A recent paper published in the European Journal for Chemistry explores the historical use of cannabis and its versatility. Entitled “From ancient Asian relics to contemporaneity: A review of historical and chemical aspects of Cannabis,” researchers Gabriel Vitor de Lima Marques and Renata Barbosa de Oliveira from the Brazil-based Federal University of Minas Gerais’ Department of Pharmaceutical Products, submitted the paper earlier this year in April, and it was printed in the journal in late September.
“From the Himalayan mountains to the South American coast, Cannabis, a general term for plants of the genus Cannabis, with thousands of years of contact with humankind, shows its versatility as food tools such as hemp, religious and hedonistic input, and other purposes through the millennia, according to the populations in question,” researchers wrote in the paper’s abstract. “In this paper, a review of the context of the use of Cannabis and its place in world history is presented, from ancient Mesopotamian relics, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, to the reasoning behind the isolation and structural elucidation of three phytocannabinoids and the spread of Cannabis throughout the world.”
Researchers described cannabis as one of the five main grains used by ancient people, alongside rice, soy, barley, and millet. It was often used as food, but also for the creation of many other goods such as soap. The hemp stalk was used to make ropes for tools and ship sails, as well as to make clothing and paper.
Current archeological evidence of cannabis plant use dates back to 8,000 years B.C.E. in ancient Mesopotamia (today the region is Iran and Iraq), as well as 4,000 years B.C.E. where hemp rope material in present-day China and Kazakhstan. Researchers allege that hemp was frequently used up until the 19th century, where an estimated 80% of fabrics, candles, rope, and more, were made with hemp.
It was also referenced in the world’s oldest pharmacopeia, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, which was originally compiled in the 1st century but dates back to 2,700 B.C.E. As translated by researchers, “The Ma-fen (‘fruit’ of cannabis)’ if ingested in excess, can cause the user to see demons.” Cannabis paired with ginseng was also “believed to help necromancers achieve premonitory powers and enlightenment of being.”
The use of cannabis for its entheogenic properties is seen in India around 1,000 B.C.E. Hemp is described in the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Vedas, as one of the five sacred plants: “…it was believed to have arisen from a drop of amrita (sacred nectar) that fell from heaven onto the earth and was able to bring joy and freedom to those who used it,” the researchers explained. At the time, the most common variations of cannabis were bhang, ganja, and charas.
Cannabis was often used to celebrate events such as the Holi festival, and Durga Puja. “It is understood that marijuana is as significant and respected for these people as communion wine or sacred host is for Christians,” researchers added. “For its other facets, ayurvedic medicine used Cannabis practically as a panacea: as an analgesic, antispasmodic, anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac and anaphrodisiac, appetite stimulant, treatment of female tract diseases, abortifacient, inductor of childbirth, among several other applications.”
The benefits and widespread use of cannabis and other herbal medicines and knowledge in these cultures were demonized by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, and its properties were “hidden and omitted” in European territories.
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, as Napoleon invaded Egypt, French army scientists studied local people using hashish, and later took samples back to France to conduct research. In 1840, one particular researcher, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, “tested different preparations [of hashish] on himself and his students to test its psychotomimetic properties, with the justification that he ‘saw in hashish, more specifically in its effects on mental abilities, a powerful and unique method to investigate the genesis of mental illness’. Hash making its way to France also led to its use by famous authors such as Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Victor Hugo.
Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy recorded his observations about cannabis “in the treatment of pain, convulsions, and vomiting resulting from infectious diseases such as rabies, tetanus, and cholera, diseases that were major public health problems in nineteenth-century Europe, were of great importance to Western medicine.” Cannabis’ properties as a “sedative, analgesic, anticonvulsant, and in the symptomatic treatment of infectious diseases,” eventually led it to be included in the British pharmacopeia. “What was previously almost restricted to use by African and indigenous slaves has now been adopted for therapeutic purposes by the white Brazilian society,” researchers commented.
Throughout the late 19th century to present day, researchers continued to study cannabis’ scientific profile and uncovered many truths about cannabis. Although research was hindered by prohibition more than 80 years ago, today’s comprehension of cannabis was possible because of its use by ancient people.
The paper’s researchers stated that the “hedonistic” use cannabis and other narcotics in the mid and late 20th century was perpetuated by “cultural and even religious movements, such as jazz, blues, the hippie movement, Rastafarian, the recovery of literature from the previous century, and rock’n roll, starring famous artists such as Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Doors, whose works influenced popular culture to this day.”
“Cannabis is perhaps one of the greatest controversies in contemporary humanity,” the paper concludes. Despite the setbacks of prohibition, modern day research is well on its way to making up for lost time, with the plant’s use both as a psychedelic substance for medical or recreational purposes, as well as its continued use as a food and textile.