A Brief History Of Hemp & What It’s Been Used For

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A History Of Hemp

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A History Of Hemp

Recent archeological finds have suggested that humans have been using hemp for almost 30,000 years. It’s a staggering figure which indicates that our complicated relationship with this amazing plant may even predate assumptions on the age of what we’d recognise as organised agriculture.

So why, after all these millennia do we still get so uptight about hemp? After all, if it was good enough for our cave-dwelling ancestors then it must be good enough for us, right?

Whisper it gently but there has actually been considerable progress towards rationalising our relationship with hemp over the last couple of decades.

Medical marijuana and the widespread use of CBD derivatives have made a big difference – so much so that more enlightened parts of the globe are decriminalising even recreational use. All this is good, progressive news – and there’s a huge range of applications for hemp materials that we can continue to use in this day and age.

Here’s a lowdown on some of the best.

1) Food

Hemp In Food

Hemp provides a natural source of protein, magnesium, zinc, iron and potassium.

Hemp has historically been highly valued as a foodstuff. Sure, our ancestors may not have known the extent of its nutritional value but regardless – it’s a truly fantastic health food.

A growing number of food companies have been spearheading a renaissance in the use of hemp. These may not be especially mainstream yet but hemp milk, oils, dairy substitutes, and selected seeds are increasing in popularity.

Not without good reason either. Hemp is a fantastic natural source of protein, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium and assorted other essential vitamins and minerals.

It’s also a great vegetarian source of Omega 3 and 6. Easy to prepare (you can cook it pretty much any way under the sun) with great shelf life and a superbly bountiful crop, hemp is projected to make a big comeback to the kitchen over coming years.

2) Rope

Hemp Rope

Historically, hemp was widely used to manufacture durable rope.

The Romans, Greeks, and Vikings extensively used hemp ropes for their legendary fleets. Still used in some applications today, hemp rope is naturally strong and resilient to decay.

While no style of rope is entirely invincible when it comes to seawater decay, not many come close to hemp which is why it remained popular for around 2000 years.

Even better, hemp rope is extremely cost-effective and surprisingly light for its strength. Such factors made it popular with shipbuilders and quartermasters for so long!

These days, there are huge possibilities for the use of hemp rope, especially in developing regions where wire reinforced cables are too expensive or impractical.

3) Clothing

Hemp Fibres For Clothing

Archaeologists have argued that hemp may have been one of the first plants harvested for textile fibre.

A growing proportion of the archeological community is beginning to agree that hemp was quite possibly the first material used for textile clothing.

Artefacts have been unearthed in the Middle East and Far East dating over 10,000 years old. This may suggest that the transition from animal pelts to textiles used hemp as a ‘stepping stone’ which soon became ingrained in regional cultures.

The Chinese provide the best evidence for the use of lightweight, absorbent and durable hemp in clothing. Artefacts have pointed to the use being widespread and spanning many hundreds if not thousands of years.

Thanks to being so cheap and easy to produce, hemp was used across the world as a straightforward alternative to the far more expensive cotton crops.

It took until the nineteenth century for cotton to be able to rival hemp for use in clothing – a remarkable finding that once more has been long lost to history.

4) Paper – But Not As We Know It!

Hemp Paper In China

Again, we have the Chinese to thank for inventing hemp paper – or more accurately, hemp tablets that could be used for writing.

The only viable alternative was incredibly expensive silks, and so closely was this secret kept that it took hundreds of years for the Japanese, and then the Arabic countries to finally uncover.

Over time, these processes evolved into what we would today recognise as a style of paper. Cheaper than wood and without the ecological and environmental damage, perhaps one day we will see a return to hemp being used for this purpose.

5) Religious & Cultural Symbolism

Cannabis In Ancient Cultures & Religions

Cannabis/Hemp has been used in many (mostly ancient) religious ceremonies for centuries.

Proponents of the marijuana plant often mention the incredibly varied religious, spiritual and cultural applications to which their favourite plant has been applied.

From India to Tibet and of course modern day Rastafarianism, the hemp plant has played a pivotal role in both formal ceremonies and for personal use.

Quite how important the psychoactive element may have been considered is long lost to history, but once again archeological evidence from ancient monasteries and religious compounds indicates that its use was frequent, and in considerable quantities.

Besides Rastafarianism, the use for hemp in this style is not so common these days, but there are of course many communities to continue to espouse the ‘free love’ symbolism of the 1960s. Perhaps in the future hemp will be used again in such a style.

Final Thoughts

These are just five examples of where and how hemp has been used throughout history, and of course where it may yet make a comeback!

Regardless of how you look at it, the criminalisation and scaremongering that surrounds this most versatile and fascinating plant seems so bizarre when placed into such a context.

Hemp is without question one of the most universally useful plants nature has bestowed on us, so it seems crazy not to make the best use of it today.

Thomas Jones MSc

I’m Thomas Jones. I graduated from The University of Aberdeen in 2016 with an MSc in Industrial Biotechnology. I’m currently reading for a PhD at The University of Glasgow. I started using CBD in 2017 as a result of finding it in my local vape shop. My experiences in using these products inspired me to undertake my current doctoral research. You can find out more about me and this site here.