History of Hemp Around the World
Industrial hemp is one of the oldest and most versatile plants on earth. Hemp has an extremely long history and has been used for thousands of years across the globe by many people and civilizations since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution.The cultivation of hemp had enormous economical impact on the world for thousands of years, and is once again becoming a major crop in many countries.
Ancient Hemp History
Experts believe that hemp was one of the first plants to be cultivated. Archaeologists have found hemp cord or rope impressed on pottery. This pottery dates back to 8,000 BCE and was discovered in present day China and Taiwan. During the same time period hemp was used in Mesopotamia for cloth. The ancient hemp cloth discovered in modern day Iraq and surrounding areas shows that hemp was most likely the first crop to be cultivated to be used for fiber. These ancient civilizations also used hemp seed for food. In ancient Chinese writings cannabis hemp is recorded as one of the six main crops that people planted and one of the five “grain” crops used for food. Historical records from the Zhou Dynasty (1100 to 256 BCE) describe hemp cultivation for fiber and seed and go into detail about how growing hemp helps fertilize the soil.
The spread of hemp shows how early trade was conducted across the ancient world. Between 2000 BCE and 800 BCE hemp made its way from China and the Middle East to modern day Korea, Japan, India, and Egypt. Evidence of the hemp plant can be found throughout this area. One of the ancient Hindu texts, the Atharvaveda lists the cannabis hemp plant as one of the five holy plants and referred to it as the “Sacred Grass.” Hemp cloth was also discovered in one of the tombs of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh as well.
By 200 BCE Hemp was being traded across Asia, Northern Africa, and the Mediterrean. Hemp was brought to Germany in 800 BCE via the trading route called The Silk Road. From there it spread across Europe and quickly became popular for fiber and food. In 200 BCE, Ancient Greeks wrote about additional uses of the hemp plant. These ancient historians were one of the first to document the healing properties of the cannabis hemp plant.
Ancient China was the first civilization to use hemp for paper. Hemp paper dates back to 200 BCE. This use for hemp quickly spread across the Asian continent and was used for Buddhists texts, medical journals, and recording history. Historical records also show that the hemp plant was used for medicinal and fiber across the Asian continent as well. It is believed that ancient Samurai armour was partially made out of hemp fiber due to its strength and durability.
In the 1st - 5th centuries, hemp continued to spread across the European and Asian continents. It was most often used for medicinal purposes and for food, rope, cloth, paper, and cordage.
Trade and Exploration in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages hemp became an extremely important crop. Hemp cultivation had enormous economic and social impact on the world during this time. Hemp provided much of the world’s fiber and food supply, and sailing ships became dependent on hemp-derived canvas and rope which was more durable and salt resistant than cotton. The word canvas comes from the word cannabis and was vital to the ships, governments, and merchants. Through trade and exploration hemp eventually made its to sub-Saharan Africa and North and South America as well. In the 1500’s Portuguese explorers found that the Bantu people of Southern Africa had been using hemp for over 500 years.
Christopher Columbus used hemp sails and ropes when he left Spain to explore the New World. He helped introduce hemp and hemp seed to the Carribean and surrounding areas. Many experts believe though that even earlier explorers, including the Phoniecians who explored this area in 531 BCE, used hemp canvas sails and were most likely the first ones to introduce hemp to the New World. There is even evidence that many Indigenous groups in Central and South America used hemp fiber for nets, ropes, mats, and fabric before Columbus’ arrival in the New World.
Modern Hemp History
Hemp has a long history in North America as well. W.H. Holmes, an ethnologist from the Smithsonian Institute has confirmed that the Vikings brought hemp to North America before the Jamestown settlers and the Pilgrims arrived in the early 17th century. In fact, in his writings, explorer Jacques Cartier, described hemp growing prolifically across North America in the 16th century.
Hemp continued to be one of the most important crops across the world during the 16-19th centuries. It was grown throughout Asia and Europe and the European colonies. In 1535 the King of England, Henry VII, passed an act calling for all farmers to grow hemp in order to supply much needed fiber and food. These farmers were required to grow ¼ acre of hemp on their land or face a fine. In Canada hemp was grown in the 1600s during the French regime and was the first crop to be subsidized by the government. Some historians believe that Australia was established in the 1700s as a hemp colony to produce fiber. Sir Joseph Banks supplied hemp seed to the First Fleet in Australia and free seed was given to the settlers by early Governors to encourage hemp cultivation.
The cultivation of hemp continued to provide economic benefits to many countries for hundreds of years. Up until the early 20th century, it was one of the most important and wide-spread crops grown throughout the world. In the 1930s however, many industrial giants in the United States became invested in the new petroleum based plastic products and synthetic textiles. These businessmen saw hemp as a threat to both their new businesses and to their timber and paper industries. They successfully lobbied the US government to pass extremely prohibitive tax laws against hemp producers and manufacturers which virtually eliminated the hemp industry in America. Because hemp was not excluded from the cannabis narcotic laws, hemp eventually became illegal in the US. Many countries such as Canada and Australia followed the lead of America and completely banned hemp production and sale as well.
Modern Hemp Cultivation Across the Globe
Despite being banned in many countries. hemp continued to be cultivated by countries such as China, Italy, France, Chile, Russia, and other Eastern Block and Scandanvian countries that did not succumb to American pressure in the 1930s. These countries did reduce their rate of hemp production but continued to cultivate and export hemp throughout the 20th century.
In the early 2000s hemp returned to Australia and Canada. It is now legal to cultivate hemp in all their territories and provinces. Many other countries are following in their footsteps and legalizing hemp cultivation once again. In December 2018 the United States legalized the production and transportation of hemp for manufacturing purposes.
China is currently the world’s largest producer of industrial hemp. In 2018 they produced, processed, and manufactured 70% of the world’s hemp. France, Chile, North Korea, and several Eastern European countries are cultivating the remaining 30% of the global hemp production. Hemp production is a huge industry in China and is spreading throughout Asia as hemp and cannabis regulations change.
Experts believe that industrial hemp production will continue to have a major economic role in Asia for many years to come. China’s hemp textile industry is booming as people become more environmentally aware and re-familiarize themselves with hemp fabric. Hemp-derived CBD health and beauty products are also quickly exploding in popularity across Asia, especially in South Korea. Because South Korea is one of the trend setting nations for this region, it is expected that CBD cosmetics and health products will rapidly gain in popularity throughout Asia and will create a significant market for these products.
Industrial hemp has been cultivated around the world for over 10,000 years. Ancient civilizations were the first people to discover the amazing benefits and uses of hemp. Historical records and archaeologists can trace the use of hemp throughout the ancient and modern world and hashad a vast impact on trade, exploration, farming, and manufacturing. Hemp has been used for fiber, medicine, and food for centuries and has had a major economic and social role throughout history. With the revitalization of the global hemp industry, many experts believe that industrial hemp will have a major economic global impact for many years to come.