Hemp, or Cannabis sativa, is a plant native to central Asia, ranging in the wild from Northern India and Nepal to eastern Turkey. It has been cultivated for its strong fibres, edible seeds, and medicinal oil for at least 2,500 years. Hemp has been grown and used outside its wild native range for almost as long: Ancient Greece, The Netherlands, and Egypt all have examples of human burials with hemp alongside the deceased.
At the excavation of the Yanghai Tombs in Xinjiang, China, the grave of a shaman was uncovered, and he was buried with a stash of Cannabis sativa – hemp – plants in a wicker basket. These have been Carbon-14 dated to around 500 BC and are purported by archaeologists to have been used for medicinal purposes – due to the other implements buried alongside the Yanghai Man. More hemp has been uncovered at a number of other sites, throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe showing that it has been grown, used, and selectively bred by humans from this period to the present. Despite the onset of modern agriculture, hemp still needs little to no pesticides, weeding, or fertilizers to grow, and this gives it a positive environmental impact.
Hemp was one of the major sources of cordage and ropes throughout its central Asian range, and in Europe, until the advent of plastics in the 20th century. In fact, the word ‘hemp’ itself is derived from the Old English word ‘haenep’. This indicates the length of time that hemp has been known to European cultures. Its medicinal benefits have long been appreciated by cultures as diverse as ancient India and Victorian England, where it has been claimed that Queen Victoria herself used cannabis medicinally. Hemp seeds and oil have been discovered in what appear to be medicinal contexts at ancient sites in The Netherlands, Egypt, China, Greece and the medieval Islamic world.
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Due to its oil, hemp oil has always been an important plant for the human cultures that have grown it. The medicinal purpose of its oil, along with the usefulness of its fibres are well studied. It has been a sacred plant to Hindus in northern India and to Nepalese folk religion for centuries.
It is here prepared into bhang, effectively a cannabis milkshake, to be consumed at religious festivals, and to treat ailments as far apart as sunstroke, fever, and lisping, as well as to aid digestion and appetite. This tradition of medicinal cannabis usage in Asia continued from as long ago as the Yanghai shaman through to its modern usage by mystics and devotees in India, Nepal, and surrounding areas.
Due to its use in the ropes and cords of sailing ships, hemp was often seen alongside oak as an important material in the construction of navies – and so had enormous cultural significance to the people of most European nations during the age of sail. Hemp was then seen as something that helped to hold the fabric of the nation together.
The significance of hemp to modern subcultures, such as the Hippy and Beatnik cultures, has been well documented. During the 20th Century, a significant taboo built up around the plant, but this has since begun to subside with recent research into the benefits of CBD oil.
Recent years have seen a worldwide explosion of interest in hemp oil and its derivatives, as the largely unfounded cultural taboo around its source plant has subsided. Medical research has uncovered some of the possible beneficial applications of this substance. A plant material that has been thought for millennia to be medicinal, is being explored scientifically and the results are promising.