A mother has a special place in her child’s life. It’s no surprise that babies who grow up to speak countless different languages refer to her as “mama” — it’s the easiest sound for tiny humans to make.
Ancient Chinese is a notable exception; there, “ma ma” (麻莪) meant “Cannabis sativa”.
Coincidence? Who knows. Either way, the Ancient Chinese were among the first to harness the power of hemp in textile and in medicine.
As the famous plant proliferated across the globe, human civilizations have always had a unique relationship with hemp. At times controversial, at times revered, hemp has changed human history — and humans changed the plant.
Did you grow up thinking about the Cannabis sativa plant as a Class B controlled substance? There’s so much more to it than that. Join us on a fascinating journey that’s probably just beginning.
The Ancient Origins of Hemp
The Cannabis sativa plant is native to Central and West Asia. While there was no doubt that people have been cultivating the crop for millennia, the history of Cannabis sativa has long been neglected in academic circles. As a result, nobody was quite sure when hemp was first domesticated.
That all changed in 2021, when a research team analyzed the plant’s entire genome and published its findings in a study titled “Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa”.
Thanks to this revolutionary research, we can now say that the hemp plant was first domesticated in Neolithic times, 12,000 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the study also traced the domestication point to East, rather than West or Central, Asia.
Hemp is one of the first plants humans ever domesticated, in other words!
It’s been a multi-purpose crop from the start, used to produce fibre, paper, and wood, as well as for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes.
As nomadic peoples moved around, Cannabis sativa followed. Thriving in varied climate conditions, hemp wound up all over — in Europe, Egypt, and later the Americas. The distinction between low-THC and high-THC strains existed even in ancient times, when primitive farmers took steps to create unique cultivars to suit their needs.
The modern world distinguishes between (low-THC) hemp and (high-THC) marijuana, two different types of Cannabis sativa. Ancient people had their own words, but “marijuana” likely comes from the Mexican “marihuana”.
Hemp in Europe and The Americas
Europeans have been growing hemp since at least 600 to 200 BC, and temperate climates lend themselves exceptionally well to the production of this fibrous type of Cannabis sativa. Hemp already had a long history on the European subcontinent by the time it was introduced to the Americas in around 1606.
Hemp was mainly cultivated for its fibre, but the plant’s use as a recreational drug also spread rapidly. Concerned about the potential for abuse, lawmakers took steps to ban the plant.
Americans continued to grow hemp happily until 1938, when new laws effectively banned its cultivation without making a distinction between hemp and marijuana. Europe followed.
While some people continued growing the plant under the radar, it’s important to note that wild hemp readily establishes itself in nature when left alone, where it continues to thrive on its own.
Hemp in Modern Times: Cannabis Sativa Makes a Comeback
Researchers studying the psychoactive effects of marijuana discovered cannabinoids in the 1960s — and today, over 400 active compounds, including THC, CBD, terpenes, and flavonoids, have been identified.
The discovery of the endocannabinoid system lagged behind, however. It wasn’t until the 1990s that renewed interest in Cannabis sativa as a medicinal plant led researchers to pinpoint the vast neural network cannabinoids bind to.
Novel medicinal applications were studied once again, and the medical marijuana movement culminated in significant legal changes across much of the western world.
CBD Products in the UK
Marijuana remains a controlled substance — illegal to use without a medical marijuana license — but hemp has made a comeback. That’s good news for people who are curious about incorporating cannabidiol into their personal wellness routines.
CBD is a non-psychoactive, non-intoxicating hemp compound that has drawn great interest among people hoping to support their overall health and wellbeing. Now, it’s legally available in the UK, the US, and much of the rest of the world.
CBD is typically extracted from industrial hemp plants, which are naturally low in THC. CBD products with a THC content of 0.02 per cent or less are now freely available, without a prescription, in the UK. US law permits a THC content of up to 0.03 per cent in cannabidiol products, meanwhile.
Cannabidiol is one of the most exciting applications of industrial hemp in the modern world, and its popularity is helping hemp make a big comeback in countries where cultivating Cannabis sativa plants was previously prohibited.
The Future of Hemp
Cannabis sativa was a black sheep not too long ago — it went from a widespread multi-purpose crop to one grown covertly and illegally in the span of a century. Its story didn’t end there, however, and it’s fascinating to see that the European Union is now actively promoting the cultivation of hemp.
The European Commission proudly proclaims that hemp cultivation grew by more than 75 per cent between 2015 and 2019 — and 34,960 hectares are currently dedicated to growing hemp. Policymakers in the Eurozone are hopeful that the cultivation of hemp can play a positive role in:
The prevention of soil erosion
Carbon storage, as part of efforts to fight climate change
Hemp is valued for its applications in the textile industry, as a novel food for human consumption and in animal feed, in the production of paper and eco-friendly construction materials (including lime hemp concrete!), and in health and cosmetics.
What does the future hold?
Nobody knows. The Ancient Chinese probably couldn’t have imagined that hemp would one day be used to make a novel form of concrete, for example!
What we can say is that hemp has left the shadows. The plant is once again grown openly and with pride. Research into the potential applications and effects of various cannabinoids is also picking up at an amazing pace. The future looks bright for this ancient plant!