Cannabis Roots: Humanity’s Ancient Plant Ally

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Cannabis Roots: Humanity’s Ancient Plant Ally By Chris Bennett

When most people think of the history of cannabis, they generally flash to the “grass” the hippies of the 1960s smoked, or the “reefers” of the Jazz age. However, the fact is, according to current archeological evidence,humanity’s relationship with cannabis goes back tens of thousands of years before even the first words of man were recorded.

The role of cannabis in the ancient world was manifold: with its nutritious seeds, an important food; and its long, pliable strong stalks an important fibre, as well as an early medicine from its leaves and flowers.

Hemp fibre imprints found in pottery shards in Taiwan, just off the coast of mainland China, that were over 10,000 years old and remnants of cloth from  8,000 B.C. have been found at the site of the ancient settlement Catal Hüyük (in Anatolia, in modern day Turkey). Much older tools used for breaking hemp stalk into fibres, indicate humanity has been using cannabis for cloth “since 25,000 B.C. at least” (Barber, 1999).  In 1997, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC was found in Czechoslovakia. it was the oldest evidence for hemp fiber” (Seydibeyoglu, et. al. 2017).

It seems likely that by the time that humanity began weaving the fibres of the plant into cloth, they had already been familiar with it for centuries, if not millennia. The late Professor Richard E. Schultes, of Harvard University, considered the father of modern ethnobotany, believed it was likely in the search for food, that humanity first discovered cannabis and its protein rich seeds:

“Early man experimented with all plant materials that he could chew and could not have avoided discovering the properties of cannabis (marijuana), for in his quest for seeds and oil, he certainly ate the sticky tops of the plant.  Upon eating hemp, the euphoric, ecstatic and hallucinatory aspects may have introduced man to the other-worldly plane from which emerged religious beliefs, perhaps even the concept of deity.  The plant became accepted as a special gift of the gods, a sacred medium for communion with the spiritual world and as such it has remained in some cultures to the present. (Schultes, 1973)”

There has been interesting scientific speculation that the psychoactive properties of cannabis may have played a role as a catalyst in the time period of advancement that is known as the Great Leap forward, where it may have aided prehistoric man with novel new ways of thought processes, and development in tool making. Doctors John McPartland and Geoffery Guy, in their fascinating paper, The Evolution of Cannabis and Coevolution with the Cannabis Receptor – A Hypothesis, postulate that a plant ligand, such as the cannibinoids of the hemp plant, “may exert sufficient selection pressure to maintain the gene for a receptor in an animal. If the plant ligand improves the fitness of the receptor by serving as a ‘proto-medicine’ or a performance-enhancing substance, the ligand-receptor association could be evolutionarily conserved” (McPartland & Guy, 2004).

A recent scientific study out of the USA led by Washington State University researcher Ed Hagen, has suggested that our prehistoric ancestors may have ingested cannabis as a means of killing of parasites, pointing to a similar practice among the primitive Aka of modern day central Africa. We do know that references to cannabis medicine appear in the world’s oldest pharmacopeias, such as China’s ancient Pen Ts’ao, in ancient Ayurvedic texts, in the medical papyrus of Egypt, in cuneiform medical recipes from Assyria, first on a list of medicinal plants in the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta and elsewhere. 

It can be reasonably suggested that soon after agriculture started, if not at its very inception, the cultivation of cannabis began to spread widely, carrying its name and its cult with it. In his study on the botanical history of cannabis and man’s relationship with the plant, Dr. Mark Merlin put forth that “perhaps hemp was one of the original cultivated plants… [of]the progenitors of civilization” (Merlin, 1973). Merlin was not alone in this train of thought. In his The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, the late Carl Sagan also speculated that early man may have begun the agricultural age by first planting hemp.  Sagan used the pygmies from southwest Africa to demonstrate his hypothesis; the pygmies had been basically hunters and gatherers until they began planting hemp which they used for religious purposes (Sagan 1977). More recently Entheobotanist Christian Ratsch explained:

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