With all the recent attention paid to hemp, largely thanks to the massive popularity of CBD products, it can be easy to assume that the humble plant’s many uses are a pretty recent discovery.
In fact, we’ve been making the most of this amazing herb since at least 8,000 BCE. That’s a good 10,000 years.
Hemp, a.k.a. cannabis sativa, is an annual herb with hollow stalks and with leaves in what is now a pretty famous shape. The plant’s fiber and seeds have a staggering amount of uses, including cloth and paper. In fact, in 1938, Popular Mechanics magazine stated that hemp “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to cellophane.”
Where did all begin, and how did we get to where we are today? Well, it’s been a long, strange trip.
The Birth of Agriculture
Back in the day (as in BCE), hemp was instrumental in the birth of agriculture. It was likely one of the first agricultural crops ever cultivated.
The earliest known record of hemp usage is from 8,000 BCE in Asia. Hemp cord used in pottery was found in archeological sites in Taiwan, and records show that hemp oil and seeds were used in the area that would eventually become China.
As agriculture and trade expanded, hemp began to travel. It spread through the Mediterranean to Europe and Africa, and eventually to the Americas.
We know that hemp rope was in use in Russia by 600 BCE, and Greece by 200 BCE. In 100 BCE, hemp paper was introduced in China and it showed up in Germany sometime between 500 and 100 BCE.
It’s mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, and it shows up in the Talmud. It was used for medical purposes by the Greeks and Romans.
The use of hemp fiber for cord and cloth is ancient, and we often think of it as being used for simple, rustic objects like rope, farmers’ clothes, or feed sacks.
In 1959, French archaeologist Michel Fleury found a grave site beneath the basilica of St. Denis, France. It was the resting place of Queen Arnegunde, who ruled in the 4th century CE and was great-grandmother to the last of the Merovingian kings. She was wrapped in a hemp shroud.
This is just one example of hemp products being used by people across all levels of society, from peasants to royalty.
In 850 CE, the Vikings brought hemp to Iceland, and by 1300 it showed up in Ethiopia.
By 1533, hemp had become such an important crop that King Henry VIII of England began to fine farmers if they did not grow it.
Colonization spread hemp to Australia and aided its journey from Europe to the Americas. Hemp came to South America from Angola under the sinister shadow of slavery in 1549.
That wasn’t the birth of hemp in the New World, though. There’s evidence that Pre-Columbian people of South America were already using it for fabric and fishing nets, and in medicine and rituals.
Historians often say that hemp came to North America with the settlers of Jamestown in 1616, but the truth is that the indigenous people of North America had been using it for a multitude of purposes long before then.
In fact, there’s evidence of indigenous cannabis use in North America dating to 400 BCE.
Wooden Teeth and Hemp Harvests
Did you know George Washington was a hemp farmer? In fact, many colonies in the 1700s required farmers to grow hemp.
It’s a popular hemp legend that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, but that’s not true. But, with founding fathers farming it, we can say that hemp is definitely woven into the American fabric.
The Hemp Dark Ages
Although it began quite promising, the 20th century was not kind to hemp. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it continued to be an amazingly popular crop around the world for its many industrial uses, including lamp oil, paper, rope, and cloth.
In the U.S., though, hemp became so closely related in the public’s mind to the use of THC as a drug that the government began to regulate it. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was passed to restrict hemp’s sale and cultivation. Although this was directed at the use of THC, it severely hampered farmers who harvested hemp for oil and cloth uses.
World War II came along, and need for fiber for paper and cloth made the U.S. government change their tune. The Department of Agriculture and U.S. Army began to encourage farmers to grow hemp, and during the period from 1942–45 more than 400,000 acres of hemp were planted.
During the 20th century, hemp was also restricted in Japan, and commercial farming ceased in Europe by the 1930s simply because of the competition from artificial fibers. China was one of the few countries where hemp continued to thrive, with its crops rising to some 250,000 acres.
The last legal 20th century crop of hemp in the United States was planted in Wisconsin in 1957. Then, for the next half century, hemp was unwelcome here.
The Hemp Renaissance
The 21st century has ushered in a new golden age for hemp worldwide. The 2014 Farm Bill made hemp cultivation in the U.S. legal again, and today the U.S. is the number three country in the world for hemp farming, just behind China and Canada.
Today, those 25,000 uses of hemp seem to be right at our fingertips. From CBD products to hemp clothing, we see it in our households, and it’s begun to appear in the production of biodegradable plastics, construction materials, and even biodiesel fuel.
They’re even growing hemp in space.
Hemp farming continues to grow and thrive around the world, with Chile, France, and even North Korea growing to become major players in hemp agriculture. The U.K. cultivates around 2,000 acres of hemp per year.
So there you have it, from archaeological sites to the International Space Station, we’ve taken a look at where hemp comes from and where it’s headed. Whether we’ve been eating the seeds for their remarkable nutritional value, using the fiber for rope, cloth and paper, or harnessing the soothing power of its non-psychoactive cannabinoids, hemp has been an integral part of our lives since the dawn of civilization.
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