Cannabis use is by no means a new fad. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient Asian civilizations were way ahead of the trend. These societies used cannabis for various spiritual and medicinal purposes — and many of these medicinal purposes have been proven effective by modern-day research.
According to a Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry review, cannabis is one of the first plants cultivated by humans. The earliest evidence of its use the plant was cultivated for its fibers in China as far back as 4000 B.C.
1. Cannabis in Ancient China
The first mentions of cannabis pertain to its industrial uses in ancient China. The ancient Chinese manufactured string, rope, and textiles from Cannabis fibers. Archaeologists and historians found Cannabis-made textiles and papers in Emperor Wu’s tomb (104-87 B.C.) of the Han dynasty.
The world’s oldest pharmacopeia (which is essentially an encyclopedia of medicine), “pen-ts’ao ching,” reports the use of medical cannabis. The practices throughout the book were founded upon traditions from the 2700s B.C.
Throughout the “pen-ts’ao ching,” cannabis was recommended for treating rheumatic pain, constipation, female reproductive disorders, and malaria, among others. Chinese surgery founder Hua T’o (AD 110-207) used cannabis compounds and wine to numb patients before an operation during the Christian Era. However, it’s worth noting that the Chinese primarily utilized cannabis seeds for medicinal purposes. Unlike weed gummies, these edible seeds don’t contain any THC, so they aren’t psychoactive.
That isn’t to say the ancient Chinese didn’t acknowledge that cannabis has psychoactive properties. In “pen-ts’ao ching,” the entry for “the fruit of cannabis” warns that excess consumption will produce “visions of the devil” and “communication with spirits.” Yet, ancient Chinese texts make no other mention of cannabis as a hallucinogen. The authors of this review state it may be due to the affiliation between hallucinogens and shamanism, which became increasingly restricted in China during the Han dynasty.
2. Sacred Cannabis Use in Ancient India: The Atharva Veda
Cannabis was used medicinally, recreationally, and religiously in India, beginning around 1000 B.C. In a collection of sacred texts called “Atharva Veda,” cannabis is regarded as one of the five sacred plants. Not only was it deemed sacred, but cannabis was referred to as “the source of happiness,” “donator of joy,” and “bringer of freedom.”
Many of India’s medicinal practices are based upon Hinduism, and other minor religions, explains an Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture journal review. In particular, the Ayurveda system focuses on balancing three of the body’s functional elements: Air, fire, and water. The Ayurveda text describes the beneficial cannabis seeds as “sharp,” “heating,” and “light.”
Furthermore, the recreational and medicinal uses of cannabis are tied together in the Ayurveda. On the one hand, cannabis is an intoxicant that causes “imbalances to the mind” (impaired cognition, behavioral changes, etc.).
On the other, cannabis is revered for its medical properties, which include:
- Paphahari (loosening and elimination of phlegm)
- Grahini (promoting retention and binding in the bowels)
- Pachani (promoting digestion)
- Dipani (stimulating appetite)
- Modavardhani (promoting happiness)
According to the review, many modern-day cannabis researchers credit Indian culture for its critical role in furthering our understanding of the plant’s biochemistry.
3. Cannabis in Ancient Tibet
The Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry review says cannabis was a sacred plant and used abundantly for religious purposes. Despite this, there’s little documentation of its use in ancient Tibet. In Tantric Buddhism, they used cannabis to facilitate meditation. It’s also believed ancient Tibetans used cannabis medicinally, as Tibetan medicine concepts stem from Indian medicine.
4. Cannabis Use by the Assyrians
Based on current historical and archaeological findings, it’s assumed the Assyrians knew about cannabis’ psychoactive properties and started using the plant as incense in the ninth century B.C. The Assyrians also may have used cannabis externally to treat bruises and swelling and internally to treat depression, impotence, arthritis, kidney stones, “female ailment,” and the “annulment of witchcraft.”
5. Cannabis Use in Ancient Europe
Cannabis was present in Europe before the Christian Era. It’s thought that Scythian invaders from Central Asia brought cannabis to the Mediterranean in 450 B.C. The Greek historian Herodotus described how vapors from burning cannabis seeds were used for ritualistic and euphoric purposes during Scythian funeral ceremonies.
However, references to the use of cannabis by ancient Greeks and Romans are far and few between. So it’s assumed these societies didn’t use cannabis — and if they did, it wasn’t enough to leave a long-lasting impression on their historical impact.
Cannabis has long-since been part of cultural traditions and medicinal practices. Its earliest uses are traced back to 4000 B.C., where people harvested cannabis in Ancient China for industrial and medicinal purposes. Most of the documented medicinal uses for cannabis in these sacred texts are supported by modern-day clinical research. Although science and spirituality may feel worlds apart at times, many of our current understandings of cannabis are based on ancient traditions.