For the better part of the last century, North America has been content to brush off cannabis as little more than the psychedelic drug of choice of hippies and stoners, who choose to lay on the couch all day in an altered state, eating junk food and watching Cheech and Chong reruns. Though the mere existence of Cheech and Chong videos suggests that there is at least a sliver of truth to this stereotype, the fact is, by focusing on only one tiny subjection of cannabis culture, we have essentially been throwing out the baby with the bath water. Recently, however, things have begun trending in the right direction. With reduced legal barriers to access, an exponential growth in peer reviewed scientific studies and even legalized recreational marijuana use in some states, society at large is finally starting to see the bigger picture. As we collectively look towards a future without senseless prohibition of an incredibly useful plant, it only makes sense to first look towards the past, where, thousands of years before the invention of the microwave burrito, the tie dye t-shirt and the birth of Willie Nelson, ancient civilizations used the Cannabis Sativa plant as a staple of every day life.

Historically, hemp, as well as marijuana, was a completely legal product and was heavily relied on for medicinal, spiritual commercial and practical purposes, by wide variety of civilizations and societies, both ancient and relatively modern. Though a 1997 discovery in what was then Czechoslovakia unearthed a hemp rope dated from approximately 26,900 BC, the earliest documented use of hemp occurred in ancient China.

Hemp originated as a wild species in Central Asia, but was first cultivated as a crop at least 10 thousand years ago in the Far East. Though hemp artifacts were discovered in what is now Taiwan, the earliest documented societal use of hemp in the region occurred in China. The Yangshao, China’s oldest known Neolithic culture, had a hemp driven economy between the years of 5,000 BC and 3,000 BC. Numerous relics of Yangshao hemp use, in the form of pottery and clothing, have been dug up along the banks of China’s Yellow River. During this time frame, other groups began harvesting hemp for it’s high protein seeds, strong fibre and oils.

Because ancient Chinese history is interwoven with legend, it is difficult to determine when exactly they began using the plant as medicine, but Chinese folklore attributes the creation of medicinal cannabis to the mythical emperor Shen-Nung. Shen-Nung, considered both the father of Chinese medicine and of Chinese agriculture, is said to have been a skilled farmer, and the legend states that, concerned for his suffering subjects, he looked towards his crops for solutions. He is said to have compiled his herbal research into the Pen Ts’ao, a comprehensive medical encyclopedia. Though Shen-Nung likely did not author the Pen Ta’ao himself, and in fact may not have even existed, there is little dispute that the Chinese were using hemp as medicine thousands of years ago. The Pen Ta’ao, which does exist and is thousands of years old, was printed on hemp paper and contains references to many herbal remedies, including ‘ma’ or cannabis in English.

Ma was considered unique, as it incorporated both the feminine (yin) and masculine (yang), with the yin representing the passive female influence in nature while yang represented the active male force. By balancing Yin and Yang, the Chinese believed the body was healthy. An unbalanced yin/yang relationship meant the opposite. Ma tea was used to correct the balance, and was subscribed to treat gout, rheumatism, malaria and a laundry list of other illnesses.

Before the turn of the millennium, the Chinese discovered how to weave hemp into paper, which, in addition to being a monumental feat in it’s own right, also made it easier to preserve history. Paper was created by crushing hemp and mulberry tree bark into pulp, placing the mixture into water, then placing the fibers that rose to the top into a mold to dry. The Chinese kept this secret invention close to the chest until the 5th century AD, when it was discovered by the Japanese, and then ultimately travelled throughout the known world.  

The Chinese relied on hemp for warfare. Hemp bowstrings, which were more durable than the bamboo bowstring used by enemies, became a staple of Chinese weaponry. So important was hemp that Chinese rulers even cordoned off large swaths of agricultural land and forced their subjects to grow hemp for the war effort.  

By 200 AD, a Chinese surgeon named Hua T’o had begun using cannabis as an anesthetic. He combined hemp with wine, creating ma-yo, then gave it to his patients during surgery. With the assistance of ma-yo, Hua T’o was able to perform painful organ drafts, intestinal surgeries, loin incisions, and chest incisions.

The Chinese would continue using hemp for thousands of years, and, as with many other ancient cultures, hemp served a vital, multipurpose role that had very little to do with recreational intoxication. It may seem backwards, but when it comes to cannabis, looking to the distant past might actually help humanity move forward!

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AUTHOR: Matt Kyska
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