by Lazystrain – Illustrations by Ivan Art
The Reason WHY people cultivate cannabis and have incorporated the plant into their material culture is a mystery linked to our inquisitive nature as human beings.
As humans evolved so we learned how to adapt; either ourselves towards plants, or plants towards ourselves, so that a balance between ourselves and nature could peacefully co-exist.
Throughout all periods of history Cannabis has accompanied communities of people on their journey through the world. Gradually as humans became domesticated, so they slowly domesticated cannabis as an annual crop that they could exploit and harvest to its full potential.
Origins of Cultivation
It is estimated that People first domesticated plants from wild cultigens during the late/new Stone Age or Neolithic Period approximately 30,000 – 20,000 years ago. The exact origins of Cannabis Cultivation are how- ever unexplained by archaeology; mainly because mate- rial evidence to support the cultivation of crops by the earliest proto-farming communities is limited.
It is however excepted that as and when
people began to settle in one location,
as opposed to leading a hunter-
gathering lifestyle, that they domesticated certain plant species from the wild. Alongside barley, rice, emmer, einkorn, and wheat, cannabis sativa was cultivated by several sedentary communities for its textile, fuel, nutri- tional, and shamanic properties – as well as being a reli- able source of winter fodder (feed) for the then recently domesticated cattle.
As these proto-farming communities traveled from val- ley to valley , area to area, in search new agricultural land to borrow, the seeds of their cultivation became feral and then wild again in the following generations. Cannabis had cunningly tricked people into being another one of its many methods of seed dispersal.
Seed Dispersal is the means via which annual species of plants naturally propagate. Seeds can be dispersed in a number of ways. In Cannabis the pri- mary method of seed dis- persal is via the elements of weather (wind, rain, frost, and snowfall). As seeds ripen they naturally fall to the ground, where rainfall, even if minor, will lodge the seed into a comfortable position to settle down and overwinter.
The secondary method of seed dispersal in cannabis is animal. Several species of bird and mammal will happi- ly feed on cannabis seed, flowers, and stalks. Whilst in a hungry hurry to gobble down as many seeds or flowers as possible, some seeds may not be cracked by the beaks of birds or teeth of ruminants. These whole seeds are indigestible and are deposited later in a new location by the bird or beast.
Thirdly humans have purposely collected the seeds of cannabis and carefully saved them to eat or cultivate the following season. People soon discovered that seeds of good parents grew into good plants with good seeds. By selecting the most desirable genetic characteristics in each season, proto-farmers where unknowingly the first cannabis breeders. Cannabis had evolved to such a pin- nacle in its evolution that it could now add humans to its list of methods of seed dispersal.
Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica
Geographically, as yet, there is no deter- minable way of telling if cannabis moved up-hill or down-hill in its evolution. (e.g. via the elements of nature or alongside the diaspora of people). What is known is that Cannabis populated new ecologi- cal niches and specific geographical loca- tions which where most suited towards growth and cultivation. This in turn allowed the Cannabis plant to evolve several sub-species for its self based on region.
Typically Cannabis indica plants come from highland altitudes. Cannabis indica plants grow shorter and smaller than their Cannabis sativa cousins from the populated lowlands which grow taller and big- ger. To date no-one knows if these specific differences were natural or the result of domestication. Traditionally Cannabis indica is (in the majority) often cultivated in regions where varieties of Cannabis sativa grow feral in the same location. In contrast however, within tropical regions where Cannabis sativa is culti- vated feral populations of Cannabis indica are often absent from the botanical record.
Circumstantial evidence therefore suggests that Cannabis sativa was first domesticated in the settled lowlands and cultivated towards a standard of plant that could later be cultivated more easily in the exposed uplands. In which case Cannabis indica was selectively bred towards the fastest seed-baring plants, which fin- ished before the onset of winter. This then allowed a new species of Cannabis (now called Cannabis indica after the Indus Valley region) to evolve. Since when Cannabis indica gradually developed its own traits and established its mountainous identity.
Early methods of farming were a case of trial and error and seeing what worked best in the location. In this respect little has changed between prehistoric and mod- ern day methods of farming. The point of interest for Archaeobotanists is the moment of transition from col- lecting seeds from wild plants (as foodstuffs) and collect- ing seeds from plants that had been purposely cultivated the previous season (as foodstuffs).
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that hunter-gather communities were “managing” the wild landscape and its natural resources prior to the complete domestication of many plant species. We know this because of the remains of slash-and-burn methods of farming, from early forestry, and the remains of early livestock grazing, which all support this theory.
At some magical moment in the developmemt of complex societies, eith some seeds were split on the floor and observed growth the following season, or perhaps an elder member of the community who could no longer forage over long distances planted some seeds they’d collected as an experiment?
As a result a new society of agrarian communities slowly developed into what we understand today as “farming”.
The presence of sheep/goat where important to proto-farming commu- nities for several reasons. Primarily cattle were used to graze areas of scrub-land into forest clearings,
which once tilled made ideal farm land. The other reason cattle were important was for the manure they produced, which when scattered on the land provided a rich source of nutrients for mono-crops. As these animals escaped their captives and compounds, they deposited the seeds of their last meal in a new location, thus further aiding seed dispersal and populations of feral plants including cannabis.
A feral plant is a species that has reverted back to a semi- wild state following a period of domestication. Alternatively a domesticated plant is a wild species that has been maintained and managed by people. It is pos- sible that early farming communities managed cannabis in its wild-state, removing female or male plants from wild populations. By isolating male plants for use in tex- tiles and rope-making and isolating female plants for the production of essential oils and seeds, a feral cannabis crop was attainable.
The feral nature of Cannabis, to revert back to a semi- wild state, arguably demonstrates that land-race species of cannabis although semi-domesticated, aren’t too dis- tant from their truly wild cousins. Much debate sur- rounding the existence of wild and feral species of cannabis in nature, however currently continues (on- line) amid the canna-botanists.
Cannabis naturally sheds its seeds in winter. When left to its own devices these seeds fall to the ground and grow in situ the following season. At the point when these seeds were collected and safely stored and sown out the following season to an organized system of planting, then cannabis was truly domesticated.
The domestication of species including cannabis allowed communities of people and populations of plants to exist beyond their natural range. Many valleys and hill- tops where reclaimed from nature during this period in history as woodland fell to axe and fire. As new pastures where opened out as arable farmland, feral crops of cannabis found a niche – often on the very edge of the new ‘urban’ environment.
Many proto-farming communities did not completely abandon their hunter-gathering traditions and opted for a semi-nomadic lifestyle instead. As the neolithic period unfolded however farming communities slowly became more sedentary; with the addition of permanent hous- ing, managed fields, law, order, monetary systems and organized religion. Religious movements particularly helped to distribute the seeds of many crops including Cannabis into some of the most remote regions of the world during this period.
Today the fibers of Cannabis sativa can be used to pro- duce cordage, rope, cloth, and paper. We know our ancestors cultivated cannabis for the purpose of textiles, because some archaeological evidence still survives. In the majority of cases however because cannabis is a plant material much evidence of its everyday use during the Neolithic period does not survive the archaeological record. In this case, Anthropology looks towards pres- ent day examples where credible correlations can be drawn between theory and practice.
Prior to the invention of synthetic fibers, hemp fiber pro- cured from Cannabis sativa was the strongest and most reliable textile material available. When crafted into rope its primary uses were in sailing and building. It is therefore quite possible that many megalithic monu- ments, including the Pyramids and Stonehenge were constructed with the use of rope pulleys made from the stems of cannabis during the Neolithic.
Cannabis seeds are known to hold proteins, amino acids, omega oils, and fiber. Although devoid of psy- choactive properties cannabis seeds provide many of the nutritional requirements needed for human survival. Moreover cannabis is one of the few crops that can be cultivated at high altitudes due to its natural metabo- lism. To place such debate into perspective, the peoples of Nepal have been harvesting cannabis for the past 10,000 years in its wild, feral, and domesticated state – primarily as a major foodstuff.
Since it takes a whole season to produce seed crops out- doors early cannabis farmers learned how to select seeds from the most productive plants as seed donors. Slowly dominant traits were discontinued each season in favor of recessive traits, until all the plants in the field in each season grew the same. At which point the seeds of spe- cific cannabis varieties could be reliably traded with other farming communities to produce constant results in the field.
Meanwhile clandestine monks, high in their mountain monasteries, were cultivating cannabis for its medicinal qualities (as well as religious sacrament). By combining individual plants with other individuals, sourced from different geographical locations, monks where able to isolate beneficial qualities in the form of medicine from cannabis. This medicine is held within the natural cannabiniods and terpines of the plant itself.
Neolithic Herbalists isolated the medicinal qualities of cannabis much in the same way as a Hashish Maker does today. Once collected the natural oils of the plant could then be administered as medicine. Cannabis was used in hot and cold compresses, dressings, tinctures, ointments, cookery as well as in incense or it was direct- ly inhaled, throughout the neolithic period across sever- al continents of the world.
As cannabis gained its notoriety
as a reliable resource, so the
value of its worth as a trade commodity
The fibers, flowers, seeds, and extracted oils could be traded across local and long-ranges, presented at market places and seasonal fares. As proto-farmers discovered the seed crops available to them, a new agrarian revolu- tion unfolded with the potential for consistent trading to exist between otherwise waring neighbors.
Gradually as distant traders in the North converged with traders from the South, and as East met West, the gene-pools of specific varieties of cannabis became inter- mingled. Like a botanical ‘clash of civilizations’, the Cannabis germ-plasm from one remote valley met with the germ-plasm of next. As a result cannabis and its cul- ture was propelled miles by trade (and the prospect of getting high). Many textile varieties of cannabis, includ- ing the origins of Cannabis ruderalis (now found in Russia) were developed during the Neolithic period; as were some of the strongest Uzbek and Afghan varieties associated with hashish today.
Meanwhile, to place things back into perspective, Cannabis sativa, its culture, and seed trade would not reach the shoreline of the Americas until some 10,000 years later.