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Marijuana in Ancient History

A Short Timeline

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As a naturally-occuring botanical product, marijuana is, by definition, prehistoric. But the story of the human discovery of marijuana, which almost certainly predates extant textual and archaeological evidence, is seldom told - and often mistold.

ca. 25,000 BCE

Textile patterns consistent with wild hemp rope are imprinted on the flooring of ancient Czech dwellings, providing the earliest probable extant evidence of hemp use.

65th century BCE

Strong botanical evidence exists of hemp cultivation in northern China.

29th century BCE

According to folk tradition, the great Chinese herbalist Shen Nung recommends the medical use of marijuana to treat a variety of symptoms. Because the earliest documentary evidence supporting this claim was written nearly 3,000 years after Shen Nung is said to have lived, and because oral traditions frequently attribute discoveries to well-known, ancient figures, it is not clear whether Shen Nung himself was actually aware of marijuana or recommended its use.

ca. 1700 BCE

Folio 3, column 26 of the Ramesseum Papyri, a group of ancient Egyptian medical texts, recommends a mixture of parsley juice, hemp oil, and water as an eyewash. This is the oldest solid textual evidence of medical marijuana use, though it is not clear that this would have capitalized on any of its psychoactive properties.

ca. 1550 BCE

Section 821 of the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, recommends that a woman blend hemp oil with honey and use it as a vaginal suppository as a treatment for menstrual cramps.

ca. 1400 BCE

The Atharva-Veda, one of the four ancient Hindu Vedas, refers (Book XI, 6:15-16) to hemp as a sacred herb:
To the five kingdoms of the plants which Soma rules as Lord we speak.
Darbha, hemp [bhanga], barley, mighty power: may these deliver us from woe,
To demons and fierce fiends we speak, to Holy Genii, Fathers, Snakes,
And to the hundred deaths and one: may these deliver us from woe.
Many sources claim that the Atharva-Veda makes frequent and explicit reference to marijuana, but this is not the case. These verses are the only explicit reference to hemp or marijuana in the Atharva-Veda, and they do not give any clear indication that the plant has psychoactive properties. Confusion regarding the Atharva-Veda's position on marijuana can be attributed to the fact that it does make frequent reference to soma and jangida, two unidentified sacred herbal substances with clear psychoactive properties, but it is unlikely that either of these substances were, or contained, marijuana.

Nevertheless, references to psychoactive drinks made from bhang - and the use of dried cannabis herbs, known in Sanskrit as ganja - began to appear in Sanskrit literature not long after the Atharva-Veda's composition, primarily in connection with Shaivite liturgy.

ca. 700 BCE

A respected Chinese shaman is buried in the Gobi Desert. Among the items buried with him are a harp, a bow and arrow, and a basket containing 789 grams of cannabis - cultivated and clearly intended for pharmaceutical use. The ancient shaman's stash currently represents the oldest physical evidence of marijuana use and cultivation.

ca. 587 BCE

In Exodus 30:23-24, God commands Moses to create a sacred oil containing myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and an "aromatic cane" (q'nah bosem, a Hebrew transliteration of the contemporaneous Scythian word "cannabis") that was most likely marijuana.

ca. 440 BCE

In Book IV of his Histories, Herodotus further elaborates on the Scythians and their use of cannabis:
Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.
By this point in history, thanks in large part to its popularity among the Scythians, the psychoactive properties of marijuana were well known throughout the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions - but hemp was still primarily known, used, and described as a practical fiber from which one could construct ropes and nets.
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