The Long and Complicated History of Harvesting Cannabis

Written by BlackbirdGo November 7, 2018
The History

Fall is here. No matter what part of the country you live in, you can feel it. Pumpkin-flavored everything is being served up all around, the leaves have changed color, and there’s a deepening crisp in the air. For cannabis consumers, it all means one thing: harvest season.

Now that cannabis is legal in California and Nevada, residents are able to enjoy easy access to safe, lab-tested cannabis that’s been grown in a quality-controlled facility. But have you ever wondered what cannabis cultivation used to be like? After all, this plant’s use stretches back thousands of years—long before the invention of grow tents and LED lights that mimic the sun. Today we’re going to answer all your questions by tracing the roots of human cannabis use and cultivation!

One of The World's Oldest Cultivated Plants

Believe it or not, cannabis used to grow wild in many parts of the world, and it continues to grow wild in many regions. Cannabis is believed to have originated in the dry regions of the Himalayan Mountains across Central Asia. The climate in that region is cooler due to the elevation, so cannabis varieties that grow stout and flower quickly (primarily indicas) thrived there. Some researchers believe cannabis was present 12,000 years ago, sometime around 10,000 BCE (Before Common Era).

The earliest known deliberate human cultivation of cannabis began in China over 7,000 years ago, around the year 5000 BCE. The plant was used for its fibers, but cannabis also became a source of medicine for those seeking relief from pain and other afflictions. From China, cannabis spread far and wide. It reached Korea around 2000 BCE, the Middle East around 1400 BCE, and India around 1000 BCE.

To Europe and Back Again

From Asia, the plant naturally made its way west into Europe. Researchers believe that the cannabis plant spread across much of Europe’s dry grasslands sometime approximately 9,000 years ago, or around the year 7000 BCE. This spread of wild cannabis occurred without human help—humans had not yet learned to deliberately cultivate plants—and likely originated in China, given that cannabis had not yet reached India or the Middle East at that point.

By the time Europe’s first farmers came around, cannabis had more or less disappeared due to changing climates there. However, cannabis was brought back to Europe during the Bronze Age, and it’s suspected that farmers began to cultivate the plant during that time (circa 3000 BCE to 1200 BCE). Farmers most likely grew the plant for its use in textile manufacturing, but some experts believe it may have also been used as medicine and recreationally as an intoxicant since alcohol was not very prevalent yet.

Cannabis Hits the Western World

Cannabis first reached the Western Hemisphere sometime around the 17th century CE (Current Era)—several thousand years after the plant first spread outside of China. Its exact date of entry to the Americas is debated, but its arrival is deeply problematic.

According to one geographical expert, hemp was widely grown in the American colonies for fiber, but cannabis was not. Smokable cannabis was first brought overseas by white slave traders and used to pacify the people they held in captivity. Cannabis is believed to have been brought to Brazil by Portuguese slave traders and to Jamaica by the British. It didn’t reach the mainland United States until after the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.

What Are the Oldest Strains in the World?

Today there are thousands of cannabis phenotypes, or strains, available at dispensaries around the world. Most of those strains are the result of cross-breeding and plant experimentation, but it all started with a small handful of indigenous strains. Those original strains are called landrace strains, and they’re typically named after the regions in which they grew wild or were cultivated early on. Excluding strains native to Central Asia, most landrace strains were transported by humans and eventually adapted to their new climates around the globe.

Some of the oldest strains in the world most likely hail from the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the famous indica strains Hindu Kush and Afghani Kush.

As cannabis plants adapted to warmer, sunnier environments, sativas became more prevalent. Sativas require a longer flowering period, and they evolved to grow in warmer climates. As a result, sativa phenotypes did not need to be as compact as indicas, which had evolved in colder, harsher environments in the Himalayas.

In Southeast Asia, landrace strains like Thai and Chocolate Thai are common (both sativas).

Landrace strains from the African continent primarily include sativa strains like Durban Poison and Malawi.

In the Western Hemisphere, sativas continued to be the dominant varietal that was best suited to the warm climate. Lamb’s Breath is a landrace strain that comes from Jamaica. Columbia Gold and Panama Red are both sativa strains that took root in Central America and South America. Acapulco Gold is believed to have originated in Mexico.

There are most likely no “true” landrace strains remaining, as they’ve since become interbred with domesticated cannabis strains over many generations. Growers select certain strains for their pest resilience, crop yield, and psychotropic properties, and as time has gone on those strains have been endlessly crossed and back-crossed with other strains. Even “feral” cannabis plants growing in the wild have likely been crossed with other cannabis phenotypes.

How Was Cannabis Consumed Through the Ages?

It’s generally believed that the earliest uses of cannabis were for medical purposes. However, it quickly became a tool used by religious practitioners in many parts of the world. For example, Hindu ascetics have long roamed the mountains of India smoking hash to commune with the deity Shiva. These religious hermits consume charas, a type of hash that’s made by handling the fresh buds of a cannabis plant and collecting the resin off of the fingers and palms into one large, gooey ball. Charas hash has a long and well-documented history in India. Some cannabis historians believe charas hash production predates written records of cannabis, possibly even predating traditional hash production around the world.

Smokable flower also has a long history. Burned cannabis seeds have been found in China dating back to 2500 BCE. In Siberia, burned seeds have been found from as far back as 3000 BCE. Many early cultures are thought to have used cannabis for spiritual/ritualistic purposes; some ancient tombs even contain cannabis that has been preserved with the mummified bodies inside.

As time progressed, humans developed increasingly intricate methods of extraction and preparation. Today, it’s possible to consume cannabis concentrates with a vape pen and a USB charger, but it’s worth remembering the long and intricate history cannabis has had within human civilization.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.