Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany

Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany

by Robert C. Clarke, Mark David Merlin

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"The authors boldly demonstrate their capacity to survey both the biological evolution and widely varied human cultures' uses of cannabis. In doing so, they have produced a work that is thorough, globally ambitious, and carefully constructed. The extraordinary power and range of their cross-cultural perspectives are likely to elicit fresh consideration of familiar


"The authors boldly demonstrate their capacity to survey both the biological evolution and widely varied human cultures' uses of cannabis. In doing so, they have produced a work that is thorough, globally ambitious, and carefully constructed. The extraordinary power and range of their cross-cultural perspectives are likely to elicit fresh consideration of familiar studies." —Richard Tucker, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan

"Cannabis is one of the best, if not the best history of the extraordinary plant Cannabis sativa that I have read. It is encyclopedic in its scope, painstakingly documented, and well written. A must for libraries, cannabis scholars and the growing number of readers who are interested in this remarkable plant." —Lester Grinspoon, Emeritus Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine

"This is a unique and valuable work. It aptly summarizes the voluminous literature on cannabis to bring the reader a better understanding of its origins and uses, as well as the relationship with man, its chief employer and manipulator. The authors' experience in the subject makes them uniquely qualified to synthesize and interpret the material in a coherent manner." —Ethan Russo, President of the International Cannabinoid Research Society

Editorial Reviews

CHOICE Magazine - L Swatzell

"This well-written work will be useful for freshmen through seniors in higher educations. Researchers and teachers will also find it extremely helpful, and it will intrigue even casual readers."
Plant Ecology and Evolution - Quentin Groom

"A valuable reference."
High Times - Mitch Earleywine

"Sure to entertain any cannabis fan."

"Clarke and Merlin have crafted a volume in which each chapter can easily stand alone and will be accessible to a wide range of readers."

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University of California Press
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8.60(w) x 10.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Evolution and Ethnobotany

By Robert C. Clarke, Mark D. Merlin


Copyright © 2013 Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27048-0


Introduction to the Multipurpose Plant Cannabis

Throughout the ages, [Cannabis] has been extolled as one of man's greatest benefactors—and cursed as one of his greatest scourges. [Cannabis] is undoubtedly an herb that has been many things to many people. Armies and navies have used it to make war, men and women to make love. Hunters and fishermen have snared the most ferocious creatures, from the tiger to the shark, in its Herculean weave. Fashion designers have dressed the most elegant women in its supple knit. Hangmen have snapped the necks of thieves and murderers with its fiber. Obstetricians have eased the pain of childbirth with its leaves [female flowers]. Farmers have crushed its seeds and used the oil within to light their lamps. Mourners have thrown its seeds [inflorescences] into blazing fires and have had their sorrow transformed into blissful ecstasy by the fumes that filled the air.

(ABEL 1980)






In the Beginning: Circumstances of Early Human Contact with Cannabis

Over the vast time span within which humans have known and used Cannabis for many purposes, it has been heralded as one of humankind's supreme resources and cursed as one of our utmost burdens. As an introduction to this controversial plant, we have constructed a possible scenario for the origins of Cannabis use by humans, utilizing botanical, ecological, and archeological evidence. Hypothetical early human contact with Cannabis and the subsequent discovery and application of its useful resources took place during the distant past in one of the more temperate and well-watered areas of ancient Central Asia.

It was springtime many thousands of years ago. A long ice age had recently ended, and a small group of nomadic people was on the move, venturing far from their ancestral territory. Finding a suitable clearing near the bend of a meandering river, they stopped to camp. They had migrated into this remote location under pressure from other more powerful and aggressive human groups.

In their new open environment, they constructed simple thatch shelters in which to sleep, store their few belongings, and protect their families from the elements. At this time, humans had not yet developed techniques for cultivating plants and domesticating animals. Like all other peoples during this ancient era, this group depended completely on hunting and gathering their food and other required resources.

Women spent much of the day searching for and collecting seasonal wild edible fruits, roots, grains, vegetables, grubs, and nuts, as well as cordage fibers and fuel wood. Meanwhile, men tracked and stalked deer, pigs, goats, horses, certain birds, and other land animals in nearby forests and grasslands, as well as assisting with seasonal gathering. The river adjacent to their new settlement supplied water and promised other important natural resources critical for survival. Fish were also potentially useful if they could figure out how to catch them.

As time passed, they increasingly disturbed the clearing surrounding their settlement and in the process, inadvertently created nitrogen-rich soil environments by depositing organic waste materials in dump heaps. By trampling and cutting back much of the original vegetation, the immigrants unintentionally favored several sun-loving plants that were preadapted to the new, human-made open scars with waste-enriched soil.

One plant that often colonizes dump heaps or waste areas in open environments is Cannabis, a tall herb that is naturally adapted to disturbed or sunny habitats. Toward the end of the short, warm summer, women gathering seasonal fruits and nuts discovered stands of wild hemp full of ripe seeds along the river near their settlement. They teased out and tasted a few seeds and decided they were worthwhile food. Unable to remove the myriad of seeds easily, they cut whole plants with seeds still attached and dragged them back to camp. Thus seeds of this conspicuous herb were brought into the group's clearing during their search for food. Here, Cannabis found a favorable niche in the sunny, moist, and well-drained soil, nutrient-enriched by human activities.

Women experimented with these plants, letting them dry and flailing them against cleared ground. As they whipped the dry plants against the open earth, seeds flew into the air. Most landed near the threshing where they were swept up, but a few strayed farther and were not retrieved. Others seeds were left behind in threshed plants that were discarded onto dump heaps.

By the end of the next cold season, new spring showers gave the forgotten hemp seeds the necessary moisture required for germination and growth, and the plants flourished through the summer, thriving on available water, sunlight, and nitrogen-rich piles of organic waste. Soon the women began to harvest the hemp seeds around their nearby rubbish piles, making fewer trips farther from home in search of wild hemp. Within a few years, trips to collect wild hemp ceased, and then the seed was harvested only from self-sown Cannabis plants in disturbed environments near their settlement. Human and plant interactions such as these were the bridge between hunting and gathering and agriculture; these were the incipient moments of early settled farming.

Like all traditional peoples, past and present, these early humans knew their immediate environment intimately through their own experiences and information passed on orally from their ancestors. As a key element of survival, they were quite familiar with local plants, animals, and inorganic materials, and most of their hunting and gathering equipment was fabricated from local plant and animal sources.

The group's store of knowledge developed slowly, and when challenged by a new living situation, they were eager to develop new techniques to utilize unfamiliar animal and plant resources. As the newly introduced Cannabis populations grew larger around the settlement, they became increasingly conspicuous. Could Cannabis offer other benefits for survival? Their curiosity grew, and through a process of trial and error, they experimented with its uses.

They knew initially that edible Cannabis seeds borne in clusters on the female plants contained a nutritious oily substance. Soon they discovered that they could also be used as a source of oil for cooking, fuel, or even as a base material for crude soap. They already knew about the uses of fibers and eventually recognized the extraordinary fibrous qualities of Cannabis. They wore animal skins and furs held together with thongs and were always searching for new plants and animals that could provide durable fibers. However, they had yet to learn the crafts of spinning and weaving.

These early settlers eventually learned they could peel bark from the hollow Cannabis stalk and extract long fibers that were easily utilized. They also learned that hemp fibers were very strong, long lasting, and water resistant. As they experimented with methods for fiber extraction, the group saw that by soaking long Cannabis stalks in pools along the river and letting them partly decompose, the process now known as retting took place. After sufficient time, most of the adhesive layers of the stalk decomposed into water-soluble juices, and the insoluble, water-resistant materials (the long fiber cells) were left to be more easily collected and dried. They experimented with the fibers, creating strong, durable, waterproof cords and later discovered how to spin yarn and weave cloth with hemp fiber.

Fish in the retting pools were stunned by a lack of oxygen and/or the water-soluble plant juices and floated to the surface in a senseless state. They were in no way rendered inedible; however, in a stupefied state they were easily gathered. Relatively easy access to an important food resource stimulated early humans to experiment with the construction of fish lines and nets made from water-resistant hemp fibers.

But was the need for fiber or food the only reason for their interest in Cannabis? Perhaps it was first used for its spiritual or euphoric value and thus initially employed for entertainment or ceremonial purposes. In their ceaseless quest for food, they could have first realized Cannabis's psychoactive potential while eating its seeds. The small, resin-covered bracts surrounding the seeds are potentially psychoactive and could have been ingested along with the seeds; however, the potent smoke breathed in when Cannabis plants were burned would have induced a more rapid onset of mind-altering experiences. At first unintentionally, early humans ventured into new realms of cognitive experience and soon favored Cannabis as a spiritual, recreational, or medicinal ally.

Psychoactive Cannabis resin (complex mixture of aromatic compounds and cannabinoids) can induce rapturous and joyous sensations, ranging from mild reverie and a general sense of well-being to ecstasy and hallucination. In our ancient past, these experiences probably generated a deeper interest in the plant as they do for some today. If only temporarily, the mind-altering resin could have opened new "doors of perception" for early peoples. Use of the psychoactive resin may have become a key mental and physical refuge from frequently monotonous and strenuous patterns of life.

Consuming Cannabis also could have had an explosive effect on early people's world view and ideology. Early hunting and gathering groups guarded and handed down "mysteries" or cosmological explanations that served as their interpretations of reality, and these spiritual explanations helped them understand life and death in their own cultural contexts. The ecstatic, visionary effects of Cannabis ingestion may have morphed these mysteries into a new system of beliefs and symbols, psychologically precipitating the invention and interpretation of invisible spirits, both malevolent and benevolent. If so, these early people came to regard the plant as a gift from their ancestors and their gods to be used as a vehicle for transcending to higher planes of consciousness. Essentially, Cannabis would have provided a means by which they could communicate with their deities—an early "Plant of the Gods" (Schultes and Hofmann 1992).

Regardless of their initial motivation for using Cannabis, the group soon realized its many possibilities. They used the plant as a food supplement, an important source of fiber, fuel, and medicine, and they revered its psychoactive properties as a mental elixir for relaxation, recreation, and spiritual communication. Most importantly, by consciously or inadvertently carrying seeds as they migrated, Cannabis became part of their transported entourage. Humans and Cannabis became linked in a number of ways very early on and have remained so until modern times.

The scenario presented earlier involves a series of hypothetical yet plausible ancient Holocene events in the lives of a Mesolithic hunting and gathering group that was just beginning to experiment with fishing, farming, weaving, and ritual plant use. This succession of events probably recurred often in several regions during the recession of the last glacial age that began the Holocene Epoch about 12,000 years ago and possibly much earlier in the Pleistocene Epoch. This hypothetical group's experiences symbolize some of the possible circumstances behind early human experimentation with Cannabis, which evolved into an important and long-lasting multipurpose relationship affecting the evolution of both human culture and Cannabis as a crop plant. The antiquity and depth of this relationship forms the basis of this book.

A Brief Summary of the Long and Diverse History of Relationships between Cannabis and Humans

Cannabis has played a profound role on the stage of human history. The development of agriculture, which began approximately 10,000 years ago, has had monumental consequences for humans and our planet, allowing us to exert more control over our food supply and vastly increase our populations and success as a species. In this book, we argue that in some areas of Eurasia, Cannabis was a major, if not crucial, player in this transformational change in human ecology. The so-called agricultural revolution in fact took millennia to unfold and is still progressing with new scientific breakthroughs in genetic engineering and environmental manipulation. These modern innovations also affect the role and impact of Cannabis in our lives. Through artificial selection of desirable qualities and for a variety of purposes, humans have been manipulating Cannabis plants for many thousands of years.

The saga of human-Cannabis relationships has been a long, drawn-out affair, an epic association of people and a plant that has influenced history on many fronts in various regions of the world. For instance, hemp was a significant and possibly crucial source of rope used to trap, harness, and command the power and versatility of horses, beginning thousands of years ago in the Eurasian steppes. In this huge region horses have long been used in transportation, hunting, farm work, recreation, and war. Hemp also provided rigging and sails that allowed sailing vessels of the great fleets of Europe and Asia to navigate the oceans for exploration, exploitation, battle, commerce, and travel. Cannabis's function as a vital, nutritious food and source of vegetable oil was significant in the past. Its use for drug purposes, medicinal and mind-altering, licit and illicit, has been widespread not only in our time but also throughout history.

A review of the ancient biogeography, history, breeding, genetics, and multiple uses of Cannabis provides us with an enlightened perspective on this age-old natural resource. Before we roll back the clock and consider how our ancient roots intertwine with Cannabis, let us review some basics about the genus as it grows naturally in the wild and as a crop plant under cultivation.

What Shall We Call These Plants?

There are many names for the plant in question. You say "weed," and I say "hemp." You say "marijuana," and I say "Cannabis." Are we talking about the same plant?

If you call this plant a weed, you may be right depending on your definition of a weedy plant. Some define a weed as a plant growing where it is unwanted. Others refer to a weed as a plant that has escaped cultivation. It is true that in some regions, such as Central Asia, which is probably its original homeland, or in other areas that have similar ecological conditions, such as the American Midwest, Cannabis escaped from hemp fields and thrives as a feral plant or naturalized alien weed.

On the other hand, if you define a weed as a plant considered troublesome or useless, you may or may not be right. Cannabis plants are troublesome to some, especially farmers as well as officials enforcing laws prohibiting cultivation, possession, and use. On the other hand, for many centuries Cannabis has provided us with valuable resources, including fiber, food, medicine, and religious sacrament, and so it can hardly be considered useless. Use of the term "weed" is also a colloquialism, being one of many English language nicknames for drug type Cannabis.

What about the term "hemp"? The word hemp originally, and still formally, refers to Cannabis sativa, a tall Eurasian herb that is widely cultivated for its tough bast (bark) fiber. However, in more recent times the word "hemp" has been applied as a collective noun representing many additional fiber-bearing plants. Today, "true hemp" or "common hemp" refers to Cannabis, or more specifically European Cannabis sativa or narrow-leaf hemp (NLH). The complex history of Cannabis as a fiber source in ancient East and South Asia, somewhat later in Western Europe, and during more recent times in North America, is described in detail in Chapter 5.


Excerpted from Cannabis by Robert C. Clarke, Mark D. Merlin. Copyright © 2013 Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert C. Clarke is Cannabis researcher and Projects Manager for the International Hemp Association in Amsterdam and the author of Marijuana Botany and Hashish!
Mark D. Merlin is Botany Professor at University of Hawai’i at Manoa and author of On the Trail of the Ancient Opium Poppy.

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