How far back does the use of Cannabis go? As far back as time itself, dating back to the oldest civilizations in the world.
The use of Cannabis has been reported for an astonishing 6,000+ year period with its first recorded use being in ancient China as a textile in roughly 4,000 BCE. It was later documented as medicinal in China by one of the oldest botanical medicine texts, Shennong’s Materia Medica, wherein the plant was dubbed with the name “Ma.” Ma was a central ingredient to one of the oldest anesthetic formulas ever recorded, called Mafiesan - which indicates the ancients had some idea of its pain relieving quality. Both the plant and the seeds have been used throughout time - but there has been varying information about when and where it was first used for its psychoactive properties. However, an exciting 2019 discovery was made which might narrow it down.
According to a 2019 published archaeological study, high THC residue was found on wood burners used in the eastern Central mountainous regions of China. Specifically, these wood burners were found in conjunction with funeral ritual sites. To quote Nicole Bolvin, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, "The findings support the idea that cannabis plants were first used for their psychoactive compounds in the mountainous regions of eastern Central Asia, thereafter spreading to other regions of the world."
This study is groundbreaking in the sense that there is now documented research to back the theory that consumption of higher THC strains of Cannabis (compared to lower THC strains used for other textile purpose) migrated from China to India, with ancient ritual and medicinal consumption being reported as far Mesopotamia and Egypt as well. Through the trade routes of the well-known Silk Road, Cannabis spanned its reach from Asia to Africa over time.
Cannabis in Indian culture was named “Bhang” and is listed in the mystical Atharva Veda, translated as “Knowledge of Magical Formulas” - written anywhere from 4000 to 2000 BC - as one of 5 sacred plants that mimic the magical substance of Soma, which is said to be an “amrita” or nectar consumed by the gods. It is still to this day ingested ritualistically by Shaivites, or spiritual devotees of the Hindu God Shiva, who believe that it brings them closer to God consciousness. It is seen as a spiritual aid as was revealed by the Vedas.
In one ancient cannabis origin story, it is said that Shiva and other gods churned the great ocean of matter in order to make making the elixir of eternal life, Amrita. According to the tale, some of the elixir spilled onto the earth and cannabis plants sprouted from the soil where it dripped. Other stories describe Shiva using cannabis plants as food in order to sustain himself and Shiva is often depicted smoking ganja out of a chillum in art that dates back centuries.
In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics depicting Seshat, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, prominently feature a cannabis leaf above the deities head. The stem from the base of the leaf connects to her head, clearly symbolizing the link between its use and consciousness expansion. Pharaoh Tuthmosis III referred to her as “she of the seven points”. The Coffin Texts, a collection of funeral spells, reveal her psychoactive power and, according to one of them, “Seshat opens the door of heaven for you”.
The Ebers Papyrus of Ancient Egypt, a medical text dating back to 1500 BC, calls Cannabis “Sheshemet.” Mentioned several times, is prescribed as a pain reliever and aid for a host of health ailments - and in particular the herb is highlighted for women with a recipe for the creation of a suppository made with cannabis and honey, recommended to treat heat or inflammation in the Uterus.
The ancient and indigenous roots of Cannabis to the modern world are awe-inspiring and the history of its use spans from these ancient cultures listed above to modern times, with so much in between. One thing is for certain - humans and cannabis have been companions for millennia, so is it safe to say that the evolution of humanity has been influenced by the sacred plant? We think so, without a doubt.