History of cannabis

Cannabis Sativa, probably native to North-Himalaya, is the only species known in the world as Cannabis in the strict sense of word.

The belief of different species of Cannabis began in the 17th century, when the Dutch botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius showed some differences between the Hemp, which grew in the old Continent, and the Indian Hemp. Indian Hemp was named Cannabis Indica in 1783 by the French botanist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, to differentiate it from Cannabis Sativa, which Linneo had already classified in 1753. Finally in 1924, the Russian botanist Janischevsky found in the South-East Russia a third species, which was named Cannabis Ruderalis.

In recent age some searchers supposed that Cannabis is a unique species with subspecies, all daughters of the same mother, Cannabis Sativa: subspecies developed different characteristics because of changing environmental conditions or genetic alteration, intrinsic or induced.



First  news about the use of Hemp come from China and go back to the Neolithic Ages: in a book, written about in 2737 B.C. by the Emperor ShenNung, prescribes the Hemp resin for female weaknesses, gout, rheumatism, malaria, grippe, faints. Further news are in the oldest work of Chinese medical literature, the “Nei-Ching”, awarded to the Emperor Kwang-Ti, lived between 2698 and 2599 B.C.. Hemp flowers used to dress open wounds; the shell of the seed and the resin had a stimulating function, and mixed to wine, in accordance with a paper of 220 A.C., acted as an analgesic; Hemp seeds considered tonic, laxative, diuretic and efficacious against intestinal parasites in babies and animals, and besides these elements were suggested against inflammation of skin; Hemp oil acted as toner for hair but also as an antidote against Sulphur poisoning; the fresh juice extracted from the Hemp leaves has been of great use against scorpion bites and in addition textiles and ropes are extracted from the fibre.

There are certainly various uses of hemp, and moreover Chinese civilization reminds us the importance of Hemp, when in 500 B.C. pre-established quantities of Hemp used for paying taxes. Finally, around first century A.C., Chinese invented the paper: obviously Hemp paper!

The oldest papers in the world, kept in the British Museum of London, are Buddhist texts of the 2nd and 3rd century A.C. : they have been written on paper extracted from a mixture of bark and hemp. “Dharani” or prayer book, which searchers date from 770 A.C., is the first book printed on a large scale, on paper entirely produced from Hemp. Apart from Far East civilization, Hemp was used by people, who lived on shores of Caspian Sea, in Iran and in Mesopotamia : since ancient times, as Assyrian Tablets of 7th and 8th century B.C. testify, Hemp plant was used to obtain an inebriant effect.

There are also some references about Hemp in the Bible: Solomon call it Kalamo and you know that the juice, called Suama, is drunk in the area of Sinai and used in synagogues. Further references about inebriant effects of this plant are in a Sanskrit text of many centuries B.C. , the “Zend-Avesta”, and in the fourth Book of Veda too.

At the beginning of the Christian era, Hemp is used by Roman people for the fibre to make especially ropes and sails of boats, besides clothes. Galeno probably makes references to Hemp when he says that, usually after the meal, they used to distribute small “focaccias”, which if taken in large dose, caused narcotic symptoms.

Carthaginians, knew very well Cannabis: some historians supposed that they used it as goods of Trade exchanges, selling it to Romans. It is interesting to remind that in 1969 two containers filled with hashish were found in the depths of Longa Isle’s water in front of the Stagnone of Marsala, in Sicily, inside a Carthaginian ship, a triremes warship of the 3rd century B.C..  The ship sank probably during the First Punic War: hashish was of vital importance to bolster the morale of sailors.

As from 5th century A.C. Cannabis is frequently prescribed by Arabian doctors; in the 12th century some Persian mystical orders, particularly the Sufis, introduce it to reach the ecstasy during the ritual dances. The Persian poet Firdus, who lived between 10th   and 11th century A.C., written an amazing tale in the “Book of King”: anaesthesia induced with alcohol, whose scar is treated with Cannabis herb mixed with milk and musk.

Arabians called Cannabis “Hashish”, literally “Herb”. The “Makhzan-El Adwiya, a medical book of 16th century A.C. describes therapeutic and curative power of this herb: the powder, obtained from disintegration of leaves, if inhaled, purifies the mind, if applied on wounds, heal them; the juice, extracted from leaves, removes dandruff and parasites from hair, relieves earache, contrasts diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, and it is diuretic; the compresses of boiled root and leaves heal inflammation and neuralgic pains.

Crusaders, probably during theirs return journey form Holy Earth, spread Cannabis as a recreational drug in the Europe of the Middle Ages: it seems that Cannabis by-products are used against insanity, hysteria, delirium tremens, hydrophobia, but also against tetanus and cholera.

At the beginning of the 6th century Cannabis becomes an ingredient in the witchlike potions and in prescriptions of famous doctors, such as in the case of strong potions, prescribed to Savonarola. The Inquisition period, with the witch hunt and the repression of any kind of knowledge, accused of blasphemy, stopped the use of Cannabis and other herbs too.

It will need to wait for the year 1800 when the knowledge connected to popular and herbal medicine, which for centuries belonged to Heritage of Human Knowledge, will be brought to light. First scientific studies about Cannabis begin again after Napoleon Campaign in Egypt, until the rediscovery of Cannabis in the second half of 1800. First chemical studies date back to 1838-39. William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy, a surgeon and Chemistry professor at the  Medical College of Calcutta, will test the analgesic and anti-convulsant properties of Hemp dye.

After centuries of oblivion the World rediscovers the Hemp!



Texts  from the book: “Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce”  by Luca Gerosa Edition Stampa Alternativa / Nuovi Equilibri Ltd. 1995.

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