Since the beginning of agriculture at least 10,000 yrs ago, we have been producing and consuming hemp products. In this post we outline some of the highlights of our long association with cannabis from ancient times up to prohibition in the 1920s. This is the first in a series of posts; the second will delve into the reasons for the prohibition of cannabis and the third will look at some the current research on cannabis, focusing on the discovery of the Endocannaboid System.
Sumerian Birth 3000 BC
Our first ancestors to develop a written form of language is widely believed to be in Sumer which was an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia circa 3000 BC. This first record of human language and culture is known as Cuneiform. Tablets found from this time period have been translated. They mention the medical use of cannabis in past tense. Because our earliest records only date back to this time it is the logical beginning for the story of the history of cannabis use.
Chinese Ma 2500 BC
It is widely speculated that the use of the Hemp plant dates back as far as 10,000BC as a textile crop in ancient China. The earliest records of Chinese Medicine come from their pharmacological book, “The Herbal” or “Pen Ts’ao” written by Shen Nung, who was also known as the Red Emperor around 2500 BC. No copies of the original text remain, but the modern version is believed to be very similar. This text, which is still in use today, makes a multitude of references to the use of cannabis sativa for many conditions. Many different parts of the plant are mentioned, including the root, stem, leaves, flower and seed. In China it was recognized that the cannabis plant had a male and female traits relating to Yin and Yang.
Indian Bhang 2000 BC
Cannabis has been used as medicine in India for a very long time and is still legal today. Because our earliest written records of ancient India come from after 1000BC, we don’t know exactly when Bhang was introduced. It is generally agreed that the medicinal, religious and recreational use has been ongoing and widespread for more than 3,000yrs. The favourite food of the Hindu god Shiva is said to be cannabis. Popular preparations include the plants resin, flower, seed and leaves which are made into Charas (hashish), as well as a Bhang Lassi which is a traditional drink made from yogurt.
Ancient Egypt 1700 BC
Egyptologists widely agree that medical cannabis was recognized and used in ancient Egypt. One of the earliest medical documents that makes reference to cannabis is, “The Ramesseum III Papyrus”, circa 1700 BC. There are many references in other medical scrolls but the “Ebers Papyrus” (1500 BC) is the oldest, most complete medical textbook in known existence today. The “Ebers Papyrus” is thought to be based on a much older scroll, but that is merely speculation. There is no real evidence except for the general complexity of the ancient Egyptian’s understanding of using plants for medicine. Some of the oldest uses of hemp were for topical ointments used for inflammation and pain.
Assyro-Babylonians 1000 BC
The Middle-East is one of the cradles of civilization and the language, culture and medicine of ancient Mesopotamia developed gradually over thousands of years. The Assyrian Empires flourished for nearly 2,000 years beginning in the 25th century BC. Just as the previous Sumerian people of that area, their development of a written language allows us a good understanding of their lives and technologies. We have discovered more than half a million cuniform clay tablets, of which many have yet to be transcribed. Thousands of them are classified as medical tablets, and refer to the use of cannabis for its medicinal properties.
Roman-Greco 50 AD
The Greek and the Roman texts on medicine were used in the western world until the 1700’s. One of the earliest Greek physicians that traveled with the Roman army throughout the civilized world, collected and wrote the first draft of “De Materia Medica”. Pedanius Dioscorides recorded much of the ancient knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses, including references to hemp. Claudius Galen is another important Greek-born Roman physician who contributed volumes of medical texts. In Roman times, hemp’s textile and medical uses spread across the known world. Trade with the far east introduced the cannabis indica variety which had more intoxicating effects and stronger medicinal viability.
Arabic Medicine 1000 AD
With the fall of Rome in 400 AD, much of the west fell into the dark ages. However, the middle east experienced a golden age of Arabic medicine. Probably the most important and famous Persian physician is Avicenna who wrote the “Cannon of Medicine” based on the work of Galen, Diocordes and incorporating knowledge from the Far East. This contribution was comprised of 5 volumes and was the most advanced medical textbook for 700 years. Translations into European languages led to the development and understanding of medicine in the west, helping to bring an end to the dark ages. The books make many references to cannabis, including chapters on its medical uses.
British Medicine 1800
A major turning point in the world of medical cannabis came from an Irish researcher and scientist named W.B. O’Shaughnessy. On his travels with the British Army in India he became aware of the popular intoxicant and many of the benefits of the cannabis indica strain. He released his first 40 page paper on the topic, presenting it to students and colleagues at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. He was the first person to perform clinical trials for various ailments and contributed many more papers and books on his research. His findings invigorated the use of hemp in the western world and led to the first marketed and copyright protected brand of cannabis tincture in 1840.
Golden Age of Medical Cannabis
From 1840-1937 more than 20,000 cannabis products were protected with trademarks and were marketed as medicine. Countless tinctures, salves, capsules and extracts were sold around the world. This period is known as the golden age of medical cannabis and refers to a time when our knowledge and use flourished. Every doctor prescribed it for hundreds of conditions and diseases. Unfortunately, widespread use came to an end with the prohibition period commencing in the 1920s and coming into full force in 1937. The prohibition period was characterized by mass propaganda and misleading messages.
Next up: The Prohibition Period of Cannabis.