Cannabis: A plant with enigmatic origins

In recent years, in several regions of the world, there has been a revaluation of the medicinal and food properties of Cannabis, as well as of its use as a raw material in the industrial sectors (textiles, construction, paper, energy, etc.), teaches about better eco-sustainability compared to the “traditional” oil and deforestation industries.

Hemp is not a new plant, and has been present in Italy for at least 13,500 years.


Cannabis: A plant with enigmatic origins

The chronological and geographical origins of the human relationship with hemp are still shrouded in mystery; a problem in line with that axiom of ethnobotany that is based on the observation that the more ancient the relationship of man with a plant, the more complex the identification of the origins and genesis of this relationship becomes.

In addition to the great antiquity, the question is complicated by the problem of speciation within the genus Cannabis, in particular the distinction or not between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, which is generally made to correspond with the distinction between hemp from fiber and psychoactive hemp. In 2005, genetic studies showed  how the genus Cannabis is derived from three main genetic poles, and for this reason the two species C. sativa and C. indica should be kept distinct, with the addition of a third species, C. Ruderalis ( Hillig, 2005).

As far as the center of origin of the Cannabis species is concerned, there is a general tendency to recognize an Asian origin, either eastern or more recently Western, Central Asian, ie the Chinese region of Xinjang or northern India. There are those who believe that C. indica originated in Afghanistan and spread later to China, Japan, Africa and South-East Asia, whereas C. sativa would have originated in Central Asia and subsequently spread in Europe (Hillig, 2005). However, genetic studies of 2500 year-old hemp samples found in the Chinese Xinjang region have shown  a Euro-Siberian origin of C. sativa, with a subsequent migration to the east (Mukherjee et al., 2008).


Hemp in the Italic millennia

That hemp was present in Europe in the wild for a long time before man began to cultivate it, was confirmed by the polynimetrical studies from the taking of rock samples from the subsoil, and the oldest data, have,  so far, come to light precisely in Italy: in the Lake of Albano (Rome),  11.500 BC, and in the coastal depths of the central Adriatic Sea, with the first dating to 11,000 BC, follows the date of 9000 BC of the large lake of Monticchio (Potenza) and that of 6800 BC in the region of Lake Nemi (Rome).

So hemp has been present in Italy for at least 13500 years, and this to the detriment of those who are still convinced that this plant was brought by man from Asia to Europe in later periods.

For the following periods, there are  findings of hemp pollen in the Neolithic in mostly anthropic contexts, indicating a probable cultivation of the plant. This is the case of the recent discovery of hemp in three sites of the Middle Neolithic (4500-4000 BC) of the Emilia Romagna region, located in the areas currently occupied by the urban centers of Piacenza, Parma and Forlì, while in the Lombardia region its presence is witnessed starting from 5000 BC near the lakes of Annone (Lecco) and Aleserio (Como).

An interesting fact concerns a Punic war ship wrecked in Sicily where the Isola Lunga (Long Island), along the coast between the cities of Marsala and Trapani, dated no later than the first half of the 2nd century BC, and among whose  remains two baskets containing hemp have been found. The two baskets were found where the kitchen was supposed to be, and the context has led to the hypothesis that hemp was used as a psychoactive source by the sailors of the ship. It would be one of the rare European clues to an ancient knowledge and use of hemp for intoxicating purposes.

A further significant fact, of  iconographic nature, concerns a vase of ceramic found in an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri ,  7th century BC. The vase is decorated with scenes depicting the Greek myth of the Argonauts carrying a long sail in the act of embarking it on the ship. On one side of the sail is the inscription kanna, which has been interpreted as an Etruscan transliteration of the Greek word kannabis, ie hemp. The singularity of the finding lies in the fact that it anticipates by two centuries the most ancient European written testimony on hemp, which had always been considered that reported by Herodotus in the passage on the Scythians in the fifth century BC.


The enigma of intoxicating seeds

The distinction between hemp from fiber (“sativa”) and psychoactive hemp (“indica”), the former being poor in THC, responsible for the intoxicating effects of the plant, while both produce non-psychoactive cannabinoids, is well known to modern scholars and hemp users. , in particular, CBD (cannabidiol), which in any case has important pharmacological properties useful in therapy. But of this conscious distinction, there are few, too often meager traces in Eurasian literature and, together with the problem of origins, this is the most enigmatic aspect of the history of hemp.

The most ancient literary documentation attesting an apparent knowledge of the psychoactive properties of hemp seems to be the passage of Herodotus who wrote his Stories around 500 BC and in which the Greek historian reported the use of hemp near the Scythians, in the context of a purification ceremony performed after the burial of a king. According to what was reported by Herodotus, those who intended to purify themselves, would enter a small hut, where a brazier was placed in which hemp seeds were burned, and following this “they sent shouts of joy satisfied by this bath of (steam), because they did not wash the body with water.”

An interesting fact concerns the archaeological confirmation of what was reported by Herodotus. In several Siberian kurgan (mound-shaped tombs) of the Altai region, dated around  500 BC, the remains of these mini huts and braziers, with lots of hemp seeds charred inside them, have actually come to light. But the practice of burning  hemp seeds on braziers in funeral contexts could be much older than the Scythian culture, having been found charred hemp seeds in a burial in 2000 BC near Gurbanesti, in Romania.

This practice would involve an anomalous and enigmatic use for intoxicating purposes, given that, to our knowledge hemp seeds, both from sativa  and of the indica form, are not psychoactive, as they do not contain THC. It is true that recently some alkaloids have been identified in the  seeds with probable therapeutic properties useful in the treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases, but this would not seem to be sufficient to contradict that universally acknowledged anecdotal fact about the total absence of psychoactive effects of seeds, however, these are taken, ingested or inhaling the smoke. (although a member of The Landrace Team became aware of the narcotic and intoxicating effect experienced by an inhabitant of the Hunza valley in the far north of Pakistan, after chewing and ingesting some hemp / cannabis seeds that grow in that area.)

This  enigma  is not limited to the Scythian practice, for which we suspect the solution lies in a wrong modern interpretation of the “screams of joy” of the passage of Herodotus, considered by all the decisive detail that would demonstrate the intoxicating purpose of such practice, when this could have mere purifying purposes, as indeed reported by the same Greek author; this would highlight the forcing that goes against that bad habit of extrapolating in a careless and arbitrary way our modern “knowledge” in the interpretation of ancient practices and “knowledge”.

Observing the ancient treatises in Chinese medical matter, hemp is mentioned starting from the times of the Han Dynasty, in the II century AD, and the medicinal properties are mainly ascribed to seeds and achenes (fruits), and rarely to the inflorescence; the latter becomes increasingly rare in medical treatises, until it disappears, and today the Chinese pharmacopoeia recognizes only the semen cannabis sativae for therapeutic use (Wu, 2005). References to the intoxicating properties of hemp are meager.

In a text of the Han Dynasty of the first two centuries AD (Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica), it is specified that ‘excessive consumption of mafen causes vision of spirits and makes one run frantically. Prolonged consumption frees the light of the spirit and illuminates the body ”. There is still no concordance of interpretation between scholars about the ancient Chinese terminology indicating the various parts of the plant, and the term ma-fen is considered by some to be the fruit, by others the inflorescence of the female plant; a difference that is fundamental in identifying the psychoactive potential.

Another passage is present in the Ming-i-pieh-lu of the fifth century AD, where it is reported that “the necromancers use the mafen in combination with ginseng to see the future”. Despite the rarity of references to inebriating properties in texts, this knowledge would be implicit in some compound terms in which the word “hemp” (ma) falls, such as ma-mo (“demon”) and ma-tsui (“narcotic”) ( Li, 1974)

Turning now to ancient European literature, except for the doubtful passage of Herodotus on the Scythians, there is a disconcerting silence of the intoxicating properties of hemp. Greek authors like Dioscorides and Latins like Pliny reported that the seeds of the plant “destroy the sperm”, and that the juice of the plant causes headaches.

Both authors distinguished two types of hemp, one that was wild and the other cultivated, but the one called “wild” or “native of the woods” referred to a different plant, the Althea cannabina L. from this it can only be deduced that Greeks and Romans did not know intoxicating hemp (as suggested by Brunner 1977).

Several authors recognized the psychoactive hemp in Gelotophyllis, the plant that “makes people laugh” that grew in Bactria, in present-day Afghanistan, cited by Pliny, without however providing convincing evidence. This, however, suggests the possibility that in ancient times psychoactive hemp was not recognized as the same hemp grown for its fiber and that it was therefore subject to a different nomenclature.

Where is the intoxicating hemp?

One wonders:  where is the knowledge of the psychoactive properties of this plant? And where is the knowledge of the therapeutic properties of the other parts of the plant, leaves and inflorescences, so widely used today? To the detriment of an apparent absence in written texts, an increasingly conspicuous number of archaeological finds would seem to bear witness to a knowledge of the intoxicating and therapeutic properties of the vegetative parts of hemp, and not only of its seeds.

In China, remains of the plant came to light among the funerary objects of burials of the first millennium BC distributed in the Xinjang area. For example, in a tomb of the Yanghai site of 500 BC, which housed the remains of a probable shaman, a basket and a bowl had been deposited that contained a vegetable cluster, consisting of fruits, leaves and stems of Cannabis.

In another tomb of the same site, dated 60 BC, hemp had curiously been deposited together with significant quantities of caper (Capparis spinosa L.). In the cemetery of Jiayi, also in Xinjiang, above the remains of a man of 35 years of age, dated to 80-400 BC, 13 female hemp plants had been deposited, including roots, but whose inflorescences had been cut; a detail that would betray an awareness of the intoxicating properties of these inflorescences, for which it is plausible to hypothesize a consumption by the participants during the funeral rite, as the last “mental” accompaniment of the soul of the deceased in his journey into the afterlife, similarly to the intake of opium or alcohol in the ancient Mediterranean funeral rites. It should be pointed out that the Xinjang burials concerned a human population with Caucasoid physical characteristics, therefore European and non-Eastern (Mair, 1996).

Even among those Shiites who “emanated screams of joy” immersed in the steam bath of hemp seeds, archeology would have revealed a knowledge of the therapeutic properties of the vegetative parts of hemp, in the context of the burial of the “princess of Ukok”, a Scythian-Siberian mummy of a woman found in the Altai, dated around 500 BC Using magnetic resonance tomography analysis, it was discovered that this woman suffered from osteomyelitis since adolescence, and from a right breast cancer with metastasis. In the tomb next to the body a container with hemp was found, and this suggested that it was used to alleviate chronic pain that the woman certainly suffered from (Liesowska, 2014).

A find in the Mediterranean area has come to light in Israel. In a tomb from the 4th century BC the remains of a young 14-year-old girl and a 40-week-old fetus had been deposited at the height of her pelvic region. From the study of the structure of the skeleton it was deduced that the young girl had probably died during childbirth.

Next to the two bodies was found a charred cluster of gray material weighing about 7 grams, and which turned out to be made  mainly of Cannabis. The chemical analysis showed the presence of delta-6-tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the secondary active ingredients of Cannabis, but it is also a conversion product of THC and cannabidiol following the plant burning process. Hence the hypothesis that the cannabis leaves, burned in a tray, were administered to the little woman as an inhalant to facilitate delivery (Zlas et al. 1993).

We cite again a finding that highlights the presence of hemp in the European Neolithic, concerning the remains of this plant found in the cave of D ’Adaouste, located in southern France. During the excavations fragments of hemp fiber came to light, several of which still retain a bluish tint, considered not accidental but the result of a deliberate coloring of the vegetable fiber, for which the ford plant was probably used, Isatis tinctoria L . (Brassicaceae family).

An interesting fact concerns the analysis of a residual paste found on an elongated bone that probably served as a spatula. The cluster consisted of various organic animal and vegetable components, including hemp and flax fibers, and French archaeologists deduced that it could have been a medicament, or perhaps a compound with magical-therapeutic properties. It would therefore be a very rare Neolithic evidence of a use of hemp different from its use as a fiber (Cotte & Cotte 1917).

Psychoactive hemp would therefore seem to be present and known in ancient Eurasia, and its almost total absence in written texts is an enigma that remains to be explained; an absence that recurs in European medieval and Renaissance texts, where once again importance is given only to seeds. And yet, from a long time before our era, the relations between the Mediterranean and Eastern populations are well attested, including those of the Near East and Arab, and it is no coincidence that we speak of “orientalizing phases” in Greek, Etruscan art, etc.

One wonders how it is possible, for example, that Europeans have acquired modern numeration from the Arabs, precisely called “Arab”, as well as a whole set of important medical concepts, without becoming aware of hemp. Arabic and Persian literature is full of references to psychoactive hemp. Suffice it to mention the Book of the Righteous Wiraz, a Zoroastrian religious text probably from the Sassanid period (III-VII centuries AD) which describes the dreamlike journey of a devotee in the afterlife.

In the text it is specified that, to make the journey, he drinks a drink made from wine with hemp (Piras, 2000). And while we witness the Arab expansion in the Mediterranean starting from the seventh century AD, and to the long phase of the Catholic reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, which ended only in the fifteenth century AD, Europe remains apparently unaware of what was the main heady Arab source , so widely discussed in medieval Islamic texts.


From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

After the Roman period, the cultivation of hemp from fiber spread to several Italian regions. A first noteworthy development can be observed starting from the 9th century AD: in Sicily, during the Arab domination, despite not having reached the level of intensive production of other textile fibers such as linen and cotton. In the Lazio region, during the late Middle Ages each peasant family received in assignment, in addition to the house and vegetable garden, a plot destined for the cultivation of hemp, sufficient for the textile needs of the family nucleus.

It seems that there were hemp plots distinct from those reserved for obtaining textile fiber, perhaps for the production of seeds, which were used for the sowing of the following year and as food, to prepare soups and decoctions. In the Piemonte region, intensive hempaculture has been recorded since the 13th century, and most of the harvest was intended to supply the ships of the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice with ropes and sails.

As far as the Emilia-Romagna region is concerned, although a cultivation of hemp has already been recorded since the late Middle Ages, its widespread diffusion occurred only from the fifteenth century; an intensive industry that will no longer stop, to the point of making the region, together with the regions of Piemonte and Lombardia, the second largest producer of textile hemp in the world, second only to Russia.

In conjunction with the beginning of intensive cultivation in the fifteenth century, in the Emilia-Romagna region there is a significant increase in the breeding of pigeons. The hypothesis was suggested that pigeon cultivation was the answer to the increased demand for guano to fertilize the hemp fields.

At the moment we have identified only a couple of references to the intoxicating properties of the cannabis leaves: first in the Book of nature and virtue of the things they nourish (1576) written by Giovanni Savonarola, who in addition to considering again the heady hemp seed as coriander , he added that the dry leaves of cannabis mixed with wet flour to make pasta and be eaten, generated a drunkenness and a certain stupidity to those who tasted them.

The second reference is present in the text by Girolamo Cardano, De subtilitate rerum, published in 1550, where he writes about the intoxicating effect of hemp leaves. These are just a few references, but they would seem to indicate the presence or at least the knowledge of psychoactive hemp in Europe during the Renaissance. In our opinion, all this simply suggests that the history of intoxicating hemp in Europe and in Italy in the past millennia is still almost entirely to be discovered and written.

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