By Ted Smith
As early hunter-gatherers began to unlock the secrets of civilization, they also began forming symbiotic relationships with the plants that provided the fundamental resources necessary for survival. Primary among these symbiotic plants is cannabis sativa, whose relationship with humankind is hundreds of thousands of years old. The seeds of the hemp plant are especially suited to the human diet, being able to provide the protein, amino acids, and essential fatty acids required to sustain human life. This suggests that hemp was utilized as a primary foraging bush by the varieties of the genus homo who recognized the nutritional value of the plant, and contributed in the millennia-long process of evolving into modern humans by developing a deep nutritional symbiosis with hemp. The cannabis plant is also a likely candidate for humanity’s first domestic crop, due to the extreme hardiness and the ease with which it grows. It requires little cultivation aside from sowing of seed. Dr. Carl Sagan speculates in his book exploring the origins of the human species, The Dragons of Eden¸ that hemp has been cultivated by humans for more than 10,000 years. Sagan cites the example of the Bushmen from the Kalahari region of Southwest Africa—a tribe that claims to have grown and used cannabis since their mythic beginning of time. The Bushmen traditionally utilized the entire cannabis plant. The stalk fibres are used for a variety of functional items from clothing to weapons; the seeds are eaten for food; the roots for their medicinal properties; and the flowering tops for food, medicine, and spiritual enlightenment.
Indigenous to Central and South-central Asia, in the valley regions surrounding the Himalayan Mountains, hemp spread quickly across Asia for several reasons. First, cannabis is an extremely hardy plant that will thrive in almost every environment, and spreads rapidly in nature. Second, interaction with proto-humans aided the dispersion of hemp as tribes in those areas where cannabis was prevalent thrived, expanded, and migrated. Many prehistoric varieties of the genus homo were nomadic, and ranged constantly over a large territory searching for sources of food. Cannabis seeds would have been one of the best grains to stockpile for the long winters of the ice ages, as it can be easily dried, consumed raw, and has a short growing season.
As these tribes began to move into new territory, they carried the seeds from their local plants in order to ensure the success of their new communities. Seeds of particular importance belonged to those plants that held an integral role in the agricultural, mythic, and religious traditions of the group. Primary among these was the cannabis plant. The process of human migration helped to spread hemp across the globe from Central Asia to Africa, Europe, and North America.
Wherever the migrations began to settle, the resulting civilizations relied heavily on hemp, along with several other cultivable plants. The incredible nutritional value of the hemp seed provided a stable food supply from which these new settlements could thrive. Hemp has been used for millennia by humans for everything from clothing to building materials, and is still recognized as one of the strongest and most durable natural industrial fibres. Even until the 19th century and the end of the Age of Sail, the great Navies of Europe relied on vast quantities of hemp fibre for sailcloth and rope. Cannabis was particularly prized for its medicinal and psychoactive properties, helping to ensure the continued health and spiritual wellness of the community. Finally, cannabis was a great teacher for early human agriculturalists. Due to its dioecious1 nature and its status as an early cultivar, cannabis sativa helped teach the basics of farming and breeding that would lead to more advanced farming techniques and specialized varieties of both plants and animals. With so many valuable qualities it is no wonder that so many religions and philosophies, even in modern times, have recognized cannabis as the “Tree of Life.”
Cannabis sativa has a complex regionalized history due to geographic, environmental, evolutionary, and cultural factors. In many ways, the evolution of cannabis is very similar to that of mankind. Cannabis is indigenous to Central and South Central Asia, ranging as far north as Siberia and south to India. Over such a vast territory, broken up by the physical barrier of the Himalayan Mountains, varieties of cannabis began to develop independently from one another, as did the cultural traditions that surrounded the plant, until human migration and trade brought them together once again. For millions of years, both proto-humans and hemp struggled with the advancing and retreating ice ages—sometimes so severe that they isolated pockets of flora and fauna for generations before relenting and allowing life to spread and mix again. The ancient Chinese, for example, used industrial hemp for thousands of years before the psychoactive properties were utilized. While in ancient India, on the other hand, cannabis was initially used as an intoxicant. China was introduced to the intoxicating properties of cannabis rather late, around 1800 BCE, through human migration. At the end of the Stone Age, around 12,000 BCE, there were four semi-independent regions surrounding the cradles of civilization where cannabis thrived and formed integral parts of the cultures that developed there—the Hindu Kush region of India and Pakistan, down the Indus River valley; north on the Iranian plateau, across the Russian Steppes from the Black Sea to Siberia and finally into Mongolia; east along the Ganga River, through Nepal and in to China; and west through Mesopotamia, Arabia and Ethiopia to sub-Saharan Africa.