Humans first domesticated hemp (and the cannabis genus as a whole) more than 10,000 years ago shortly after the Ice Age ended. The exact location is not exactly clear, and various researchers have suggested places like the Hindu Kush mountains, Afghanistan and the Huang He River valley, among others. Religious texts even suggest the Hindu god Shiva brought the plant down from the Himalayas. Nevertheless, solid evidence puts its early evolution in a particular sweet spot in the Central Asian (or Eurasian) Steppe in and around present-day countries like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China.
According to the study “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis” published in 2014, “[Hemp’s] biogeography fluctuated over time, largely in response to the waxing and waning of Pleistocene glaciers from which it took refuge. In the upper-Paleolithic period, its spatial distribution was markedly reshaped by human beings, who domesticated it.”
It seems the plant developed in the Steppe, and early hunter-gatherers spread it pretty much wherever humans went. In the many centuries that followed, the plant went from the Middle East into Africa, across to South America and eventually into the United States and Canada.
Scythia, a region in the Central Asian Steppe, takes its name from the nomadic, horse-riding Scythians. Historical etymologists suggest the name might actually come from an ancient Indo-European word for “archer” as the tribe fought and hunted on horseback using their characteristic bows and arrows. These bows, of course, were likely strung with twisted hemp fiber.
As nomadic herders, the Scythians were a step up from hunter-gatherers in developmental terms, but still retained many similarities in terms of lifestyle. Native to the very part of Central Asia that cannabis and hemp originate from, the Scythians were arguably the first to encounter the plant, the first to identify its remarkable properties and the first to bring it to the attention of the rest of the world. The nomadic Bronze Age tribe spread cannabis to South Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. In fact, the Scythians are the subject of the first hemp reference in western literature.
Around the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in The Histories about the Scythians’ use of the plant in Macedonia. He noted, “They take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on to the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapor unsurpassed by any vapor-bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure.”
The Horse and Wheel
Published in 2007, The Horse, The Wheel and Language is a bestselling book by New York anthropology professor David Anthony that won the Book Award from the Society for American Archaeology. The book’s full title includes How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Though the book primarily focuses on linguistics, it highlights the important role that the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel in the Central Asian Steppe spread Indo-European languages across the Asian and European continents. These two breakthroughs also played a major role in diffusing hemp and bringing it to new cultures often via the Silk Road. The Scythians, of course, played a major role in the diffusion, though other Bronze Age tribes contributed to the plant’s migration as well.
Secrets from the Grave
How did early civilizations utilize the plant? Most of our hunter-gathering ancestors did not live in caves, so “caveman” is a somewhat dated term that scientists never use today, but most of the archeological evidence has been found in caves, tombs and other dry places that can preserve organic matter for longer periods of time.
The most famous Central Asian sites of early cannabis use are the Pazyryk burials that were discovered in the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in 1929. With burial mounds dating back as early as 3000 BCE, the Pazyryk site contained spectacular graves of several individuals, one of whom is thought to be a chieftain and another a warrior woman or shaman. In the tomb of the so-called chieftain, researchers uncovered a powerfully built man around 45 years of age, a large bowl and leather basket containing cannabis seeds.
The second tomb of note contained the so-called Siberian Ice Princess, a heavily tattooed, lavishly decorated woman around 25 years of age. In 2014, a team of Russian scientists announced the discovery that the Ice Princess had almost certainly died of breast cancer. The researchers further postulated that the container of cannabis seeds (note: some argue it was coriander) found within her burial chamber may have indicated that, in life, medicinal use of cannabis was an important means of coping with her devastating illness.
Likewise, some of the Yanghai Tombs in the Turpan Basin of Xinjiang in northwest China contained large amounts of mummified cannabis sativa (i.e., not hemp). The contents of the tombs, which date back to around 2500 BCE, suggest the Chinese civilization might have taken advantage of the plant’s psychoactive properties.
Systematic large-scale use of hemp likely originated in China. University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf, who authored the aforementioned “High Points” study, told Hemp Info Guide, “The Chinese, in a certain sense, were probably the first culture to systematically raise domesticated [hemp] and harvest it. That seems to be the earliest, by some accounts maybe 4,000 B.C.E. 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.”
The ancient Chinese viewed hemp as both a medicinal plant and a fiber-rich food. Evidence of medical use dates back to 4000 BCE, and emperor Shen Nung included the plant in his pharmacopoeia — the oldest such medical book known to man — around 2700 BCE. They also used hemp to make everyday items like paper and fabrics, which were found in the 1st-century B.C.E. tomb of Emperor Wu. Yangshao-era pottery dating back to 6200 BCE include paintings of the plant.
Although ancient China is associated with fine silk, most residents could not afford the expensive fabric and wore durable and affordable hemp-based clothes instead. Hemp was also used to make bowstrings, giving Chinese archers more range and power than their enemies who fought with bamboo bowstrings.
Hemp in the Christmas Cave
In 2011, textile fragments found in the Christmas Cave, near the Dead Sea in Israel, were confirmed to be from hemp and flax, arguably the two most important fibre crops in human history. Even more remarkably, it was also confirmed that these samples could be dated as far back as the early Bronze Age (4500 to 3500 BCE), which makes it among the earliest traces of hemp used by humans found thus far. The only earlier trace of hemp is from ancient Germany, in the Eisenberg cave near Thüringen (an area of west-central Germany where the Scythians are thought to have once roamed); in this case, scientists found hemp seeds dating to approximately 5500 BCE! In that particular region of central Europe, numerous traces of hemp have been found in archaeological digs spanning millennia.
Hemp Reaches Western Europe
Hemp eventually reached the Greco-Roman world from either the Middle East, Eastern Europe or both. Per the “High Points” study, citizens of classical Greence used hemp as a source of fiber and medicine, with famed physican-botanist Pedanius Dioscorides prescribing it for toothaches and earaches, remedies that persisted through the medieval era. Athenaeus of Naucratis (170–230 CE) writes about hemp obtained from the Rhone River valley in order to manufacture rope. The Roman writer Gaius Lucilius mentions it as a major source of sails and canvas in 100 BCE, and seeds were found in the ruins of Pompeii. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) notes that it grew in Syria, Persia and Babylon, the latter being the source for most Roman hemp.