration. This means that the cannabis flowers can enter the flowering stage without the need for a specific daylight cycle. Modern auto-flowering seeds are using this genetic feature to their advantage. Ruderalis most likely originated in Eastern Europe.
Cannabis cultivation today
In today’s world, cannabis can be cultivated basically anywhere. We now not only have a long history with cannabis cultivation, we also have a profound understanding of the plant as well as many genetic variations and crossbreeds to choose from to perfectly fit almost any climate. Despite this fact, only a small fraction of the world’s population is growing cannabis right now.
Due to regulations and laws that have been enacted over the past decades, outside of countries that have already legalised the cultivation of cannabis, only researchers in possession of a permit, companies raising hemp for industrial purposes or people disregarding the law are growing marijuana today. Many people are growing the plant illegally, either for personal or commercial use.
Undeterred by the restrictions, cannabis seeds are easy to come by in the modern world and they come in a vast array of varieties. This was unfathomable in the ancient eras, as people had to rely on whatever seeds they could get their hands on to grow their plants. Cannabis cultivation has played a significant role in the development of society and civilisation, and the journey of how marijuana conquered the whole planet clearly shows mankind’s interest in it and how fascinated we are by it.