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The HISTORY OF Cannabis sativa

The history of Cannabis sativa

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Family: Cannabaceae 

Scientific name: Cannabis sativa

Authority: L.

Common names: igudu, insangu, uhungu, umthunzi wezinkukhu (Zulu) dagga, fragrant weed, gallow grass, grass, hemp, marujuana, weed (English) blaardak, blaargewelf, dwaalbos (Afrikaans)


Cannabis sativa L. (C. sativa) also known as hemp, is a herbaceous annual plant that is cultivated as a source of fibres, food, oil, and medicine as well as for recreational and religious purposes. It contains a number of chemically active compounds, such as cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and alkaloids. The most active compound being cannabinoids. So far, over 100 cannabinoids have been identified, the most potent being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (D9-THC), which is mainly responsible for Cannabis’ psychoactive effects. There are different varieties of C. sativa which contain varying amounts of D9-THC. For example, the varieties used for  manufacturing of fish nets, strings, ropes, textiles, and paper have a low amount of D9-THC. While the varieties that are used as a medicine and recreational drug have a higher amount of D9-THC. In most countries, the cultivation and use of C. sativa with high levels of D9-THC is illegal. Although it is illegal in many places, it has been legalized in South Africa and some states in the USA for personal or medicinal use.

The origin

It has been proposed that the origin of C. sativa might be Central Asia and South-East Asia. And it is believed that the primary domestication of C. sativa in these regions might have played a pivotal role in its evolution. The first humans who adopted a more sedentary lifestyle started the cultivation of C. sativa. These were also some of the earliest cultivators of different species of plants that were grown to obtain: high nutrition foods, strong fibres, and medicinal and euphoric drugs. 

In fact, C. sativa is considered to be amongst the world’s oldest cultivated plants that were used mainly for fibre and medicine. 

The historic use

The use of C. sativa coincided with the progress of the first human societies in the changes that occurred after the Ice Age (The Pleistocene epoch). The oldest archaeological evidence of C. sativa use is perhaps the Palaeolithic sites of Moravia in the Czech Republic which show the various techniques that were used to enable the production of sophisticated woven materials, interlaced with basketry or textile based on C. sativa

The Neolithic archaeology of Taiwan suggests that C. sativa was first domesticated and used 12,000 years ago. It is believed that this discovery played an integral role in the early rope and textile manufacturing industry. 

The use of C. sativa as medicine dates back to about 5,000 years ago during the Chen dynasty in China. The Chinese emperor Chen Nung, considered as one of the founding fathers of Chinese traditional medicine, compiled the first Chinese pharmacopeia that listed the uses of Cannabis. According to this ancient text, C. sativa was prescribed for fatigue, malaria, and rheumatism. Other ancient texts that reported on the use of C. sativa include the Assyrian clay tablets and the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus. 

Throughout the centuries, C. sativa has also been recognized as a sacred plant by different religions. The plant has been used to facilitate meditation and communication with spirits. There are a few theories regarding the origin use of Cannabis for its psychoactive effects, i.e., recreational, religious, and spiritual use. American researchers theorize that, perhaps, the accidental burning of the Cannabis plant led to the discovery of its psychoactive effects. The other theory comes from Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna, a Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, who is well-known for his research of ayahuasca. In the 1980s, Luna reported how a group of shamans from Iquitos in Peru considered medicinal plants. They used the psychoactive drink, ayahuasca, that is based on Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, during shamanic rites. The two plants used were considered “teachers” because the shamans (through fasting and other practices) could heal the diseases using them. This theory has been debated by scholars around the world. 

Current use in South African traditional medicine:

The historic use of Cannabis in Africa is undocumented and very little is known about how Cannabis arrived in Africa. Since the various forms of C. sativa were known to medieval Europe. It could be that C. sativa arrived in Africa with the European colonists to be used to make fibres. Today, C. sativa is used in South Africa as follows:

  • It is mixed with the root of Acokanthera oblongifolia / Acokanthera oppositifolia (inhlungunyembe) the mixture is gargled to relieve toothache.
  • with the bark of Warburgia salutaris (isibhaha) the mixture is smoked to treat dry cough. 
  • It is mixed with the male bud of the banana plant to treat asthma.
  • It is used in a baking mixture to make dagga cakes or space cookies. 
  • It is prepared with milk to treat shortness of breath (iphika).
  • It is mixed with mealie-pap or bread and administered to children during weaning.  
  • It is mixed with Acorus calamus (ikalamuzi) to mask the smell.  
  • It is smoked by women during childbirth to stupefy themselves. 
  • It is smoked for recreational purposes and relaxation. 
  • It is smoked to induce a feeling of spirituality.
  • It is smoked to lose weight.
  • It is used in a mixture that is administered as an emetic to get rid of idliso
  • It is used to make a decoction that is administered as an emetic to treat chest complaints.
  • It is to make a decoction that is administered as an emetic to lower high blood pressure. 
  • It is used in a mixture to cleanse the body systems, for blood purification, and as an immune system booster. 
  • It is used to treat bronchitis, headache, migraine, epilepsy pain, cold, flu, cough, and insomnia.
  • It is used to treat ulcers.
  • It is used to treat diabetes. 

Reference and further reading:

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  • Adovasio, J.M., Soffer, O. and Klíma, B., 1996. Upper Palaeolithic fibre technology: interlaced woven finds from Pavlov I, Czech Republic, c. 26,000 years ago. Antiquity, 70(269), pp.526-534.
  • Andre, C.M., Hausman, J.-F., Guerriero, G., 2016. Cannabis sativa: the plant of the thousand and one molecules. Front. Plant Sci. 7, 19.
  • Bonini, S.A., Premoli, M., Tambaro, S., Kumar, A., Maccarinelli, G., Memo, M. and Mastinu, A., 2018. Cannabis sativa: A comprehensive ethnopharmacological review of a medicinal plant with a long history. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 227, pp.300-315.
  • Bryant, A.T., 1966. Zulu medicine and medicine men. C. Struik, Cape Town (originally published in 1909 in the Annals of Natal Museum).
  • Chandra, S., Lata, H. and ElSohly, M.A. eds., 2017. Cannabis sativa L.-botany and biotechnology. Springer.
  • De Wet, H., Ramulondi, M. and Ngcobo, Z.N., 2016. The use of indigenous medicine for the treatment of hypertension by a rural community in northern Maputaland, South Africa. South African Journal of Botany 103, 78–88.
  • Fort, J., 2012. Demic and cultural neolithic diffusion. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 109, 18669–18673.
  • Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. and Cunningham, A., 1996. Zulu medicinal plants. Natal University Press, Pietermaritzburg. 
  • Li, H., 1974. An archaeological and historical account of Cannabis in China. Econ. Bot. 28, 437–448
  • Luna, L.E., 1984. The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeastern Peru. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 11(2), pp.135-156.
  • Mechoulam, R., 2019. The pharmaco history of Cannabis sativa. Cannabinoids as therapeutic agents, pp.1-20.
  • Oliver-Bever, B., 1986. Medicinal plants in tropical West Africa. Cambridge University Press, London.
  • Piluzza, G., Delogu, G., Cabras, A., Marceddu, S. and Bullitta, S., 2013. Genet. Resour. Crop Evol. 60, 2331–2342
  • Ren, G., Zhang, X., Li, Y., Ridout, K., Serrano-Serrano, M.L., Yang, Y., Liu, A., Ravikanth, G., Nawaz, M.A., Mumtaz, A.S. and Salamin, N., 2021. Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa. Science advances, 7(29), p.eabg 2286.
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  • Russo, E.B., 2014. The pharmacological history of Cannabis. Handbook of cannabis, 1.
  • Russo, E.B., Jiang, H.E., Li, X., Sutton, A., Carboni, A., del Bianco, F., Mandolino, G., Potter, D.J., Zhao, Y.X., Bera, S., Zhang, Y.B., Lü, E.G., Ferguson, D.K., Hueber, F., Zhao, L.C., Liu, C.J., Wang, Y.F. and Li, C.S., 2008. Phytochemical and genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia. J. Exp. Bot. 59, 4171–4182.
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  • Touwn, M., 1981. The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. J. Psychoact. Drugs 13, 23–34.
  • Trease, G.E. and Evans, W.C. 1983. Pharmacognosy, 12th edition. Bailliere Tindall, London. 
  • Van Wyk, B.E., 2008. A review of Khoi-San and Dutch medical ethnobotany. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 119, 331–341.
  • Van Wyk, B.E. and Gericke, N., 2000. People’s plants. A guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Watt, J.M. and Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. Medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa, second edition. Livingstone, London.
  • Xie, Z., Mi, Y., Kong, L., Gao, M., Chen, S., Chen, W., Meng, X., Sun, W., Chen, S. and Xu, Z., 2023. Cannabis sativa: origin and history, glandular trichome development, and cannabinoid biosynthesis. Horticulture Research, 10(9), p.uhad150.
  • Zuardi, A.W., 2006. History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 28, pp.153-157.

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