The Reason WHY people cultivate cannabis and have incorporated the plant into their material culture is a mystery linked to our inquisitive nature as human beings. As humans evolved so we learnt how to adapt; either ourselves towards plants, or plants towards ourselves, so that a balance between ourselves and nature could peacefully co-exist. Throughout all periods of history Cannabis has accompanied communities of people on their journey through the world. Gradually as humans became domesticated, so they slowly domesticated cannabis as an annual crop that they could exploit and harvest to its full potential.
Origins of Cultivation
It is estimated that People first domesticated plants from wild cultigens during the late/new Stone Age or Neolithic Period approximately 30,000 – 20,000 years ago. The exact origins of Cannabis Cultivation are however unexplained by archaeology; mainly because material evidence to support the cultivation of crops by the earliest proto-farming communities is limited.
It is however excepted that that as / when people began to settle in one location, as opposed to leading a hunter-gathering lifestyle, that they domesticated certain plant species from the wild. Alongside barley, rice, emmer, einkorn, and wheat, cannabis sativa was cultivated by several sedentary communities for its textile, fuel, nutritional, and shamanic properties – as well as being a reliable source of fodder (feed) for the then recently domesticated goat/sheep and cattle.
As these proto-farming communities traveled from valley to valley , area to area, in search new agricultural land to borrow, the seeds of their cultivation became feral and then wild again in the following seasons. Cannabis had cunningly tricked people into being another one of its many methods of seed dispersal.
Seed Dispersal is the means via which annual species of plants naturally propagate. Seeds can be dispersed in a number of ways. In Cannabis the primary method of seed dispersal is via the elements of weather (wind, rain, frost, and snowfall). As seeds ripen they naturally fall to the ground, where rainfall, even if minor, will lodge the seed into a comfortable position to settle down and overwinter in.
The secondary method of seed dispersal in cannabis is animal. Several species of bird and mammal will happily feed on cannabis seed, flowers, and stalks. Whilst in a hungry hurry to gobble down as many seeds or flowers as possible, some seeds may not be cracked by the birds beak or teeth of cows. These whole seeds are indigestible and are deposited later in a new location by the bird or beast.
Thirdly humans have purposely collected the seeds of cannabis and carefully saved them to eat or cultivate the following season. People soon discovered that seeds of good parents grew into good plants with good seeds. By selecting the most desirable genetic characteristics in each season, proto-farmers where unknowingly the first cannabis breeders. Cannabis had evolved to such a pinnacle in its evolution that it could now add humans to its list of methods of seed dispersal.
Cannabis – sativa and indica
Geographically, as yet, there is no determinable way of telling if cannabis moved up-hill or down-hill in its progression – by elements of weather, bird, beast, or people. What is known is that Cannabis populated new ecological niches and specific geographical locations which where suited toward its growth or cultivation which allowed the plant to evolve.
Typically Cannabis indica plants come from highland altitudes, they grow shorter and smaller than there sativa cousins from the more heavily populated lowlands which grow taller and bigger. To date no-one knows if these specific differences were natural or the result of domestication. Traditionally Cannabis indica is (in the majority) cultivated in many regions where varieties of Cannabis sativa often grow feral in the same location. In contrast however, within tropical regions where Cannabis sativa is cultivated feral populations of Cannabis indica are often absent from the botanical record.
This circumstantial evidence suggests that Cannabis sativa was first domesticated in the settled lowlands and cultivated towards a standard of plant that could later be cultivated more easily in the exposed uplands. In which case Cannabis indica was selectively bred towards the fastest seed-baring plants, which finished before the onset of winter frosts. This then allowed a new species of Cannabis (now called Cannabis indica) to evolve and develop its own identity in the mountains.
Early methods of farming were a case of trial and error or seeing what worked in that location. In this respect little has changed between prehistoric and modern day methods of farming. The point of interest for the archaeobotanist is the moment of transition from collecting seeds (as foodstuffs) from wild plants and collecting seeds from plants that had been purposely cultivated the previous season.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that hunter-gathering communities were “managing” the wild landscape and its natural resources prior to the complete domestication of such plant species. We know this because of the remains of slashand-burn methods of farming, from early forestry and the remains of early livestock grazing, which all support this theory. At some magical moment in the development of the neolithic hunter-gather, either some seeds were spilt and observed in location the following season, or perhaps an elder member of the community who could no longer forage over long distances planted some seeds they’d collected at home. As a result a new society of agrarian communities slowly developed into what we understand today as “farming”.
The presence of sheep/goat where important to proto-farming communities for several reasons. Primarily cattle were used to graze areas of scrub-land into forest clearings, which once tilled made ideal farm land. The other reason cattle were important was for the manure they produced, which when scattered on the land
provided a rich source of nutrients for mono-crops. As these animals escaped their captives and compounds, they deposited the seeds of their last eaten meals in new locations, thus further aiding seed dispersal and feral populations of cannabis.
A feral plant is a species that has reverted back to a semi-wild state following a period of domestication. Alternatively a domesticated plant is a wild species that has been maintained and managed by people. It is possible that early farming communities managed cannabis in its wild-state, removing female or male plants from wild populations – with the intention of isolating male plants for use in textiles and rope-making and isolating female plants for the production of essential oils and seeds.
The feral nature of Cannabis, to revert back to a semi-wild state, arguably demonstrates that landrace species of cannabis although semi-domesticated, aren’t
too distant from their truly wild cousins. Much debate surrounding the existence of wild and feral species of cananbis in nature however continues.
Cannabis naturally sheds its seeds in autumn. When left to its own devices these seeds fall to the ground and grow in situ the following season. At the point when these seeds were collected and safely stored and sown out the following season to an organized system of planting, then cannabis was domesticated.
The domestication of species including cannabis allowed communities of people and populations of plants to exist beyond their natural range. Many valleys and hill-tops where reclaimed from nature during this period as woodland fell to axe and fire – new pastures where opened out as arable farmland and cannabis found its niche – often on the edges of urban environments.
Many proto-farming communities did not completely abandon their hunter-gathering traditions and opted for a semi-nomadic lifestyle instead. As the neolithic period unfolded societies slowly became more sedentary with the addition of permanent housing, managed fields, law, order, and religion as we understand it today. Religious movements particularly helped to distribute the seeds of many crops including Cannabis into some of the most remote regions of the world during this time – wild savage places including the UK.
Today cannabis sativa can be used to produce cordage, rope, cloth, and paper. We know our ancestors cultivated cannabis for the purpose of textiles, because some archaeological evidence survives. In the majority of cases however because cannabis is a plant material much evidence of its everyday use during the Neolithic period does not survive the archaeological record. In this case, then anthropology looks towards present day examples where credible correlation can be drawn between theory and practice.
Prior to the invention of synthetic fibers, then hemp fiber procured from cannabis sativa was the strongest and most reliable textile material available to make ropes from for sailing and building. It is quite possible that many megalithic monuments, including the Pyramids and