Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cannabis: Drugs and Textiles

This was meant to be a brief overview of the origin and spread of the use of Cannabis sativa for textiles and as a drug. Good lord! There's SO MUCH STUFF! Them ancient folk liked their hemp! I'm going to try to put it in a nutshell and break it up into sections, or this could go on forever. Eventually, I would like to investigate a correlation between the textiles and the drug, if there is any, in a sacred context.

Cave painting from Kyushu Island, Japan, dating to Jomon Period (14,000 to 300 BC). This is thought to be the earliest artwork in Japan.


Origins and Distribution of Cannabis sativa plants

Hemp was one of the most important sources of fiber in prehistoric times. The fibers were drawn from the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp most likely originated north of Afghanistan and in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. The actual date of cultivation is unclear, but likely began in northeastern Asia (north and northeast China and southeastern Siberia). By the Neolithic period, the plant had spread to Europe, Tibet, and China, possibly with Paleolithic net makers.

This is where it all went down.
The fibers were removed from wild plants, and later the plant was cultivated. Cannabis became arguably one of the most important cultigens during the Bronze and Iron Ages (Carr 1995). By the Iron Age, cannabis was being used from China to Europe.
It is widely accepted that the Chinese were the first to domesticate this native Asian plant. There is strong archaeological evidence of its widespread use as an economic crop by ca. 6500 BP. Existing records place its major center of domestication in present-day northern China where there is a continuous record of its use from the Neolithic onward (Fleming and Clarke 1998).

Although they both come from the same plant, the use of hemp for fiber precedes its use as a drug by many centuries, according to scholar Elizabeth Wayland Barber. She argues that the hemp used for fiber during Paleolithic and Neolithic times did not contain a sufficient amount of THC to function as an intoxicant. Based on archaeological, botanical, and linguistic evidence, Barber concluded,
People all across the middle latitudes of Europe and Asia – and that would include the early Indo-Europeans (IE's) – knew and were using hemp since 5000 B.C. So when IE groups started borrowing a new word four millennia later, it had to have been for a new use: drugs. The old northern varieties of hemp did not contain the narcotic THC; and the 2nd millennium was probably the first time that enough people were travelling back and forth between Iran (where it grew) and eastern Europe that they could spread a habit, along with its source, the THC-bearing hemp. And the early 1st-millennium B.C. is just when we begin to find evidence for pot-smoking in the new zone. (Barber 1992, P. 36).
Since the time of that publication, there has been new evidence recovered that may dispute Barber's assertion that widespread use of Cannabis as a mind-altering substance didn't take hold until the second millennium.  There is some evidence of its use in the late third millennium at the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological sites in Central Asia.


Cannabis in Archaeological Sites

This is a very abbreviated list of cannabis evidence in archaeological contexts. Paleolithic and Neolithic sites are fairly few in number, and contain exclusively textile evidence. The number of sites containing cannabis evidence surges dramatically toward the late Neolithic and through the Bronze and Iron ages. There are WAY too many to mention. At that time, there begins to be evidence of medicinal or ritual use of cannabis alongside textile evidence. Following the brief description is a reference to the original publication of the excavation or study in question. If that cannot be found, I will include a reference to a discussion.
Hemp cord-marked Amphora from Yangshao, 4800 B.C.

Clay with textile impressions from Dolni Vestonice, 29,000 to 22,000 years ago.
Leather basket containing shockingly-well preserved cannabis sativa from a 2700-year old Shaman's grave in the Yanghai tombs.
Yanghai Shaman's Grave

Mortar possibly associated with cannabis preparation from Yanghai Shaman's Grave

  • Wild hemp has been identified as the most likely source for textiles discovered in the upper paleolithic sites of Pavlov and Dolni Vestonice dating to 29,000 to 22,000 years ago in Southern Moravia (Czech Republic).  (Soffer et al. 2000)
  • Evidence of hemp use in the form of cord marked pottery and an incised, rod-shaped stone beater used to pound hemp, was discovered at a 7,000 year old Taiwan site Yuan-shan. (Kwang Chih-Chang 1966; c.f., Needham 2009)
  • A fragment of hemp cloth was found in Catal Hayuk and dated to about 8000 BC.(Ryder and Gabra-Sanders 1987)
  • Bandkeramik site in Germany, dated to 5500-4500 B.C.  (EWB disc., 16). Eisenberg, Thuringia, Germany. (c.f., Renfrew 1973)
  • Neolithic finds come from Thayngen Weier in Switzerland (Winiger 1971), Voslau in Lower Austria, and from Bodesti-Frumusica in Roumania (Matasa 1946). Other finds were in Switzerland, Lower Austria, and Romania. 
  • Imprints of hemp seeds were found in the clay layer of floors of a house of the Tripolye culture in the Ukraine, and date to 5300- 3500 B.C. These seeds do not indicate anything beyond that the plant was known. The Tripolyans had cloth, as it has been found impressed on the bottoms of their pots, but it is unknown what fiber was used.
  • Some fibers of hemp and linen were found caught in a bone implement at the late Neolithic site of Adaoueste, in Southern France.The hemp was dyed blue, some of the linen was dyed red, and the remainder of the linen was left white. 
  • Evidence for hemp textile is in the form of impressions on pots at the 5th millenium B.C. Ka Ruo site in Tibet. (Can't find names of excavators; reports published as: Karo Neolithic Site in Chamdo, Tibet, and Its Relevant Problems, Ethnic Studies, N0.1, 1983 and; A Brief on the Excavation at the Karo Site, Chamdo, Tibet Cultural Relics, N0.9,1979)
  • Hemp pollen was discovered at Pan-p'o, one of the sites with the early fiber impressions (Li 1974)
  • Ritual structures with rooms containing evidence for beverage preparation using poppy, hemp, and ephedra, were discovered in settlements dating from 2200 to 1700 B.C. in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) of Central Asia. Excavations revealed numerous monumental structures in many sites, with enormous walls and gates.One of the smaller settlements consists of a fortified complex of buildings, a number of private dwellings, a shrine, and a fort. The shrine consisted of two parts: one public worship space and an inner sanctum.  Three ceramic vessels were found in the private, inner sanctum. These yielded traces of ephedra and cannabis, and are supposed to have been used in the preparation and consumption of a ritual beverage.  (Sarianidi 1993)
  • A small piece of hemp textile was found in a grave in Shansi province (China) dating to 1122-249 B.C. This is the oldest preserved specimen of cannabis. (Li 1974)
  • A remarkably preserved 2700-year old shaman's grave was recently discovered among The Yanghai Tombs, an ancient cemetery in the Turfan district of China. A leather basket with 789 grams of cannabis were found by the head of the shaman. A mortar and pestle, likely related to cannabis preparation, was also found. The cannabis was found to contain a high THC content, and may be Cannabis indica. This is though to have been used by this shaman as a medicine or psychoactive agent to aid divination. Analysis suggests that the plant was cultivated specifically for its high THC content. The sample was comprised of several individual plants, all female. "While multi-purpose cannabis plants used simultaneously for food (seed), fibre (stalks), and pharmaceutical uses (flowering tops) have been recently reported from Darchula in far western Nepal, more customarily, a given plant is best suited toward a single purpose. Of additional key importance is the absence of hemp artefacts from the Yanghai Tombs. The Gūshī fabricated clothing from wool and ropes from Phragmites (reed) spp. fibres. Whereas hemp textiles have been collected from the Northern China Yangshao Culture from 6000–7000 years BP, their appearance in the west was not documented before 2000 years BP, for example, 1500 years BP in Kucha, 600 km west of Turpan." (Russo et al. 2008)
  • A leather bag with hemp seeds, a censor with hemp seeds, and a small tent (presumed to have been used to create an enclosed space for a smoking ritual), were found in Barrow 2 of the fifth century B.C. Scythian tomb burials at Pazyryk,in the Altai Mountains. Additional seeds and censers were discovered in other burials. Hemp shirts were found in the same excavation. (Rudenko 1970)
  • A dagger apparently wrapped in hemp (as evidenced by fiber impressions) was recovered from a ca. 2900 to 2800 BP burial at Ning Xian, Gansu Province. (c.f., So and Bunker 1995)
  • Seed remains have been recovered at Swedish sites from 2000 b.p. The Oseberg ship burial of a woman (ca. 1150 BP) contained four cannabis seeds (Holmboe 1927). The woman is thought to have been a priestess (Christensen 1992), and the seeds associated with ritual duties. 
  • Cannabis fruits have been found in Denmark Viking settlements. Cannabis is first noted in the region  in the Kornungs Skuggsja written in ca. 1240 AD. 
  • Carbonized cannabis mixed with other plants was found in the tomb of a 14-year old girl near Jerusalem dated to 1600 b.p. Chemical analysis revealed the presence of Δ6-THC. Researchers believe that Cannabis had been burned to facilitate the birth process (Zias et al. 1993). 
  • Hempen and flax textile fragments were recovered from an early Magyar graveyard (ca. 950 BP) at Halimba-Cseres in Hungary. (Török 1954)
  • Seed remains were discovered in a water well in the Bohemian region of Czechoslovakia dating to 530 B.P. (Opravil 1979)

And the list goes on and on and on and on and on......................................

From Fleming and Clarke 1998

Next, Ancient documentation of Cannabis.

Further reading and sources used:

Christensen, I. M. 1992. Osebergdronningens gravvaar arkeologiske nasjonalsskatt i nytt lys. Oslo, Schibsted.
Fleming, Michael P. andRobert C. Clarke. Physical evidence for the antiquity of Cannabis sativa L.

Holmboe, J. 1927. Osebergfundet. in Den norske. Stat. Oslo.

Ikan, Raphael. Selected Topics in the Chemistry of Natural Products

KWANG-CHIH CHANG. Preliminary Notes on the Excavations in Formosa, 1964-65
Li., Hui Lin. 1974. Economic Botany Oct-Dec 1974 p437 “An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China

Needham, Joseph. - Science and Civilisation in China - Vol. 5/09 - Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling. Vol. 5/09 - Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling

Nelson, Robert A. A History of Hemp.

Opravil, E. 1979. Hedera helix L. aus der mittelalterlichen Stadt Most (Tschechoslowakei). in Ludwig, M. (Ed.) Veröffentlich mit Mittelen des Land-schaftsverbandes Rheinland. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn: 209-215.

Rudenko 1970: Sergei I. Rudenko. Frozen Tombs of Siberia: the Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Hosemen. Tr. M. W. Thompson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Pr. 1970.

Russo et al. 2008. Phytochemical and genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia

Ryder, M.L. and Thea Gabra-Sanders. 1987. A MICROSCOPIC STUDY OF REMAINS OF TEXTILES MADE FROM PLANT FIBREs. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. Volume 6, Issue 1, pages 91–108, March 1987

Sarianidi, V.I., Excavations at Southern Gonur, Iran Vol. 31 1993, British Institute Of Persian Studies.

So, J. F. and E. C. Bunker 1995 Traders and Raiders on China’s Northern Frontier Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London: 126.

2000. Palaeolithic Perishables Made Permanent. Antiquity. Vol. 74, No. 286.
Török, G. 1954 Graveyard of Halimba-Cseres dating from the X-XIIth centuries. Folia Archaelogica 4: 95-105, 207-208.  

Xiaozhai Lu and Robert C. Clarke, The cultivation and use of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) in ancient China.

Zias, J. et al. 1993. Early medical use of Cannabis. Nature 363: 215.


  1. Three ceramic vessels were found in the private, inner sanctum. These yielded traces of ephedra and cannabis, and are supposed to have been used in the preparation and consumption of a ritual beverage.

  2. This is beautifully documented research! I was just wondering if you came across hemp as fabric and/or medicinal uses in early Greece. ???

    1. HI! Thank you so much for visiting! I will do some research and write a post about that. Thank you!!!!!

  3. I thank you for the well-studied & well-written & illustrated article, and for referencing my writing ( R. Nelson, A History of Hemp )... There is far too much poorly written, unreferenced, plagiarized writing on the internet.

    1. Hi!!! Thank you so much for visiting and for your kind words!