The history of Hemp

Early history of hemp

Hemp is a variant of Cannabis Sativa L. and is a type of plant belonging to the angiosperms of the Cannabaceae family. It was formally classified by Linnaeus in 1753 as Cannabis Sativa. Hemp is a species with no psychotropic effects and is widely used for industrial purposes, while marijuana is mainly used for recreational purposes. The major difference between the two is the genetic make-up and therefore the types and percentage of active ingredients present.

Originally from central Asia and now widespread throughout the world, hemp was first cultivated around 10,000 years ago and is considered to be one of humanity’s oldest crops.According to new research conducted at the University of Vermont, this plant may have originated at high altitudes, more precisely on the Tibetan plateau near Lake Qinghai. This coincides with the first steppe community to evolve in Asia. From there, Cannabis dispersed first westwards into Europe and then eastwards into eastern China. The first archaeological evidence was found in Japan, 10,000 BC, followed by China. Their study has just been published in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.

Thanks to the numerous historical finds, we can see the ancient and widespread use of hemp: the ancient Chinese cultivated it for its countless medicinal properties and as a foodstuff, in India it assumed a sacred role for religious rituals and weaving, Egyptian women used it as a remedy for bad moods and the Greeks as an anti-inflammatory remedy.

Chinese medicine

Written records of hemp

In China, hemp is described in Ryya’s book of 2737 BC as a panacea with medical potential and psychic healing effects. This treatise on botany and pharmacology by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung gives us evidence of knowledge of hemp as early as the 15th century BC.

In 5 B.C. Herodotus wrote that the Scythians, Black Sea peoples and Thracians wove the fibre for their clothing and threw parts of the plant into the fire:

“Sitting around in a circle, they inhale the smoke and become intoxicated by the smell, just like the Greeks with wine, and the more grass they throw in the more intoxicated they become, until they get up and dance and sing”.

Hemp is also mentioned in the tablets of the Assurbanipal library in Nineveh, 650 BC.

Pliny the Elder mentions cannabis in his Naturalis Historia , and Marco Polo in his book Milione also describes the use of hemp in Syria, among the Hashishin, a group of fanatics who killed several Arab sheikhs.

In the Middle Ages the plant was an ingredient in witches’ potions, along with opium, henbane and belladonna. François Rabelais (1490-1553) most probably referred to hemp when he spoke of the Pantagruelion Herb and its intoxicating properties, as did Baudelaire in the 19th century.

The use of hemp also arrived in Africa centuries before European colonisation. In Africa, hemp was cultivated, used as a fibre and as a medicine, sometimes inhaled, and was revered in areas as diverse as South Africa, the Congo and Morocco. The Spanish brought hemp to Chile, Mexico and Peru around 1545. The Portuguese brought it to Brazil. In 1762, in Virginia, it was compulsory to grow hemp to avoid heavy fines, and it became widespread in North America by the 18th century.

Cannabis Sativa L.

Arrival in Europe of hemp

Hemp was introduced into Europe at least 500 years before Christ: in Berlin, hemp leaves and seeds dating back 2,500 years were found in an urn.

Herodotus also mentions the similarities between the Thracians and the Etruscans, who shared technical knowledge. From the 6th century BC, with the presence of the Etruscans who specialised in cultivation, hemp appeared. To confirm this, remains of hemp pollen were found in archaeological excavations just outside the city of Bologna. It was in fact used by the Etruscans as a crop to refertilise the land with crop rotation and obviously to obtain fibre, which was used in various sectors: agriculture, warfare and shipping. The clash between the Etruscan civilisation and the Romans could not exclude hemp. And taking an example from the fruitful agricultural knowledge of the newly conquered Etruscans, the Romans encouraged cannabetum (hemp cultivation) throughout the conquered territory. However, the Europeans obviously also knew about the recreational potential of the plant, so much so that in 1484 a papal bull banned its use by the faithful. Despite the Church’s condemnation, recreational cannabis use was widespread among intellectuals around 1800, and the Club des Hashischins was founded in Paris.

From 1800 to the present day

In the eighteenth century, hemp was widespread in North America and its cultivation was highly prized, as the majority of the land of the founder of the United States of America, George Washington, was planted with hemp and Thomas Jefferson also had a large and profitable hemp crop. In 1850, there were 8,327 hemp plantations in the United States, with each plantation covering at least 2,000 acres, the primary use being for fibre production.

Italy has also been an important producer of hemp for centuries, the Italian climate being particularly favourable to the cultivation of this plant, in particular, Italian farmers produced hemp for two reasons, firstly, On the one hand, because it grew on soils that were difficult to cultivate (sandy soils and marshy areas on river plains), and on the other, because there was always a need for ‘oily’ plants (fuel, light), ‘fibrous’ plants (textiles, paper, ropes) and fodder (seeds and leaves) for productive livestock. Bologna and Ferrara excelled in hemp-growing, and the most important Bolognese agronomist of the seventeenth century, Vincenzo Tanara, testifies to the vitality of the hemp economy in Bologna with a long and accurate description of the cultivation technique. Thanks to the quality of its hemp, Italy, the worldʼs second largest producer, became the first supplier to the British navy and first in the world for the quality of its product.

In Italyʼs best period, more than 120,000 hectares were cultivated with hemp, with an annual yield approaching 800,000 quintals. Then there was a gradual disappearance of Italian hemp farming. Among the main causes were: the application of laws governing narcotics, the absence of processors of the raw material and therefore the lack of seeds and varieties, not to mention the presence of other substitute and profitable businesses. It was only in 1998, and thanks to the EU contribution, that industrial hemp cultivation was resumed in Italy, but never as much as it used to be.

Maceration of hemp


From its arrival to the present day, hemp has been used for the most diverse purposes: as paper for writing the Guttemberg Bible (1453) and for the sails of Christopher Columbus’ caravels in 1492. We also remember the constitution of the United States of America written on hemp paper and the more recent Hemp Body Car completed by Henry Ford in 1937.

Hemp throughout history has often been confused with Marijuana, both variants of Cannabis, without clarifying the medicinal, industrial and recreational use of the plant.

In 1927, Louisiana was the first state to prohibit it, Colorado followed in 1929. It was precisely 1937 that marked the beginning of the demonisation of our beloved hemp: a US federal law called the ‘Marijuana Tax Act’ banned its use, sale and cultivation in the country. With the campaign, or rather propaganda, to denigrate hemp, soon almost the whole world began to ban it.

After the fall into oblivion of this wonderful plant and after years of mistakes and horrors, it is finally time for hemp to return to its former glory.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *