The prehistory of cannabis in the Americas is really a mystery that has not yet been fully explained. In order to do so, it is important to analyse man’s relationship with the plant since ancient times. While many people believe Christopher Columbus brought cannabis to the Americas, there is evidence that cannabis was on the continent long before his arrival.
Although little has been published on this subject and even less research carried out, we can date the presence of Cannabis sativa L. to before the arrival of the Spanish on this continent, even though it was not produced on a large scale.
Although there are many theories regarding the exact date when humans first appeared on the continent of America, it is generally thought that this occurred around 14,000 years ago, when several groups migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia, where cannabis originated.
The subclass of plants, Rosidae dates back 100 million years ago. Since cannabis is part of this subclass, and therefore older than humankind, the relationship between humans and this plant must have started with Homo erectus around 1.7 million years ago. Homo erectus was a tall, powerfully built hominid with a large cranium and who was very skilled at creating tools.
Moreover, this hominid managed to control the use of fire. Homo erectus originated in Africa and spread across Asia and Europe. Over the ensuing hundreds of thousands of years, it became the first nomadic species to migrate all across the globe. There is therefore a hypothesized use for cannabis by Homo erectus, as the plant grew in under 100 days and provide fibre, wood and oil.
Oldest cannabis remains
Neanderthal man, Homo neanderthalensis, inhabited the world between 230,000 and 28,000 years ago. Its last millennia of existence coincides with Homo sapiens. During this time and over the last 1.5 million years, many human species also became extinct. This includes Homo floresiensis, which disappeared around 12,000 years ago. Homo sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo.
With so many races interacting and developing together, it is easy to imagine how the plant travelled with the humans who migrated across the Bering Strait, or even crossed the globe in other ways. The oldest known archaeological remains of cannabis were found in Taiwan and date back around 10,000 years, while the oldest American remains date back to 3,000 BCE.
According to some theories, the Bering Strait may have frozen over, creating an ice bridge that was used by the ancient peoples from southern latitudes such as Africa to travel to the New World. These nomadic peoples were cattle farmers and many of them followed trade routes. However, mass migrations also occurred, often due to natural disasters.
The Clovis people
The Clovis culture, named after the town in New Mexico where it was first identified, is considered to be the one of the earliest established human culture in the New World. Carbon-14 dating at a Pleistocene indigenous settlement discovered here suggests that the remains are around 13,500 years old. Moreover, at the El Fin del Mundo site in the Mexican state of Sonora, hunting artefacts from the Clovis people have been found, dating back to 13,000 BCE.
Although some archaeological evidence would appear to back the theory that there were pre-Clovis settlements in the New World, most archaeologists believe that the Clovis people were among the first inhabitants of the Americas.
The standard accepted theory establishes the date of the earliest human inhabitation of the New World as being when the Clovis people made their way into North America by crossing the Bering Strait via the Bering land bridge. This was a landmass that connected Siberia to Alaska during a period of lowered sea levels during the ice age. As the glaciers retreated, the Clovis people made their way southwards via an ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains.
Pre-Clovis in America
However, a number of archaeological sites have yielded evidence of a pre-Clovis population in the Americas. In Central and South America, these sites suggest far earlier cultures, and archaeologists have long shared this discovery thanks to examples such as the Monte Verde Level I and Level II sites. They are located near Puerto Montt in Chile and were discovered in 1997. The sites contain evidence of human presence dating back to 13,000 BCE, and even to over 20,000 BCE.
Piedra Museo, in Argentina, Santa Cruz, is an archaeological site discovered in around 1910 by Florentino Ameghino. Ameghino was an archaeologist who classified as many as 9,000 extinct animals, most discovered by him. Even today, his catalogues are invaluable to academics all over the world. In 1995, Laura Miotti, also from Argentina, analysed the remains, which date from 12,890 BCE.
The cave paintings at the Pedra Furada site in São Raimundo Nonato, east of Piauí in Brazil were discovered by a French-Brazilian team in 1973. Artefacts have been found dating from 32,000 up to 60,000 BCE, which suggest that humans from North Africa had travelled in what must have been thousands of rudimentary boats to the coast of present-day Brazil. All the while, the Clovis culture was developing in the north. There are even towns along the Atlantic coast that have African names.
Another site that has produced pre-Clovis remains is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, dating back to 19,000 BCE. Very ancient remains have also been found in Mexico, dating back to 40,000 BCE, discovered by the British geologist, Dr Silvia González. In a cave in the Valsequillo Basin, a lake near the Cerro Toluquilla Volcano, 200 fossilised human footprints were found – including prints made by children in basaltic volcanic ash.
Waves of migrants
The Mesoamerican peoples originate from the central part of Mexico and Central America, as far south as Costa Rica. Dr Silvia Gonzalez believes that America was populated by several waves of migrants from different places, with the Mayan culture dating back to 3,114 BCE.
Although this theory is not popular with everyone, various genetic traits have been differentiated. This is the most up-to-date theory, which changes the date of the arrival of human settlers in America from 13,000 BCE to another period between 12,000 and 50,000 BCE.
Those who still defend the single Bering Strait theory argue that the arrival of humans could not have occurred prior to 14,000 BCE, because the ice-free inland corridor along the Mackenzie River was closed until then and humans would not have been able to take this inland route.
However, if Homo sapiens did enter the New World from the north, how is it that most of the oldest archaeological sites are in the south?
Some believe that other groups of Homo sapiens even came from Australia, stopping at Easter Island before reaching the New World. They also came from Europe, since the ice sheets extended as far south as Spain, covering the sea even at this latitude. Therefore, they could travel about like the Inuit, keeping warm on the ice and hunting using boats built from bone and covered in sealskins.
And, of course, the Vikings too attempted to colonise the New World. However, they could not adapt to living in the north and disappeared. Once there, they must have had to use and carry hemp grown in the New World because it was essential for sailing. No other fibre could be used for the sails and rigging and enable the boats to embark on such long journeys.
Outside of the continent of Africa, cannabis has enjoyed a very close ethnobotanical relationship with humans for at least 1.7 million years during migrations. The use of this plant spread from one group to another.
Hemp in the New World
Returning to the subject of migrations to the New World, there is written evidence of the presence of Basque vessels in Mexico many years before Christopher Columbus’ arrival.
Even the Phoenicians and the Canaanites used hemp and they arrived in the New World in 531 BCE. It is very likely that they carried seeds with them, since without them they would not have been able to grow plants in order to produce more candles and rope.
Many people deny all evidence of the existence of hemp in the New World before Christopher Columbus’ arrival. However, there are many examples of fabric, yarn, clothes and bags made of this fibre, which reveal how widespread cannabis was among pre-Columbian indigenous tribes. It was basically used to make fabric, sandals, fishing nets, ropes, mats and baskets, although it was also used in rituals and medicine. Nowadays the possibilities with hemp are even bigger, such as Bio Fuel made out of hemp.
Hemp, being a dioecious plant – with separate male and female genders – has a high level of genetic variability, which makes it very adaptable and predisposed to change. It is an ideal species for colonising new land. The problem is that in many archaeological remains, fibres are not preserved and disappear.
The ethnologist W.H. Holmes, from the Smithsonian Institution, confirmed not only the arrival of cannabis with the Vikings, but also its presence in the New World during prehistory. He suggests that it was transported by both humans and animals via the Bering Strait.
Evidence of its presence is associated with the Mound Builders, pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America dating back to the period between 3,000 BCE and the 16th century CE, who lived in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River regions.
They used cannabis for rituals and to make textiles, as shown by the hundreds of pipes and some large pieces of fabric that have been found. When they died, in addition to grave goods, even spools of the hemp thread used to make their fabrics were buried in their tombs along with the body.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, each of his ships carried 80 tonnes of hemp rigging and sails – a remarkable amount. If cannabis already grew in the New World at that time, it must only have been cultivated in a few locations and not been used by all the inhabitants.
Back to the present
In 1524, the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano first discovered cannabis growing wild during an expedition to Virginia in North America. French explorer Jacques Cartier reported seeing large expanses of wild cannabis growing during each of his three journeys to Canada in 1535, 1536 and 1541. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain mentioned that he saw natives using wild hemp on their fishhooks. Hemp was not formally viewed as forming part of the flora of North America until 1606. In 1609 Henry Spelman, during his visit to Virginia with Thomas Hariot, described how the native people used hemp baskets to harvest maize.
James Adair mentions the use of hemp by the Cherokee Indians and other tribes in his book The History of the American Indians (1775).
The hemp plant has played a key role in helping people survive throughout the million-year history of the human race and it has spread across the globe, helping us over millennia. However, not very much research has been carried out on this plant and there are relatively few records, due to the fact that its fibres rot very quickly.
We shall no doubt continue to see progress in the reconstruction of hemp’s history and will perhaps occasionally be surprised by our past. For the moment, we shall try to ensure that as many people as possible know the truth about hemp – that it is a good plant, which can be used in a large number of ways, and that has helped us to adapt and to awaken.
16 thoughts on “Cannabis History: How Cannabis Came to America”
Here is an interesting article concerning the theme.
They say “In the last thousand years, the drug reached Latin America and Africa, though it didn’t get to North America until much more recently — around the beginning of the twentieth century. European colonists introduced hemp varieties to North America in the 1600s, which were replaced by Chinese varieties by the 1850s.” Unfortunatly they don’t say how it reached latin america.
Good morning Klaus,
Thank you so much for sharing that article with us, sounds like a great read!
I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.
With best wishes,
Hemp is not a drug!
Hemp is not a drug.
Native Americans obviously brought it over from Asia, which is where the plants originated.
It is probably the other way around. Tons of crops that originate in the Americas have been brought around the world by us because we are these populations including Europeans and Middle East. The European genetics are way more related to us then the Asian ones but they only talk about the Asian ones. Because white people that call themselves scientists but are white propagandist can’t admit that we left the Americas they lie about how are genetics get everywhere. Neanderthal never existed. Native Americans come from the only out Africa people that are not black the Denisovans who went to Australia 1st. They left for the Americas and have been inside the Americans since at least 42,000 but maybe longer. There are dates all over like Blue Fish caves that they settle on 24,000 years but it has 25-42,000 years. that have old dates that they ignore or chip away at to a smaller dates. We went to Western Europe and are the 1st people in Europe 17,000 years ago in Spain-France. Later the Algonquins came to and probably the South Americans. Most of the remains in Europe and Middle East also Asia they they have theories about regarding whites and Native Americans are less then 10,000 years old. Language was spread throughout the world that are all less then 10,000 years old. No Siberian or Southeast Asian people existed longer then 12,000 years old. Same with Europe and Middle East. Re dates that all for this narrative because they can’t admit that we didn’t stay in the Americas. Siberian people like Eskimos are Sumerians who speak Ural that 1st existed in the Middle East 12,000 years ago and spread out everywhere. All if their theories are to convenient and most point to white people being the greatest people in the history of the world. Sumerian, Egyptian and Phoenicians are not white. Regardless Native Americans are the ones who went to Europe 1st 17,000 years ago. White people ironically come Asians in Siberia called the Slavs. The Slavs come from Sumerian Scythian and didn’t get to Europe until 1,900years ago in waves. The white Asians gave the Native Americans in Europe illnesses that they are not immune to like in the Americas later that wiped them out. There estimates on there timeline in Europe are based on the Native Americans actual timeline. Racist so-called scientists that can’t admit that we were here for along time. Unprincipled because they talk about all of these theories about who came here but somehow we couldn’t leave if we wanted? Neanderthals where able to use portals or time machines to get by stroking unicorn 🦄 horns as hard as they could it oozed space and time onto their faces.
Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany by Robert Clarke and Mark Merlin outlines some 11,000 ‘strains’ of cannabis worldwide. Humanity has spread this genus around the planet for thousands of years.
All of the British colonies grew (hemp) as the navy required the crop for sails, rope and clothing. It grew in NA for centuries prior.
Thank you so much for your comment, and recommendation!
I will definitely check it out!
This article on Hemp Plastic: What Is It and How is it Made? may be of interest to you.
I hope you continue to enjoy the blog!
With best wishes,
There are also other gigantic and outdated assumptions made in this article regarding migration in general. not all tribes are related to Athabaskans in fact most of us are not and we reject the bering strait theory in relation to all tribes completely, we were already here when the Dine’ moved in…these articles are written by non natives that are clueless about tribal relationships and culture. Indian hemp is dogbane. I am not disputing that cannabis hemp came before Columbus of that I am sure, but only very tiny enclaves and it did not spread widely. You cannot find it in our languages, remedies, foods, ceremonies ..nothing…not like it was here all around us and we didn’t notice when we knew our environment up close and personal. It didn’t come over from Europe. It came various ways to various places…Vikings brought it to tuscarora in the north east, dine brought it to the northern regions in Canada, Phoenicians brought it to south America..still it was not widely adopted nor did it spread nationwide. Thanks for the convo. Peace.
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I appreciated your reply to the article. I for one appreciate documentation and references of what is often stated as facts. In my thoughts the article was a little dogmatic in it’s statements about early arrival and use of cannabis. Most ships arriving in the Americas used hemp, so it clearly has an interesting history. To assume it had ceremonial and medicinal uses in all instances could be a (possibly hopeful) stretch of the immagination.
I am curious about your background that you speak with apparent knowlege and authority.
It does seem strange that a plant that appears to be common to most of the temperate areas of the planet can cause so much controversy.
It has its champions and those who fear that it is the cause of the collapse of morality and the enemy of all ‘God fearing, hard working people.’ Some varieties make the best rope, some produce energy rich seeds, others produce flowers that many find pleasant to consume, it certainly effects humans both physically and mentally that have led to it being held as a sacred plant. Sadly Jesus never turned straw into cannabis at a wedding although he did find the need to turn water into wine to appease drunken revellers who had no more sesterti to buy more Roman wine. An act of tax evasion, a political symbol challenging Rome’s monopoly on Alcohol. Cannabis grows anywhere, even wild and therefore is hard to control making it problematic in a commercial world. If the British had been monopolising coffee in the colonies , it would have been the Boston coffee party and Americans would today still be drinking Chinese green tea. It’s all about money. Tobacco is a joy when smoked in the morning with a cup of tea. Opium makes the day better and cannabis rounds off the day with a cerebral high. Alcohol is however a Christian sacrament.
When did Italian wine become the moral choice of Civilisation? When it was realised how much value humans put on intoxication.
If heroin was a good adhesive it would be legal, synthetic glues would get you life imprisonment
There is some true info and some untrue info in this article. You have some of your “indian hemp” research mixed up Indian hemp is dogbane. I am Caddo from a mound builder tribe and what we used was not hemp. Very true though that Phoenicians and other world travel migrated the plant to the Americas before Columbus but this article is confusing some people into believing the plant is FROM the Americas which we all know is not accurate..more like a testament to sea travel and rich trade traditions.
The point of the article is showing Europeans didnt bring it over from Europe. Nowhere in this article did I gather they were implying that Cannabis/Hemp (same plant) originated from America, only that it was here before the arrival of Colonists. As well the information of “Indian Hemp” being dogbane, is obscured, as Cannabis Advocate Dr. Ethan Russo has already shown evidence for Indian Hemp being the Indica variety.
The Phoenicians are Europeans
Dog Bane is such a handy plant. I stand with you on this. I’m sure there is a mix of different cordage plants used. To say it was all hemp is silly.