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.
Another site that has produced pre-Clovis remains is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, dating back to 19,000 BP. Very ancient remains have also been found in Mexico, dating back to 40,000 BP, 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 Gonzalez believes that America was populated by several waves of migrants from different places, with the Mayan culture dating back to 3,114 BC.
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 BP to another period between 12,000 and 50,000 BP.
Those who still defend the single Bering Strait theory argue that the arrival of humans could not have occurred prior to 14,000 BP, 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 the Canaanites used hemp and they arrived in the New World in 531 BC. 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, read more, Ed.) 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, having been 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 BC and the 16th century AD, 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 tomb 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 is has helped us to adapt and to awaken.
Note from the editor: If you want to know more about the history of cannabis and hemp, please visit the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam and Barcelona. One of the biggest producers of hemp in Europe is called Hempflax. Visit their website if you want to learn more.
Author: David Hurtado