A History of Weed

Ancient Pot Carving
Ancient Pot Carving

Marijuana is one of the most useful and versatile plants known to man. It has been used to make paper, rope, food, medicine, clothes, and of course, for it’s pleasant intoxicating qualities. While cannabis is probably native to South Asia, over thousands of years of human use and cultivation it has spread to every corner of the world.

Let us trace some of the story of this age old romance, between homo sapiens and this most remarkable herb…

First Appearance

The earliest evidence dates back more than 10,000 years, to the remains of an ancient village in what is now modern day Taiwan. Archaeologists unearthed crude pottery, which was covered with markings or impressions from hemp cord, as well stone tools believed to be used for pounding hemp.

This discovery, dating back to around 8,000 B.C., makes cannabis one of the oldest crops to ever be cultivated by humans – perhaps the very first. And since the development of agriculture coincides with the earliest known human settlements, this ties marijuana in to the very origins of civilization.

Ancient China

Cannabis (which was known in China as “Ma”) was an integral part of Chinese culture as far back as records exist. While the wealthy elite had their fine clothing made of silk, it was hemp that clothed the masses. It was, in fact, the primary textile material. Besides cloth, it was also used to make rope and bowstrings – which were superior to the bamboo bowstrings of their enemies, giving the Chinese archers greater range and a decided military advantage.

While the male plant was used primarily for it’s fiber, the female plant was known for it’s superior medicinal properties. Around 2700 B.C., the emperor Shen-Nung (known as the Father of Chinese Medicine) compiled one of the earliest medical encyclopedias. It listed hundreds of known medicines, among them “Ma” or cannabis, which was used to treat such conditions as malaria, rheumatism, constipation, and absent-mindedness.

Yet another important innovation of the Chinese was the first paper – made from hemp and mulberry bark. Samples of such paper have been found in burial sites dating back to the first century A.D.

Cannabis In India

It is in India that we find the earliest evidence of the use of marijuana as an intoxicant. Cannabis use in India is older than recorded history. It is mentioned in the Vedas, and described as a sacred plant, a guardian angel, and a giver of happiness. These ancient Hindu religious texts are thought to be compiled sometime between 2000 – 1400 B.C., but the legends themselves are much older. And it is safe to assume that the use of cannabis goes back much further, as well.

In India, cannabis is most often consumed as a drink called bhang, made with milk and spices. The god Shiva, who legend has it discovered cannabis and first consumed it, is also known as “the Lord of Bhang.” To this day, there are large sects of Shiva devotees who consume the plant as a part of their worship and spiritual practice.


From China and India, cannabis was then spread by the Scythians throughout Central Asia, into Russia, and as far west as modern-day Ukraine. The term Scythian is used rather loosely, to describe many diverse tribes of semi-nomadic horsemen who roamed the region between 1500 B.C. and 500 A.D., and shared a similar language. They were known to use hemp to make rope and cloth, and they were among the first recreational smokers.


Present day Iran was the seat of the ancient Persian empire, which at it’s peak extended from the Mediterranean Sea through modern day Pakistan, bordering China and India. Their religious text, the Zend-Avesta (dated around 600 B.C.), clearly describes the use of marijuana for spiritual inspiration and visionary states. It was referred to as “the good narcotic,” and was originally consumed as a drink similar to Indian bhang, and called by the same name. Much later (around 900 – 1000 A.D.), the Persians develop a method of making hashish, and it becomes the preferred means of consumption throughout Arabia.

Greece and Europe

Weed Field
Weed Field

Around 600 – 200 B.C., hemp rope first appeared in Greece, and it didn’t take them long to discover it’s medicinal value too. About the time the Chinese were perfecting their paper-making method, Greek physicians were prescribing marijuana to their patients, and using hemp poultices to treat sores on their horses.

The Romans learned of the benefits of hemp from the Greeks, and used it to make their ropes and nets. During the reign of the Roman empire, the plant was spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. By 500 A.D., hemp had spread to England and France. By 900 A.D., it had been carried as far as Iceland aboard Viking longships.

Egypt and Africa

About 1100 A.D., a group of mystics from Syria traveled to Egypt and brought with them their ritual sacrament – hashish. Although Egyptians might have known about medicinal cannabis long before this, and almost certainly made use of hemp cloth and rope, this was the first known use of marijuana as an intoxicant.

In the 12th century, Arab traders brought cannabis as far south as the coast of Mozambique. It didn’t take long for it to catch on and spread through the continent. Pipes containing cannabis residue have been found in inland territories, such as Ethiopia, dating back to around 1300 A.D.

Cannabis Comes to the New World

When European colonists sailed across the Atlantic, they brought weed with them. Not only were the sails, nets, ropes and rigging of their ships made of hemp fiber, but they certainly brought cannabis seeds to plant in their new fields, as well.

In fact, hemp was so valuable at that time, that it was deliberately seeded in new lands and territories wherever they were found. Every sailing vessel required tons of hemp to make the necessary rope and canvas, and it was in constant demand. So Britain and other European nations required their colonies in North and South America to grow it in large quantities.

Marijuana was listed as a medicine in the 1764 publication the New England Dispensatory, and by 1850 it was available in tonic form at pharmacies across the nation. Hemp continued to be a valuable resource and a cornerstone of the American economy until well into the 20th century, with cannabis plantations in New England, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and California.

Today, a hundred years after the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, we are recovering from a century of drug paranoia and rediscovering the value of cannabis, and it’s potential for medicine and industry.

And who knows what new uses we will invent in the next 10,000 years?


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Written by Ben Neal

Ben Neal is a freelance writer from Kansas City, MO. You can read more of his wordplay by connecting with him on Facebook and following him on Twitter.

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