Many Cannabis remains have been recovered from a continuum of historical periods across large parts of Eurasia and into Africa,
but the types of paleobotanical, archeological, and written evidence varies between regions.
Cannabis is a remarkable, multipurpose genus.
Its plants can produce strong fiber, edible seeds, medicines, and psychoactive resin.
These diverse products have been utilized by a wide variety of cultures across a vast range of the earth.
Although Cannabis seeds can be dispersed in several ways, humans have been, by far, the most important and far-reaching dispersal agent of Cannabis.
The following examination of the spread of Cannabis and its lengthy association with ritual, medicine, and ancient technologies such as spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and making paper will underscore its long-lasting cultural significance.
In some, if not many, areas of Eurasia, Cannabis was one of the very early plants to be propagated by people.
We believe that this early cultivation probably occurred not only because of its edible seeds but also because Cannabis was a prime candidate for incipient farming because of its versatility as a multiple resource.
Several scholars of culture history have suggested that the earliest cultivated plants were not consciously propagated for their edible resources but rather for their “medicinal, industrial, spicy, hallucinatory or merely exotic” assets, or perhaps for their symbolic or prestigious significance.
Whether or not Cannabis was cultivated first or early on for its sacred, emblematic, high status or for more mundane reasons, it was brought into regular use and even cultivation in several regions of Eurasia a very long time ago, perhaps relatively soon after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) nearly 20,000 years ago.
Several disciplines in the natural sciences and humanities provide us with data that will be used to investigate the early history and eventual worldwide cultural diffusion of Cannabis.
In addition, early written records, especially from China, give us insights into the first uses of Cannabis.
(Check previous articles about Cannabis in China)
Historians attempt through study of written records to accurately reconstruct the activities of cultures, including their usage of plant and animal resources.
Cultural preferences often determine the methods of utilization of a plant and in turn affect some of the selective pressures applied to it.
Over time, these preferences and pressures have and still do influence the evolution of Cannabis.
Unfortunately, historians and explorers were not often trained as botanists, and mistakes were frequently made in the identification of plants.
(We are simply humans after all, right?)
This is especially true of the name “hemp,” which has been used for true hemp, Cannabis, and its fiber as well as for over a dozen other unrelated fiber plants and their fibrous products.
Fortunately, Cannabis plants are very distinctive in appearance and were often noted in the written accounts of early European explorers who were familiar with its uses in their home regions.
In addition, evidence of locations where Cannabis was cultivated and processed, especially for fiber, is accessible in various forms including written reports in parish records and government documents.
Historical hemp farming is also indicated in place names such as Hempholme, Hempstead, Hempisteld, and Hempisfeld in England.
Linguistics is a scholarly discipline that also provides us with information about the interrelatedness of various words for Cannabis and its uses.
Several of the root names for Cannabis, representing the plant itself, fiber, seed, drug, or other products, can be traced from Asia into both Europe and Africa, indicating its origin in Asia prior to its spread into either Europe or Africa.
In fact, pictorial representations of Cannabis motifs are very rare prior to the sixteenth-century herbals and are almost entirely absent in artistic and architectural motif.
Much European evidence is archaeobotanical, while that found in other areas such as the Near East and East Asia has, at least until recently, usually been restricted to artifacts and their interpretation.
The type and strength of evidence for the origin and diffusion of Cannabis varies between different regions, largely because of differences in depth and type of research carried out in different countries.
Archeologists have worked most extensively in Europe and China and ancient finds of Cannabis remains from these regions are more common.
However, the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East has been extensively investigated and few Cannabis ancient remains have been found, indicating that it was relatively little known there until more recent times.
The recovery of archaeobotanical remains has been common in Europe for several decades, while in China this is a relatively new scientific activity and therefore archeologists have recorded few botanical remains until recently.
Palynology in general has been particularly lacking in Asia while pollen evidence abounds across Europe.
On the other hand, China and Europe offer us the most detailed historical accounts, resulting from their ancient written traditions.
European linguists have exhaustively studied the Indo-European language group from Britain to India.
Information used to describe widespread, ancient use of Cannabis has been extracted from various disciplines including history, anthropology, archeology, ethnobotany and palynology.
The truth still remains, more or less, shrouded in the mists of time.
Text Fragments taken from Clarke & Merlin, 2013 - Cannabis Evolution & Ethnobotany
To be continued