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Cannabis: The Origin Story

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Cannabis has been around the world more times than we can count! And with this comes a rich history, so take a trip down memory lane with the cannabis plant.

By Cannabis News ZA - 09/09/2020

From the sites where prehistoric hunters and gatherers lived, to ancient China and Viking ships, cannabis has been used across the world for millennia. Before marijuana became illegal, it had a long history of human use – both recreationally and medicinally, likely starting in Asia around 500 BC. Let’s take a closer look at the history of cannabis. 

History of Medical Cannabis Use

The first reference to the plant’s medical uses comes from a Chinese medical manual dating back to approximately 2700 B.C., stating its usefulness in treating rheumatism, gout, malaria and absent-mindedness. Since then several cultures were reported to use cannabis medicinally, to cure toothaches, relieve pain during childbirth and treat stomach illnesses such as the Vikings, medieval Germany and ancient Egyptians.

In 1000 BC a drink called bhang was created in India, a mixture of cannabis, milk, and other ingredients used as an anti-phlegmatic and anaesthetic, which is still used today. Ancient Indians used cannabis allegedly to cure leprosy and dysentery as well as fever, encourage sleep, and improve judgment and cognition. The plant was not only used medically in this region but also was a vital part of their spiritual journey. 

Recreational and Spiritual Cannabis Use

The history of cannabis is deeply intertwined with recreational and spiritual use. An ancient Greek historian named Herodotus documented that a large group of Iranian nomads in Central Asia inhaled the smoke from burning cannabis seeds and flowers to get high. Throughout the Middle East and Asia Hashish – a purified form of cannabis smoked with a pipe – was widely used after 800 AD. The rise in popularity corresponded with the spread of Islam, as the Quran forbid the use of alcohol and some other intoxicating substances, but did not specifically mention cannabis. More recently, cannabis residue was even found on an ancient biblical shrine in Israel.

In ancient India, cannabis was renowned for its psychoactive properties and was celebrated as one of “five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety” in one of the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems whose name translates into “Science of Charms.”. In the Hindu culture, cannabis is still widely respected and admired due to the deity Shiva – the destroyer of evil, the transformer, and the God of cannabis. Hindu stories related to Shiva even talk about the origins of cannabis as something divine.

The Movement of Cannabis

The history of the spread of cannabis throughout the globe closely follows migration patterns, conquests, and trade routes and has experienced varying degrees of acceptance and use throughout history. The plant originated in Central Asia, spreading quickly to Europe and the Middle East, which was then brought to Africa by traders. It’s initial transportation to the rest of the world can even be seen in the Silk Road. 

In the Tswana, Zulu, Sotho, and Swaz African cultures cannabis was widely used and provided an important opportunity for trade with the Dutch, whose use of the herb dates back to at least the 1600s. 

What events do you think will make cannabis history in South Africa?

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