Despite the myriad of benefits we have enjoyed as an ‘advanced’ civilization, the human race as a whole continues to make mistakes. Allowing everyone to spread their views and agendas on social media is one blunder; our continuing prohibition of hemp is another. Fortunately, common sense is likely to prevail as the proposed Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will remove hemp from the Schedule I status afforded to drugs such as heroin under the Controlled Substances Act.
Although it is commonly claimed that humans have used hemp for 12,000 years, the reality is that archaeological evidence suggests that hemp has been used for over 29,000 years!
Simply put, we have wasted a tremendous opportunity over the years. Hemp is an exceptionally versatile plant with a wide array of uses, and in this article, we outline five ways in which ancient people used their hemp crops that should be revived today.
1 – Clothing
It is probable that hemp was the first plant to be cultivated for textile fiber. Archaeologists discovered a piece of hemp cloth in modern day Iran and Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) which is estimated to be 10,000 years old. Excavations on the island of Taiwan uncovered evidence that settlers used the marijuana plant, as a team of researchers found broken pieces of pottery with twisted hemp fiber embedded in its sides. The site was believed to be over 10,000 years old.
At some point, ancient peoples learned that twisted strands of hemp fiber were stronger than individual strands. The Chinese perfected the art of spinning fibers into fabric; an innovation that ended the need for animal skins as clothing. It is no surprise to learn that the Chinese chose hemp as their material to make clothes. In the Chinese text “Book of Rites” (second century BC), it was written that mourners must wear clothing made from hemp fabric out of respect for the dead!
It is a tribute to the strength of hemp that the Chinese also used it to manufacture shoes. The plant gained a foothold in Chinese culture to the point where China became known as the ‘land of mulberry and hemp.’ Silkworms fed on the revered mulberry plant, and created valuable silk material. However, it was too expensive for most people, so they used hemp instead.
It isn’t difficult to understand why ancient cultures used hemp fibers to make clothes; as well as being lightweight, absorbent, and inexpensive, it possesses three times the tensile strength of cotton.
The earliest settlers in colonial America also used hemp to make clothes, and in 1632, the Virginia Assembly decreed that all planters were obliged to plant hemp such was its importance! By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the state of Virginia alone produced over 5,000 tons of hemp per annum.
Hemp remained the #1 choice for clothing until Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin in 1793. The device was able to pull out the seeds from the cotton bolls, and so cotton became the most popular option; mainly because farmers could grow it on land devoid of nutrients. Cotton became a cash crop by the middle of the 19th century, and hemp began its slow descent into a prohibited plant.
2 – Rope
As we mentioned in the introduction, hemp was used to make rope at least 29,000 years ago. There is evidence of hemp being used as rope dotted throughout history. It appeared in southern Russia in 600 BC and Greece in 200 BC, for example. The mighty Vikings took hemp rope (and seeds) with them to Iceland during the middle of the ninth century AD, and there is also evidence that Italian ships began using hemp rope as early as the tenth century AD.
Numerous materials have been used to create rope throughout history, but many of them were susceptible to rot when exposed to seawater. It became a crucial material during the age of exploration because ships normally have miles of rope, with different pieces involved in various ship functions. One issue with hemp rope is that it could rot from the inside, and as safety checks were not as commonplace as they should have been, there was a danger of hemp ropes snapping if they were not checked every so often.
3 – Food
To be fair, some companies still sell the edible seeds of the hemp plant. These seeds have a mild, nutty flavor, and can be used to make milk, oil, cheese, and even protein powder. Hemp seeds contain an immense array of nutrients including protein, potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, and phosphorus. They also contain vitamins A, C, E, and a handful of B vitamins. Also, hemp seeds contain the ideal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Ancient civilizations may not have understood the minutiae of hemp’s nutritional value, but they soon became aware that the plant’s seeds could be eaten raw, cooked, roasted, or even ground into a powder.
Hemp seeds are regaining their popularity, but the Chinese were consuming them thousands of years ago.
Every canton in China grew hemp, and it was just behind millet, rice, vegetables, and orchards in order of importance. Hemp became a significant crop during the middle ages and was used to satisfy the growing world’s need for fiber and food. In 1535, King Henry VIII of England passed an act which decreed that all landowners were required to sow a minimum of 0.25 acres of hemp or face a hefty fine!
4 – Paper
The Chinese have been responsible for an incalculable number of important inventions, but paper is unquestionably one of the most crucial. It is no exaggeration to say that civilization would have progressed at a glacial pace without paper. Chinese legend states that an unimportant court official by the name of Ts’ai Lun invented the paper-making process in 105 AD.
Previously, the Chinese had to write on bamboo slips and wooden tablets. Painting on silk tablets with brushes was one alternative, but it was costly. Although the precise details surrounding the invention are unclear, it is known that Lun used crushed hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark which were smashed into a pulp. The mixture was placed in water, and when the fibers rose to the top, they were tangled together. Lun removed pieces of the debris and placed them into a mold. Once the material dried, the fiber was formed into sheets.
The Chinese hid the secret for centuries, and it was their rivals Japan who finally uncovered it in the fifth century AD. Eventually, the Arabs learned the secret from Chinese prisoners they captured after the Battle of Talas in 751 AD. The first paper mill in the Islamic world was soon created in the city of Samarkand. By the 12th century, there were paper mills functioning in Moor-occupied Spain.
Throughout history, hemp paper has been used for historical purposes. For example, it is believed that Gutenberg’s Bible and drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.
In 1916, Lyster Hoxie Dewey and Jason L. Merrill of the United States Department of Agriculture made paper from hemp pulp. They concluded that it was a better option than wood, yet we have continued to cut down trees to make paper. Perhaps climate change and the negative impacts of deforestation may ensure we revert to using hemp as our source of paper.
5 – Religious Ceremonies
“Bhang” is an edible concoction created from cannabis flowers and leaves and mixed with yogurt, water, spices, and milk. In India, it was analogous to alcohol use in the West today. Bhang was a pivotal part of social and religious occasions in ancient India, and in fact, ancient peoples believed that without the presence of bhang at festivities such as wedding ceremonies, evil spirits would come to the happy couple and ruin their lives!
The plant was also a major part of the Tantric religion which evolved in the seventh century AD out of Tibet. The very first Taoist monastery was founded by three people known for using industrial levels of marijuana. In China, a ‘hemp goddess’ known as Ma Gu is still worshipped. In the modern age, Rastafarianism places great importance on cannabis use.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the funeral rites of the Scythians. He said that they placed cannabis seeds on red-hot stones and inhaled the vapor. According to Herodotus, the vapor ‘transported’ the Scythians, who began to shout and dance around the fire.
Final Thoughts on Historical Uses of Hemp
Hemp was a cornerstone of human civilization for millennia, and it is only in recent times that the plant has become outlawed. It is a remarkably versatile plant capable of creating strong fibers, clothing, and paper. It remains part of religious ceremonies around the globe, and its seeds are highly nutritious.
We passionately believe that hemp, in particular, should be used in paper-making once again because it is an environmentally-friendly alternative to chopping down trees.
As well as producing more fiber per acre than trees, a hemp crop grows in a matter of months. As a result, we benefit from 2-3 harvests a year, rather than waiting years for trees to grow.
Moreover, hemp farming uses half as much water as cotton and doesn’t need chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Nothing is wasted when you grow hemp, because the seeds are used to create oil and food supplements. As a result, we can also use hemp fibers to make clothing which is lightweight, durable, inexpensive to produce, and comfortable. In simple terms, hemp should be the future of agriculture.