To say that marijuana use & cultivation has been around for a long time would be an understatement; in fact, hemp is often believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants, and with its wide variety of uses, that’s easy to imagine. But who was the first person to “discover” weed? And when was marijuana first discovered?
Well… as it turns out, the answers to these questions aren’t quite so easy to nail down. But we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t willing to give it a shot. Today we’ll be talking about the history of cannabis cultivation, its uses, and its role as both a medicinal and spiritual herb. Then, we will go over the western world’s first experiences with using marijuana for medical purposes. So let’s get into it.
Cannabis Use and the Ancient World
Though it’s easy to view cannabis use through the lens of the United States and the western world, cannabis use begins far away from the US and long before settlers from Europe came to the North American shores.
According to the researchers’ best estimates, the cannabis plant appears to have diverged as a unique species some time around 28 million years ago, somewhere in the general vicinity of the Tibetan Plateau (1). From here, cannabis spread like the weed it is, interestingly, toward Russia and Europe first before reaching eastern China (only) 1.2 million years ago.
We note this as interesting because archaeologists have discovered the earliest physical evidence of a culture smoking cannabis as a psychoactive drug in China. Though hemp was grown and cultivated by many cultures before this point, the majority of the plant’s use was seen industrially, turning the plant fiber into objects like cloth and paper. Though marijuana was likely used throughout early history as an intoxicating herb, the earliest known evidence of someone smoking weed to get high was found in a dig site at the Jirzankal Cemetery on the Pamir Plateau.
The Burning of “Incense”
It was here that a team of researchers (including noted director of Paleoethnobotany Dr. Robert Spengler) discovered a set of ten wooden braziers (2), though damaged by time and the elements, the site contained clear signs of incense burners containing stones that had been exposed to burnt materials. Believing that these braziers might have been used for some fashion of ritual purpose, the team began work extracting residue from the charred materials still stuck to the stones. Whether or not they were prepared for what they found, it’s a safe bet that at least someone on the team raised an eyebrow and/or giggled.
As it turned out, the most prominent organic marker found on the wooden brazier’s burned stones was cannabis resin. And not just any cannabis; the research team discovered that the concentration of THC in these samples was much higher than average wild-grown plants from the same time, meaning the Jirzankal people either purposefully gathered cannabis plants high in THC or otherwise cultivated them for their psychoactive properties. At roughly 2,500 years ago, this gives us the earliest physical evidence for a culture smoking cannabis to get high.
But Can We Go Further Back?
But is that really the first time we know of humans using cannabis for its cannabinoid content? Though additional evidence is slim, we do know that cannabis cultivation goes back thousands of years further, to at least the stone age.
10,000 years ago, hemp was being cultivated and used in Taiwan, and though evidence from this site (and all others) only show the use of the hemp plant for its fibers, it can be difficult to believe that in all the years between that discovery and the Jirzankal no one happened to catch a whiff of burning cannabis flower. Supporting this idea is the Chinese name for cannabis itself: “Má.”
The word “má” in Chinese means, first and foremost, “cannabis” or “hemp.” (3) But it has a secondary meaning as well: “numbness,” and evidence shows that this now-secondary meaning existed long before the first, potentially stemming back to the first millennium B.C.
China’s first recorded use of cannabis as an anesthetic further helps this theory, as the Chinese name for “anesthesia” is “mázui,” literally meaning “cannabis intoxication.”
Medical Marijuana: An Older Concept Than You Might Think
One of the best early recorded uses of cannabis as a medicinal aid also stems back to the ancient Chinese. Dating back to 100 AD, the oldest known Chinese pharmacopeia (translated as “Shennog’s Materia Medica Classic”) (4) refers to cannabis and its cultivation. It even goes as far as to describe a seven-month growth and flowering period for the plant prior to harvesting the flower and recommends waiting a longer period of time if harvesting for seed.
Toward the end of the same century, the surgeon Hua Tuo (5) became the first recorded individual to use cannabis as a surgical anesthetic. Instead of smoking the plant, however, Hua Tuo ground the plant into a powder-like substance which he then mixed with wine in a concoction meant to be drank before surgery.
Medical Uses for the Entire Cannabis Plant
Cannabis use was widespread in traditional Chinese medicine, with uses listed for over 120 different forms of ailments. From flowers to seeds to stalks, the entirety of the marijuana plant was utilized for everything from ulcers to wounds and beyond. Some medical texts even referred to over-consumption as giving the user the ability to see ghosts – A claim that makes quite a bit of sense in the modern light of THC’s psychoactive properties.
But can we go even further back? Though evidence prior to this point starts becoming more conceptual in nature, there have been very heavy signs of cannabis being used for medical purposes in even older cultures.
Cannabis Use in Other Cultures
We know that the ancient Egyptians used cannabis for its medicinal properties (6), with papyrus scrolls dating as far back as the 2000 BC period discussing the usage of cannabis for treating both sore eyes and hemorrhoids.
Prior to even this is evidence of cannabis being used in the ancient Netherlands by a society known as the “Bell Beaker culture” – In 2007, a grave was discovered containing a large amount of cannabis pollen (mixed with meadowsweet) (7), believed to have been applied as both a fever-reducing medicine and a general painkiller.
Ancient India and cultures throughout the ancient Middle East also used cannabis for both medicine and recreation, and the practice was referenced by the ancient Greeks as well. Mentions of cannabis stem back to the 5th century BC, where Greek historian Herodotus described the Scythian culture and their use of cannabis prior to battle.
The answer to the question “who was the first person to smoke weed” is, as it so often tends to be when it comes to marijuana myth & culture, hazy. However, as the cultivation of cannabis dates back to pre-historic times, it’s hard to imagine no one used the cannabis plant as either a drug or medicine in these early days of mankind.
But whether cannabis smoking caught on earlier than Jirzankal is hard to say. With the lessened THC content of most cannabis plants in early history, it’s entirely possible that using cannabis as a drug is a relatively new idea (if you can consider 2500 years ago “new”). Either way, it’s hard to believe that smoking marijuana is a concept likely to disappear any time soon. Happy smoking!