The History Of Hemp

hempnut_lrg[1]Hemp probably evolved in central Asia, where it became the first fiber plant to be cultivated. At this nascent stage of civilization, hemp was one of the threads that held communities together. Humans had previously tamed crops for food, but hemp gave them material readily available for the crafts they had begun to master. The masses relied on hemp for all their clothing: only the wealthy could afford the luxury of silk. An abundance of evidence from burial pits and other sites throughout China demonstrates the continuous cultivation of Asian hemp from prehistoric times. A twelve thousand-year-old Neolithic site unearthed at Yuan-shan included remains of coarse sandy pottery with hempen cord marks covering the surface, along with an incised rod-shaped stone beater used to pound hemp. The oldest pharmacopoeia in existence, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, was compiled in the first or second century BCE from more ancient fragments attributed to the legendary emperor Shen Nung. This book mentions that hemp “grows along the rivers and valleys at T’ai-shan, but is now common everywhere”.

The Chinese may have been the first people to make use of hemp’s fiber, but it was in India that the more lofty qualities of the plant were first fully appreciated. Indian mythology assays that hemp was present with Shiva at the beginning of the world. Hemp was not always used in a religious setting. Warriors were know to drink bhang to calm their nerves before battle, and, as everywhere else, the plant was cultivated, hemp was used to cure a wide range of ills.

By the third millennium BCE, the true hemp plant was known in Egypt, where the fibers were used for rope. The ancient Egyptian word for hemp occurs in the Pyramid Texts in connection with rope making. Pieces of hempen material were found in the tomb of the pharaoh Akhenaten, and pollen on the mummy of Ramses II has been identified as cannabis. Hemp was used in the construction of the pyramids, not only to pull blocks of limestone, but also in quarries, where the dried fiber was pounded into cracks in the rock, then wetted. As the fiber swelled, the rock broke.

The Scythians carried hemp from Asia through Greece and Russia in to Europe, and later Arabs brought hemp from Africa into Spain and other ports of entry on the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to their love of the nutritious seed, birds also did their unwitting part to spread hemp’s global cultivation. The Roman empire consumed great quantities of hemp fiber, much of which was imported from the Babylonian city of Sura. Cannabis was not a major crop in early Italy, but the seed was a common food. Carbonized hemp seeds were found in the ruins of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Romans helped spread hemp through Europe, although the plant was well known there already. The Vikings relied on hemp as rope, sailcloth, caulking, fish line and nets on their daring voyages.

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