A Brief History Of Hemp

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No other plant has propelled human history forward more so than the hemp plant.

old illustration of a hemp plant

“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” – Thomas Jefferson

For the past 10,000 years, humans have lived alongside hemp. It’s hard to imagine another plant with as long of a history humankind has had with hemp. One could even argue that no other plant has propelled human history forward more so than the hemp plant. Our deep reverence for the natural world is commonly reserved for our relationship with animals, especially for those whom we hold a close kinship with, like working dogs and horses. We often feel little connection with plants. But once you discover hemp’s incredible role in shaping human history, you may feel a stronger connection with the bountiful plant.

Hemp and the Agricultural Revolution

ancient pottery with evidence of hemp cord wrapped around it

The archeological discovery in modern-day Taiwan of an ancient pot made with hemp cord dating back to 8,000 BCE has pinpointed hemp as one of the first and oldest known agricultural crops. For perspective, human’s close relationship with hemp spans as far back as our relationship with dogs. One theory is that dogs were first domesticated by humans at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, around 10,000 years ago, when wolves began to scavenge the scrap heaps among the crops and human settlements. Likely, some of the first crops that enticed the wild dogs to cross the threshold between man and beast were those of hemp. The history of man’s best friend and nature’s greatest gift to man— hemp— are inextricably tied together.

The popular American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan proposed in his book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Origins of Human Intelligence that the human cultivation of Cannabis sativa, the scientific name for the hemp plant, led to the development of our civilization. That’s right; hemp cultivation may be the single most important contributor in advancing human civilizations— an amazing fact, indeed!

For millennia hemp has gifted us with its industrious fruits, helping ancient civilizations flourish into bustling, modern societies.

rope made of hemp

Throughout its long history, hemp has been used for food, medicine, religious ceremonies, textiles, paper, clothing, shoes, rope, jewelry, insulation, building material, biofuel, and as a water and soil purifier, among its many other uses. 

old illustration of hand-harvesting hemp
old photo of women hand-harvesting hemp

The Dark Days of Hemp

 

For such an extraordinary plant, the story of hemp hasn’t always been a pleasant one— most notably during the last century. At the hands of a few influential businessmen and politicians in the early 20th century, hemp was quickly transformed from one of the United States’ most lucrative and useful crops into the “devil’s weed” after the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was enacted, which effectively killed the hemp industry. In an effort to protect and promote their self-interests, the actions of a few (William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and the DuPont family are some names you may recognize), became the unfortunate catalyst for over half a century’s worth of widespread prejudice, mass incarceration, and the sustained vilification of a once-revered plant. After hemp’s sudden public perception shift, the plant fell out of favor for decades due to the laws that barred its cultivation and the stilted attitudes that kept it demonized and destined to live in the shadows. The fact that hemp was once an agricultural and economic cornerstone of American society, sadly, became almost entirely forgotten.

Thankfully, due to recent changing attitudes, updated laws, and discoveries on its potential to improve human health and solve some of the world’s most vexing environmental issues—hemp is back— in a big way. 

Hemp’s Spotlight Throughout Human History

Hemp has played a key role in many of history’s most important moments:

  • As far back as 8000 BCE, hemp fiber was found inside the tombs of ancient Turkey, indicating its use in textiles or as part of burial rituals.    
  • After the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450, widely considered to be the world’s most important invention, hemp paper was used to create the first printed versions of the Holy Bible, changing the course of history forever.
illustration of the gutenberg printing press
  • Hemp was used to craft the sails and cordage on the mighty ships that carried European explorers across the Atlantic to discover the New World. 
  • When the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 and wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, and later the US Constitution, the words that created the foundation of our nation were scribed onto hemp paper.
declaration of independence on hemp paper
  • As settlers began to cross the new world and head west in hopes for a better life, it was hemp that covered the wagons upon which they traveled hundreds of miles.                                                                                                                 
  •  
covered wagon made of hemp canvas
  • US presidents known to have farmed hemp: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce. 
  • In 1914, the US Federal Reserve printed a series of $10 bills made of hemp paper. President Andrew Jackson appeared on the front side of the bill. The image on the back? An illustration of farmers plowing a hemp field in Pennsylvania. For a small dose of irony: the 1914 series of $10 bills bear the signature of Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. Mellon would later be one of the key players that would effectively ban hemp cultivation in the US, due to his vested interest in replacing hemp with the new synthetic fiber, nylon.
1914 edition of the 10 dollar bill depicting farmers plowing a hemp field
  • Before The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made it illegal to produce hemp in the US, the automobile industry revolutionary Henry Ford envisioned a car manufactured and fueled entirely by hemp. In the 1930s, he began producing a prototype of his vision that had a durable body made of hemp-based plastic. By the time the prototype was completed in 1941, Ford’s dream had been quashed due to hemp’s new status as an illegal crop.
Henry Ford's hemp car prototype
  • During WWII, when supplies of raw materials were cut off by the Japanese, US farmers were temporarily allowed to reintroduce hemp crops to support the war effort by making uniforms, canvas, and rope.
WWII era poster that reads
  • In 1986, after the most disastrous nuclear meltdown the world had ever seen at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine, scientists began planting hemp around the waste site to reduce soil toxicity. Hemp has proven to be one of the most effective plants for phytoremediation, essentially acting as a vacuum cleaner that pulls out and absorbs toxic substances from the soil.
Chernobyl nuclear reactor site with hemp planted around it
  • In response to the HIV/ AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the US government opened the compassionate use program to allow terminally ill patients access to cannabis. In 1992, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the government closed the program, cutting off all access to government-issued cannabis. This led to the formation of the medical cannabis movement in the US, which continues to gain support to this day.  As of 2019, 33 states have legalized medical cannabis, and 11 allow recreational use.
  • In 1999, the US government filed a patent on CBD, a cannabinoid derived from hemp, for medicinal use as a neuroprotectant and antioxidant. The US Department of Health and Human Services was granted Patent No. 6,630,507 in 2003, making history as the first entity to own usage rights for certain parts of the cannabis plant.
US Patent 6,630,507
  • Hemp seed is considered to be one of nature’s most perfect foods, as it contains all of the essential amino acids and the perfect ratio of fatty acids necessary to maintain healthy human life. There is no other single plant source in existence that contains all of the essential life-sustaining nutrients in such an easily digestible form.
hemp seeds nature's most perfect food
  • Over 100 medications and counting are made from hemp. The first FDA-approved drug made from hemp is a cannabidiol based oral solution called Epidiolex, used for the treatment of two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Hemp and the Human Condition

After 10,000 years of living with hemp, it is safe to say that the plant has earned its way back as a hard-working servant to people all over the world. Whether it’s used to induce creativity, for medicinal purposes, or to help combat the environmental effects of a changing climate, one fact cannot be refuted— hemp and humankind continue to maintain a unique connection. In 1992, scientists discovered that humans contain receptors spread throughout the brain and body that interact perfectly with the cannabinoids contained within hemp, like a “lock and key” system. Nature’s perfect design has allowed humankind to experience the gifts of hemp for thousands of years. We’ve relied on the plant to feed, clothe, heal, and expand our understanding, and its gifts continue to grow as we discover new applications and uses for hemp. Just as man’s best friend moved from the caves into our family rooms, hemp has rightfully earned a trusted place into our collective hearts and homes.

hands holding hemp seeds in the shape of a heart