The Ancient History of Hemp

Hemp has become an essential part of modern life. We use the cannabis Sativa plant for a range of medical, industrial and personal uses. The fast-growing nature of hemp makes it ideal for manufacturing and a more sustainable material than most alternatives. But what exactly is hemp? And how did it become so influential in our industries and society? We explore the rich ancient history of hemp and the origins of this multifaceted plant.

What is hemp?

Hemp versus marijuana

Most of us are familiar with hemp’s links to cannabis. Hemp is a variety of cannabis. However, there are over 779 different strains of the cannabis plant, and hemp has some of the most practical qualities. The main distinction between hemp and marijuana relates to the THC levels. Per the United States definition, marijuana contains over 0.3 percent of THC and the hemp plant less. So to be classified as hemp, the plant must have less than 0.3 percent THC. Hemp isn’t used for recreational purposes, but it has many valuable qualities.

Industrial hemp

Despite its slender appearance, hemp is a strong, fibrous plant. The hemp we use in manufacturing is ‘industrial hemp’. The inner fibres of hemp have a woody texture, making them suitable for building materials. The creation of plaster, insulation, concrete, rope, plastic, and wood are among the plant’s many uses.

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History of Hemp and Ancient China

According to historical records, the first cultivation of the hemp plant happened during the Mesopotamia period. Evidence suggests the plant had multiple purposes in society, just as it does today. Artefacts show history of hemp. Hemp was used in creating bows and other weapons during the period. And hemp is known to have been used for medical purposes by Emperor Shen-Nung, the father of Chinese medicine.

The history surrounding Shen-Nung is largely unknown, with some historians questioning whether he even existed at all. However, many people credit the ‘Red Emperor’ as the first person to use cannabis for medical purposes. Whether it was Shen-Nung or not, the use of hemp in medicine is a prominent element of Chinese tradition that has passed through generations.

In the second century AD (101AD-200AD), medical professional, Hua T’o, began mixing hemp with wine as an anaesthetic. Patients would consume the concoction before undergoing surgery. The first Chinese dictionary, written between 221 BC-207 BC, refers to the masculine and feminine hemp plants. It also discusses the physical characteristics of the plant, suggesting it can be used as food or to create clothing.

History of Hemp – The creation of hemp paper

The paper we use today wouldn’t exist without the Chinese invention of hemp paper. Combining hemp fibre and tree bark in a large body of water would create a substance that floated upwards. The Chinese added these floating fibres to a mould before waiting for it to dry and be suitable for writing. It’s still possible to create hemp paper today. However, the costs to make paper from hemp rather than wood are significantly higher. Most manufacturers prioritise profit, and therefore wood is a better investment. However, as the world transitions to more sustainable modes of supply and creation, we might begin to see a rise in hemp paper and other products.

Many of the materials and products we use daily contain hemp without us even knowing. In many ways, hemp is the foundation of our modern society. We have the ancient Chinese to thank for their innovative attitudes towards the plant. Their utilisation of hemp for medicine and products has transitioned through generations and across continents. Hemp is one of many varieties of the cannabis plant, yet it is by far the most useful and practical. Hemp contributes to our houses, health and essential infrastructure. Without it, the world around us would look very different.