Hemp 101

Geographical History of Hemp

University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf studies the geographical history of cannabis plants and published an in-depth study on the subject in the Geographical Review journal in 2014. His work tracks the journey of hemp and other cannabis plants from their Asian origin to a mass migration across six continents. Hemp Info Guide spoke with Dr. Warf to learn more. 

Your study says the Scythians played a key role in taking the plant from India to the Middle East and eventually into Eastern Europe. I was under the impression that the nomadic tribe first encountered the plant in the Central Asian Steppe around Mongolia and Southern Siberia. Do we know which culture started using and cultivating it first? 

No one exactly knows. It was a long time ago, and the evidence is kind of fragmentary. The Scythians certainly had temporary settlements throughout what is now Kazakhstan and Western China and up into Siberia. A number of excavations of their burial mounds called kurgans show warlords with their shields and weapons and then a pile of cannabis on their chest to accompany them into the afterlife. The Scythians also moved down into the Indus River Valley, and at times they would engage in raiding and at other times they were simply traders. It appears the plant moved west under the auspices of the Scythians into Iran and into the Middle East, even into Greece and Poland and eventually into much of the rest of Europe. They were the primary vehicle.

Were the Scythians the first culture to start using and cultivating it?

The Scythians? No. Well, that depends what you mean. In a certain sense, there were these nomadic tribes in addition to the Scythians who were using it on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in Western China. The Chinese actually learned about it from the Central Asian nomads, and a very rich tradition of cannabis use in China began, which was eventually stamped out by the rise of Confucianism.

The Scythians possibly harvested wild cannabis, but because they were a nomadic people, they didn’t have time to sit and plant crops and harvest. The Chinese, in a certain sense, were probably the first culture to systematically raise domesticated cannabis and harvest it. That seems to be the earliest, by some accounts maybe 4,000 B.C. or so. There’s a Chinese deity, the hemp goddess, and there were medicinal texts in Chinese, written reports of emperors using it for headaches and royal women using it during childbirth. This is long before the Scythians carried it into Eastern Europe, but there’s some fuzziness regarding the dates. India [cultivated], too, although I think it was slightly later than in China.

Can you tell me about the hemp goddess?

The Chinese word for hemp is ma, and you have to be careful how you pronounce it because it’s a common word in Chinese with different things. I have a little dog and pony show that I use based on [my 2014 study] with PowerPoint slides. Magu was her name, and she was called the hemp maid, not the goddess. From [originally] being a purely religious phenomenon, hemp apparently began to acquire medicinal uses. There’s a Chinese scholar named [Hui-Lin] Li who’s done some extensive work on the history of cannabis in China.

When Confucianism arose, it disapproved of cannabis because it had this connotation of the Central Asian nomads. Confucianism is a very dour, conservative [religion] — not really a religion in the western sense, but we use the term anyway — that demands strict obeisance to authoritarian rule of law and order. The Chinese tradition began to fall apart in the 6th century AD, but for several thousand years, they were using it there.

Your study talks about how Russia was a major supplier of hemp. Why was Russia the major supplier, and did Russia’s dominance motivate other countries to encourage hemp farming?

Hemp was in huge demand in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely for making sails and rope and things like that. There was even a very active hemp clothing industry throughout Europe and elsewhere. There were shortages of hemp, particularly in Western Europe. The Russian supply couldn’t keep up with the demand, which is why, in part, the colonial governments began to encourage hemp growing. The French encouraged it in what is now Southern Quebec. British colonialists encouraged hemp growing in the Eastern U.S. The Spanish crown encouraged it in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in the U.S. during World War II, there was a Hemp for Victory campaign. 

Russia may have been a supplier, but Russia supplied many things. It was a huge supplier of wheat for much of Europe up until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. We should just see Russia’s role in light of its broader position as a supplier of crops and other kinds of commodities in the emerging capitalist world system at the time.

Does the way in which the crop spread geographically say anything about its importance?

Yes, clearly crops can spread accidentally because seeds get picked up and inadvertently transferred somewhere else. In this case it’s pretty clear that it was intentional and deliberate. It reflects the significance that the plant originally had for religious and medicinal purposes. It was important enough that the Scythians brought it with them into Ukraine and Eastern Europe where Herodotus learned about it from hanging out with the Scythians in the Crimean Peninsula. Over time, it gradually became more significant because it developed recreational uses as well. 

Cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated crops that humanity has ever grown. I think all its history and geography reflect its centrality to many cultures.

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