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.