March 25, 2022

Cannabis Archaeology: How The Ancient World Used Hemp & Marijuana

As modern cannabis users, we drop CBD oil under our tongue, puff on vape pens, and have a banquet of infused edibles to choose from. Cannabis has come a long way over the centuries.

Just as our canna-tech has evolved, so has our understanding of how cannabis fit into life long before our time. Archaeological findings have revealed bits and pieces from around the globe. As it turns out, the ancient world was very pro-cannabis.

If you’ve ever wondered what your cannabis usage might look like in eras past or if that inkling is creeping up now, come along for a lesson in cannabis archaeology. What we unearthed is fascinating!

Cannabis: What Is This Stuff, Anyway?

Hemp, cannabis, marijuana, weed, THC, CBD. Since we’re about to travel to some very far-off places with these terms, let’s get clear on them.

Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the plant species Cannabis sativa L. Both contain high concentrations of compounds called cannabinoids, but they have different cannabinoid ratios.

  • Marijuana (aka weed) is usually high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a cannabinoid with psychoactive properties, and tends to be low in cannabidiol (CBD).
  • Hemp is usually high in CBD and low in THC, offering the benefits of cannabinoids without the high from THC.

Current US laws classify hemp with 0.3% or less THC as industrial hemp, which is what many CBD oil products are made from.

Cannabis is a blanket term for hemp and marijuana. Even some modern scientific resources don’t distinguish between the two. But since there are some key differences, we’ll call out the varieties when it matters as we look at ancient cannabis history.

Digging Up 5 Examples Of Cannabis In Ancient History

From the first recorded signs of humanity up until the Early Middle Ages is considered ancient history. These archaeological discoveries paint a picture of cannabis usage throughout this mysterious period of time.

People In Pre-Neolithic & Stone Age Asia Found Many Uses For Cannabis

Let’s start in hemp’s homeland: Asia.

The oldest evidence of cannabis use in the world is dried plants, uncovered in the Oki Islands in Japan.(1) The specimens, which date back to 8000 BCE, suggest multiple uses. These include spiritual rituals, food, fishing lines, and clothing.

Fast-forward 4,000 years to Stone Age China. We know that hemp was one of five major grains cultivated as a food crop.

The earliest recorded medical use of marijuana also hails from the East. Shennong Bencao Jing (The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica), a text dating back to 2737 BC, lists cannabis as one of 50 fundamental herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Mood, memory, inflammation, and constipation are just a few of the conditions it offers cannabis-based solutions for.(2)

Farther south, in India, a recipe for an herbal cannabis drink for rituals is mentioned in the 4,000-year-old Rig Veda.

Clearly, cannabis made the rounds in its indigenous landscape. Now let’s see how it branched out into the wider world.

A Siberian Maiden With Cancer Smoked Weed To Cope 2,500 Years Ago

In 1993, the mummified remains of a woman were discovered in the Altai Mountains of Eastern Russia near the China border.(3) At first, the elaborate blue tattoos that covered her body caught their attention.

Then they noticed something else: She was buried with marijuana.

The remains were found to be 2,500 years old, and it’s believed the woman was a shaman between the ages of 25 and 28. Although the grave was preserved in a block of ice, her organs had been removed, making it impossible to determine what caused the young maiden to die at a young age.

Finally, in 2014, MRI scans revealed a tumor in her right breast and other signs of breast cancer.

Archaeologist Natalya Polosmak described inhaling cannabis as a “necessity” to cope with her illness, as well as for spiritual purposes.(4)

Hemp-Infused Plaster Preserved The Ellora Caves For 1,500 Years

The Ellora Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site in India. This special place is made up of elaborate monasteries and temples constructed in the 6th century. Typically, structures this old would be crumbling, but much of the Ellora Caves remains in impeccable condition.

The secret? Hemp. When mixed into clay and lime plaster, hemp improves resiliency, acting as a preservative.(5)

This isn’t the first sign that hemp was used in infrastructure and industry, and it certainly won’t be the last. It was once used to waterproof boats in China and reinforce structures in Europe. Today, it’s being leveraged as a low-carbon building material.(6)

A Young Woman Inhaled Weed To Ease Labor Pain In The 4th Century

Just to be clear, smoking weed during childbirth isn’t something we’re condoning. But this story does give us a glimpse at how and when people in the 300s turned to cannabis.

In a family burial tomb near Jerusalem, the remains of a pregnant teenage female were found, along with ashes in a vessel.(7) Samples from the site were positive for THC.

The skeleton showed an underdeveloped pelvis, which probably led to complications that caused the girl to die in childbirth. Experts believe the weed was heated in the vessel by a midwife, then inhaled by the mother for pain relief.

We know now that smoking marijuana during pregnancy can have adverse effects.(8) But as far back as at least the fourth century, midwives far and wide knew that smoking marijuana could curb pain.

Marijuana Has Appeared In Religious Ceremonies Around The World Since Biblical Times

Cannabis carries an air of mysticism today, so it might not surprise you to hear that cultures have been integrating it into their religious practices since before the common era.(9) Cannabis rituals in Africa, the Himalayas, and Brazil are well known to anthropologists.

However, researchers were surprised to discover traces of CBD and THC on the altar of a Judahite shrine in Israel — the first known use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East. The shrine was used by the cult of Judah between 900-500 BCE.

It appears that each plant had a specific purpose in the ceremony. The cannabis had been ignited along with animal dung, which would have ensured a slow burn for a group to inhale, resulting in a collective hallucinogenic experience.

Old Plant, New Tricks

Pain reliever, nutrition, spiritual support — have you noticed some parallels between ancient applications and how we use cannabis today?

Thankfully, unlike our ancestors, we don’t have to harvest our own hemp, heat our weed in clay vessels, or mess with animal dung. We literally have a whole world of cannabis products at our fingertips, making it super easy and convenient for you to carry cannabis traditions into the future.



  1. (2020). The Early History of Cannabis and Hemp in Asia. CannaSafe.
  2. Lu, D, et al. (2017). Cannabinoids and the Cannabinoid Receptors: An Overview. Handbook of Cannabis and Related Pathologies.
  3. Mosbergen, D. (2017). Now We Know What Killed The Ancient 'Ice Princess,' And Why She Had That Marijuana. HuffPost.
  4. Polosmak, N. (2015). A Different Archaeology. Science First Hand.
  5. Rizwanullah, S. (2016). Hemp shielding Ellora caves from decay for 1,500 years: Study. The Times Of India.
  6. Brandon, E. (2021). A new building in France makes the case for hemp to replace concrete. Fast Company.
  7. (1993). Early Medical Use of Cannabis. Nature.
  8. (2020). Marijuana And Pregnancy. March Of Dimes.
  9. Rogers, K. (2020). Cannabis was used for religious rites at a biblical site in Israel, study finds. CNN.

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