Cannabliss - A potted history of hemp and its many uses.
Hemp: The most helpful plant in history
Could this ancient plant help us create a happier, healthier and greener world?
For as long as humans have walked the planet, we’ve had a unique partnership with a very special plant. Hemp has been widely used, from food to farming to fuel - and just about everything in between. Ancient civilisations worshipped it, used it for healing, ate and drank it, built housing and shelter with it, and used it to create materials that shaped the world we have today. Hemp can feed us, clothe us, house us and heal us - and our environment too.
The ecological crisis needs our urgent attention, and hemp has some big environmental advantages. It absorbs CO2 faster than trees. It grows in infertile soils and pulls toxins from the land. It scrubs CO2 from the air we breathe. And even while growing, it returns about 70% of its nutrients back to the soil.
It’s nature’s gift that just keeps giving...and giving...and giving...
This essential ancient plant with a multitude of uses could be the answer to some of today’s world challenges. So this month, we wanted to shine a light on hemp: the most helpful plant in history.
The long read
In ancient India, around 2000 BCE, hemp was burned during Vedic rituals. It was believed the plant would help overcome enemies and evil forces. On the other side of the world, in Central America, the Mayans used this same sacred plant to communicate with the Gods. Hemp’s mysticism has been at the core of human culture as civilizations have evolved through the ages.
It wasn’t just the ancient Vedics and Mayans using the hemp plant in sacred rituals. From countries throughout Asia, to small islands in the Caribbean, hemp has played an integral role in spiritual and religious ceremonies.
Hemp is an important plant in the mythology of Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto; where it’s considered a symbol of purity. The Shinto belief system was centred around essential goodness, and this was embodied throughout the culture. Hemp was celebrated symbolically, and all parts of the plant were used including the leaves, which were burnt as an ‘invitation to the spirits’.
In Rastafarian culture, the hemp plant is highly regarded and is used in various ceremonies. The smoke from cannabis and hemp is believed to rid negative energies, heighten consciousness and enhance a sense of peace and community.
Hemp was one of the ingredients in religious incense in Mesopotamia around 1000-500 BCE. It was traded with Egypt and Judaea, proving to be a popular commodity of the time. Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian cultures used hemp in religious ceremonies, as well as in medical practices, making good use of the plant’s healing properties.
Some of the benefits of medical cannabis are hitting the headlines right now, but the hemp plant has actually been used therapeutically for millennia. Ancient medical texts from the Egyptians to the Babylonians show a multitude of hemp-based elixirs and remedies.
Hemp was widely used in the Roman Empire, treating a variety of ailments, including burns and cuts, inflammations, tumours, gastro-intestinal issues, eye conditions, muscle aches and tremors. It was also used to treat illnesses in domesticated farm animals.
Throughout the middle ages hemp was a key ingredient in the medicine box for apothecaries, herbalists and healers, who made plant-based concoctions to treat the ailments of the time. And this continued into modern history where Victorian doctor, Sir J. Russell Reynolds wrote in the 1890s that the plant was one of the most valuable medicines we possess.
Today, the medical benefits of the hemp plant are being explored once again. Cannabinoids has been growing in popularity over the last decade, helping to soothe the symptoms of pain and inflammation across a variety of conditions including gastro-intestinal illnesses like Crohn’s, epilepsy, glaucoma and many more. As our understanding of the human endocannabinoid system grows, perhaps we’ll see even more hemp-based medicines in years to come.
Hemp for nutrition
Prevention is better than cure, so having a balanced and nutritious diet is a good place to start when it comes to wellness. Eating foods rich in fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients help to heal and nourish us from the inside. The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ rings more true today than ever, which has led many to explore the plant kingdom for healthy sources of nutrition, and meat and dairy alternatives. We’re seeing hemp crop up in everything from milk to burgers at the moment, but our generation weren’t the first ones at it.
Hemp has been used throughout history in food and agriculture. In fact, if you were a farmer during the Tudor times, hemp cultivationwas the law of the land. Queen Elizabeth I decreed that landowners with 60 acres or more must grow the plant or they would be fined.
But it was ancient civilisations that first saw the nutritional benefit of hemp. In China in around 4000 BCE, hemp was a major food crop and was considered one of the ‘five grains’. And it’s easy to see why as hemp is packed full of nutrients, and is high in protein and fibre. Hemp seeds contain two essential fatty acids, Omega-6 and Omega 3, as well as amino acids, vitamin E, and essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc.
In Rastafarian culture, a plant-based diet forms part of the belief system, choosing to eat foods grown from the earth - and this includes hemp and cannabis. It’s believed that the plant can heal people spiritually, mentally and physically.
But it isn’t just us humans that can be nourished by hemp. Animals can too. Before prohibition, hemp used to grow freely all around North America and animals would graze on it. As the law changed, the plants were largely eliminated from the landscape under federal prohibition. But as the legal status changes at a rapid pace, traditional agriculture is beginning to turn to hemp once again, supplementing the diets of livestock to increase health and weight, and to boost profits too.
Hemp isn’t just a source of healing and nutrition. You can also make stuff with it too. As one of the most durable materials, hemp’s fibres can be spun into fabrics to make clothes and shoes, and pulp to make paper.
Archaeologists found a remnant of hemp cloth in ancient Mesopotamia in the Middle East that dates back to 8,000 BC. Hemp has been used as a textile for clothing and footwear ever since, and even today, innovators are exploring the potential of hemp as a sustainable alternative to cotton and manmade fabrics. From big name brands like Patagonia, to countless independent retailers, the use of more sustainable materials and fabrics is gaining momentum. Maybe we could even see an entire hemp fashion industry in the future.
Hemp’s fibres aren’t just useful for clothing; they can be used to make paper too. And there are some great environmental benefits: an acre of hemp can produce as much paper as up to ten acres of trees over a 20-year cycle. And it’s much more durable than paper made from trees. It’s no surprise therefore that hemp is being championed as a more economically efficient alternative to our current paper production process.
Hemp has been used to make paper for millennia. It’s believed the Chinese were the first to do it in approximately 150 BC. The oldest known documents are Buddhist texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
It’s been used for countless important documents throughout history; and it was even rumoured that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper, but this is only partially true. The drafts were written on paper material made from hemp and flax, but the final document was transferred to Vellum parchment.
Industrial and environmental hemp
It’s not just our clothing or paper industries that can benefit from hemp; it’s becoming a popular building material too. Hempcrete is a composite made of hemp and lime which creates a natural concrete that is very lightweight and durable. Hemp is useful because it’s an insulator, it's fireproof, pest-resistant and also absorbs water vapour, which reduces mould and damp. It could even reduce ahome’s energy consumption.
Hemp’s uses don’t end there though. An ultra-low carbon footprint sports car has been built using hemp. But it was in fact Henry Ford that first manufactured a car from hemp almost 75 years ago. Ford’s hemp-based vehicles were four times greener than today’s electric vehicles as they used carbon-negative hemp for every possible component, offsetting the other components. And as if that wasn’t enough, hemp could also be used to fuel the vehicles. The popular Ford Model T ran on hemp-based fuel much greener than gasoline.
When it comes to biofuel, it’s not only for fuelling our vehicles. Petrochemicals are extensively used in plastics: one of our biggest environmental challenges to solve. Hemp bioplastic is recyclable, biodegradable and toxin-free. And the manufacture of hemp plastic also produces up to 80% fewer emissions than traditional plastics.
It’s not just hemp’s low emissions that are piquing the interests of scientists all over the world. Hemp has the amazing ability to detoxify land. In 2009, an experiment began near the nuclear site at Chernobyl. Scientists from Belarus used hemp to detoxify the land, with remarkable results. One of hemp’s unique qualities is it can pull foreign contaminants and heavy metals from polluted soil, which gives the plant exciting potential to help heal our planet from the damage caused by agricultural chemicals, radiation and plastics.
Hemp is one of oldest and most versatile plants on Earth. As caretakers of the planet, perhaps we’ll once again utilise this ancient plant for a cleaner, greener and better future.
Ancient civilisations were early pioneers of showing gratitude for nature with ceremonies to worship plants. As April 20 marks the modern day celebration of hemp and cannabis, perhaps this year we should express some extra gratitude to the plant that we love, and that loves us back in so many ways.