Interview: The Geographical History of Hemp

University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf is a cannabis advocate who specializes in the history of its global distribution. In 2014, Geographical Review published his study High Points: A Geographical History of Cannabis that tracks the plant’s journey from Asia to its mass migration across six continents. In this interview, Dr. Warf discusses the early days of cannabis and the history of hemp. 

The nomadic Scythians may have first encountered cannabis on the Central Asian Steppe around Mongolia and Southern Siberia, and High Points says they diffused it from India to the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. Do we know which culture first started using and cultivating cannabis? 

No one exactly knows. It was a long time ago, and the evidence is fragmentary. The Scythians certainly had temporary settlements all throughout what is now Kazakhstan and Western China and up into Siberia. Excavations of their burial mounds, or kurgans, show warlords with their shields and weapons and then a pile of cannabis on their chest to accompany them into the afterlife. The Scythians also moved down into the Indus River Valley, and at times they would engage in raiding and at other times they were simply traders. It appears both cannabis sativa and indica moved west under the auspices of the Scythians into Iran and into the Middle East, even into Greece and Poland and eventually into much of the rest of Europe. They were the primary vehicle.

Were the Scythians the first culture to start using and cultivating the plant?

The Scythians? No. Well, that depends on what you mean. In a certain sense, nomadic tribes like the Scythians were using it on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in Western China. The Chinese actually learned about it from the Central Asian nomads, and a very rich tradition of cannabis use in China began, which was eventually stamped out by the rise of Confucianism.

The Scythians possibly harvested wild cannabis. Cannabis sativa evolved in the steppes of Central Asia, most likely around what is now Mongolia. Because they were a nomadic people, they didn’t have time to plant crops and wait for them to harvest. The Chinese, in a certain sense, were probably the first culture to systematically raise domesticated cannabis and harvest it. That seems to be the earliest, by some accounts 4,000 B.C. or so. There’s a Chinese deity, the hemp goddess, and there were medicinal texts in Chinese, written reports of emperors using it for headaches and royal women using it during childbirth. This is long before the Scythians carried it into Eastern Europe, but there’s overlap in the times here. There’s some fuzziness regarding the dates. India, too, though I think Indian cannabis use was slightly later than China.

Can you tell me about the hemp goddess?

The Chinese word for hemp is ma, and you have to be careful how you pronounce it because it’s a common word in Chinese and means different things. I have a little dog and pony show with PowerPoint slides that I use based on this paper. Magu was her name, and she was called the hemp maid, not the goddess. I guess I should say it right. From being a purely religious phenomenon, that’s apparently when hemp began to acquire medicinal uses. There’s a Chinese scholar named [Hui-Lin] Li who’s done some extensive work on the history of cannabis in China.

Confucianism, when it arose, disapproved of cannabis because it had this connotation of the Central Asian nomads. Confucianism is a very dour, conservative [religion] – not really a religion in the western sense, but we use the term anyway – that demands strict obeisance to authoritarian rule of law and order. Confucianism strongly disapproved of cannabis use. That whole Chinese tradition began to fall apart in the 6th century AD. Still, for several thousand years, they were using it there.

In High Points, you said Russia was a major supplier of hemp. Why was Russia the major supplier, and did Russia’s dominance motivate other countries to encourage hemp farming?

First of all, let’s be clear: Russia was a supplier of hemp rather than psychoactive cannabis. Hemp was in huge demand in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely for making sails and rope and things like that. There was even a very active hemp clothing industry throughout Europe and elsewhere. There were shortages of hemp, particularly in Western Europe. The Russian supply couldn’t keep up with the demand, which is why, in part, the colonial governments began to encourage hemp growing. The French encouraged it in what is now Southern Quebec. British colonialists encouraged hemp growing in the Eastern U.S. The Spanish crown encouraged it in Venezuela and Colombia. During World War II, there was a Hemp for Victory campaign in the U.S. 

Russia may have been a supplier, but Russia supplied many things. It was a huge supplier of wheat for much of Europe up until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In growing hemp, many people – though not so much in North America as in South America – started growing other kinds of cannabis as well, notably sativa. Indica didn’t quite achieve the worldwide spread that sativa did until the British East India Company began to promote it. There was some indica found in the Middle East and parts of Africa, but it was mostly sativa. We should just see Russia’s role in light of its broader position as a supplier of crops and other kinds of commodities in the emerging capitalist world system at the time.

You wrote that cannabis history in Europe hasn’t been fully explored. What parts of European history need deeper research?

My particular interest in that regard concerns the earlier period, before the Enlightenment going back to the Bronze Age and Medieval Europe. I touch on some of this in the paper, and I’m not going to claim to be an expert on the history of European cannabis use, but we know that there were cannabis cults in Greece and in the Greek-speaking world. We know that there was cannabis in Medieval Germany. I quote the famous nun, Hildegard Von Bingen, a 12th-century figure, talking about smoking cannabis. We know that Merovingian Queens were buried with it. We know that the Vikings carried it. We know that, by the 15th century, the pope was upset about it, and that’s why they issued the papal edict saying cannabis was used by witches. There clearly is this unexcavated history, and not just of hemp. We know hemp was widely used in Europe. I’m talking about smokable cannabis. Typically, sativa and sativa L went hand-in-hand with one another, and I would love to see somebody write a detailed history of it. We actually know more about the history of cannabis in Africa than there is in Europe.

What do we know about the history of hemp in Africa?

My references regarding Africa are kind of dated, so there may not have been a whole lot of recent work on this. What I would suggest, if you haven’t read it yet, is this book by Clarke and Merlin called Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. It’s not specifically about Africa, but the work includes a whole lot of useful tidbits about Africa in there. 

Does the way in which the crop spread geographically say anything about its importance?

Yes, clearly crops can spread accidentally because seeds get picked up and inadvertently transferred somewhere else. In the case of cannabis, it’s pretty clear that it was intentional and deliberate. It reflects the significance the plant originally had for religious and medicinal purposes. It was important enough that the Scythians brought it with them into Ukraine and Eastern Europe where Herodotus learned about it from hanging out with the Scythians in the Crimean Peninsula. Over time, it gradually became more significant because it developed recreational uses as well. 

It’s one of the oldest cultivated crops that humanity has ever grown. It’s silly to deny that significance and pretend that it’s always been “evil.” In fact, the idea of making cannabis illegal is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the 19th century, you began to get some grumblings about it from the British, but it’s really during the moral panic of the early 20th century that it became demonized. For most of its history, it was not only legal but tolerated and even actively promoted by empires and corporations, like the British East India Company. Its history and geography reflect its centrality to many cultures. The idea that there’s something bad about cannabis was a uniquely American interpretation that was later globalized.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top