Cannabis is unique in that it can produce both a narcotic and an extremely long and strong fiber, all from the same plant. It was these two traits coupled with Cannabis’ amenability to domestication which led to its very early appearance in human history.
During the Neolithic period approximately 10,000 years ago, early humans began developing agriculture as a means of securing food supply. Given that Cannabis or hemp is a coloniser it is quite likely that human’s first contact with this plant occurred around that time. Because hemp is a coloniser it prefers to move into areas of fertile soil that is free of competition. This type of environment would only occur in nature during a period of catastrophe such as a flood or fire. But when Neolithic humans began clearing land for agriculture, it is very likely that Cannabis began spreading into these open fields initially as a weed and later as an actively cultured plant.
It is generally agreed that domestication of hemp began in Asia. Exactly where in Asia is not known although the earliest known occurrence of hemp agriculture took place in China’s Yellow River valley approximately 6,500 years ago.The Neolithic peoples of this valley, known as the Yangshao actively grew Cannabis and used its fibers to produce nets, ropes and hemp clothing.
It should be noted that hemp textiles date back farther than the Yangshao people with hemp cloth from approximately 8,000 B.C. found at Catal Hüyük (in Anatolia, in modern day Turkey). Hemp clothing and other textiles from this period were likely produced from wild hemp while the yellow river remains the earliest known location for actual cultivation, domestication and mass production of hemp textiles.
From these humble beginnings hemp clothing spread throughout China. From China it then spread north into modern day Russia, Scandinavia, the Baltics, Poland and Germany likely carried by Scythians traders. Aryans (Indo-Persians) are believed to have spread hemp into India. Hemp eventually made its way west into Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain and France.
As the colonial empires of France, England and Spain spread their influence into the new world so did hemp follow. Like their European forbears, Americans cultivated Cannabis primarily for the fibre. Hemp seed was planted in Chile in 1545,Canada in 1606, Virginia in 1611, and in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts in the 1630s.
Hemp fibre was extremely important to the new world colonies as the principle material for production of hemp clothing, rope, ship rigging and ship sails.
Given the demand for this strong, durable fibre it was only natural for hemp production to reach industrial scale. And so, the hemp industrial revolution of the New World got its start in Kentucky in 1775 and in Missouri some 50 years later. By 1860, hemp production in Kentucky alone exceeded 40 mt and the industry was second only to cotton in the South.
By the end of the second world war global hemp production had fully matured reaching peak production of 273 mt in 1961. However, production gradually declined from the 1960’s onward reaching just 63 mt by 1997.
So why did production of hemp fall out of favour so precipitously? Well, that’s another story!