The Ancient History of Hemp

Our ancestors have cultivated and incorporated hemp in their lives for thousands of years. Their ancient ways have much to teach our modern civilization about health and wellness through natural substances. Most amazingly, the use of hemp supersedes culture differences. Written history shows virtually every culture in the world used hemp in some form for its medical benefits. Let's take a journey through the ages to understand the role hemp has played with humanity.

Table of Contents

The Medicinal History of Hemp and Cannabis

With the recent increase in people's interest in the use of hemp for health and other purposes, it is worth remembering that cannabis is not a new drug. It has been used for a very long time for in many regions of the world from Ancient Egypt and China, to the Middle East, and Mediterranean. Before analyzing the possible holistic hemp benefits, there is something useful to learn by recalling a little history.

Hemp is a variety of Cannabis that has been known since ancient times and grows almost everywhere in the world. It has mainly been known as a source of fiber for making fabrics and ropes. In most fiber producing regions, hemp has not been thought of as a medicine. This is because fiber hemp lack the flowers that contain the compounds of medicinal interest.

The Geography of Cannabis

Geographic and climatic factors modify the content cannabinoid, terpenoid, and flavonoid content in cannabis plants. A special type of “Indian hemp” eventually arose. This lead to the discovery that cannabis, and in particular its resin, had significant drug effects. It seems that these effects were first known in the Himalayan region, in Central Asia. Then that this knowledge gradually spread to India, Minor Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest from the African continent [Russo].

Indian Names For Cannabis

  • Bhang is a seeded mixture of cannabis flowers, leaves, and stems
  • Ganja (aka Sinsemilla in the US) is seedless unfertilized female flowering tops
  • Charas (aka Hashish in Arabic) is made by rubbing or sifting off cannabis resin gland (trichomes) from the cannabis flowers; the resulting pollen or keif is then pressed

Cannabis Diversity

Selective breeding happens when humans choose to reproduce or breed plants to accentuate certain features. In tha case of cannabis, the plant has largely co-evolved with humans due to selective breeding. Ethan Russo (2007) explains:

“Selective breeding in cannabis drug strains has favored more intoxicating strains, especially in the last generation of controlled indoor cultivation. Cannabis fields in certain locales such as Morocco and Afghanistan in generations past would tend to yield equal proportions of THC and CBD in pooled samples of sifted trichomes. In contrast, however, cannabidiol has become virtually absent from North American and European drug strains, due to selective breeding for THC content in the last two decades. This enforced absence of CBD in contemporary black market cannabis strains has implications for medical efficacy and tolerability.”

Traditional Uses of Cannabis

Cannabis has been used through history for both medicinal and non-medicinal purposes [Clarke]. In many part of the world like China and Egypt, hemp varieties of cannabis were used for fabric, rope, paper, and building material. Unlike the industrial hemp used for CBD, this sort of industrial hemp produces more fiberous stems instead of cannabinoid rich flowers.

Cannabis was also part of the therapeutic material of traditional medicine, and many of its uses were similar to those for which it is argued in our own society today. It was attributed with sedative, relaxing, anxiolytic, and anticonvulsant properties, which made it useful for the treatment of alcohol and opioid withdrawal; it was recognized for analgesic, antipyretic and antibacterial properties; it was also used to stimulate appetite and relieve diarrhea.

The evolution from pharmaceuticals to hemp for holistic wellness has been marked in large part by a gradual transition from medicines with variable composition, to the use of pure active compounds with specific composition, stability, dosage, and pharmacology. Cannabis still faces many barriers as a modern medicine due to its unknown individual effects, unintended effect, unregulated production, and fundamental differences from pharmaceuticals.

Hemp faces similar challenges, but has the advantage that it naturally is very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and does not get people high. Hemp is rich in another cannabinoid- cannabidiol (CBD) which means that it may impart the natural benefits of cannabis with less disruptive effects.

Traditional Medicine: Cannabis vs Pharmaceuticals

Cannabis, including hemp, is fundimentally different from pharmaceutical drugs and is not legally considered a medicine in most places and under most laws. Medical marijuana programs seek to bridge this gap, but there still must be an understanding between regulators, consumers, doctors, and cannabis companies, that cannabis is its own type of “medicine.” Because it cannot feasibly meet pharmaceutical production standards, regulations need to consider how it can be safely produced and used. Consumers must also be prepared for a non-standardized product that is highly variable in effects and quality and takes trial and error to find good dosing.

It is both a virtue and a curse that hemp and cannabis have such natural variability. Much of its perceived benefits lie in the user’s expectations, product choices, and use habits. While finding a natural home remedy can be a blessing for many, the side effects, drug interactions, and adverse effects of cannabis and hemp can also lead to bad experiences.

The Worldwide Hemp Timeline

ancient hemp pot
5,000 year old hemp cord marked pot

10,000 BC: Japan

Ancient archaeological sites near the Oki Islands in Japan show evidence of hemp cultivation almost 12,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.

This makes hemp one of the oldest crops in the age of human agriculture. From all available evidence, hemp predates the invention of the wheel and writing.

3,000 BC: Chinese Hemp

The Chinese Emperor Shen Hung recorded the first medicinal use of hemp in 2737 BC. He wrote about hemp's incredible effectiveness in treating his rheumatism and gout. Many ancient east Asian cultures used every part of the plant.

The ancient Chinese ground hemp roots into powder for medicine, wove the fibers of the stem into textiles, rope, and paper, and consumed the flowers for pleasure and medicine. Even the seeds were eaten and used to produce oil.

ancient china pot

2,000 BC: Egyptian Hemp

ancient egypt hemp leaf

The Egyptians also recorded the medicinal uses of the hemp plant as far back as 2000 BC. The Egyptians noted the ability of the plant to treat eye sores and cataracts. Pollen from the Cannabis plant has been found on numerous Egyptian mummies including Ramesses the 2nd.

1,000 AD: Arabic Hemp

persia hemp text

Arabic physicians made use of the medical properties of the hemp plant from the 8th to the 18th centuries.

Written records describe important medical properties to include: diuretic, antiemetic, anti-epileptic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic.

french hemp drawing

Medieval France

In medieval France, the hemp plant was widely known for its effects both medically and recreationally. When the Queen of France commissioned a book depicting agricultural plants, the authors decided to include the hemp plant twice.

Present Day

In our modern times, we continue to discover new uses for the hemp plant. Over the last 100 years, our society polarized the use of the hemp plant. We can now understand our current anticipations and misunderstandings of hemp as a mere blip in the course of humanity.


  1. Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016). Cannabis domestication, breeding history, present-day genetic diversity, and future prospects. Critical reviews in plant sciences, 35(5-6), 293-327. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07352689.2016.1267498
  2. Russo, E. B. (2007). History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet. Chemistry & biodiversity, 4(8), 1614-1648. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cbdv.200790144


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