The Incredible History of CBD: Where it Came from and Where it’s Going

In this article we explore the amazing story of hemp and cannabidiol which begins in ancient times and maintains surprising relevancy throughout the human story. When we look backward in time, it appears our ancestors knew things about hemp which we are now only beginning to realize. With our knowledge finally catching up, where is the future of this versatile botanical headed? Read on to find out. 

Table of Contents

Where did it all start?

Because hemp and CBD only reemerged into the pop culture realm in the last decade or so, it might surprise you to learn that hemp was possibly one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by mankind with a robust body of evidence to support the notion (Information Paper on Industrial Cannabis, Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Queensland Government.)

Researchers have discovered many examples of our ancient ancestors using hemp for a variety of purposes. Here’s a rundown of the most well-known archeological evidence:

8,000 BCE – Oki Islands, Japan

Historians believe that the pre-neolithic ancient Japanese people used cannabis for both its food and fibrous properties, as well as for its psychoactive components. An archeological site located in the Oki Islands held evidence of cannabis flower being stored en masse. 

5,000 BCE – Yangshao Culture, China 

Pre-neolithic Chinese art demonstrates a variety of use-cases for hemp and cannabis–from the imprint of the plant on pottery to poetry about its effects. 

3,000 BCE – Ancient Korea 

The people of ancient Korea were known to use hempen fabrics for a variety of purposes. Archeological samples have shown evidence of hemp clothing and utility-fabrics like bags and straps. 

2,000 BCE – Hindu Sacred Text

In the Hindu sacred text, Atharvaveda (Science of Charms) refers to cannabis as sacred grass, making it one of the five sacred plants of India. 

1,550 BCE – Ancient Egypt 

The famous Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest and most important medical texts of the ancient world, recounts a number of uses for cannabis such as using it to treat sore eyes. 

1,000 BCE – Ancient India

The ancient peoples of India were known to eat cannabis and hemp derived substances in rituals and ceremonies. These people were known as Bhang-eaters and were among the most prolific users of cannabis in the ancient world, as they consumed it in a variety of methods.

600 BCE – Ancient Russia 

Braided hemp ropes were found around this time, demonstrating that the people of ancient Russia had already stumbled upon its fantastic durability as rope fiber, for which it is still used today.

From Clothing to Medicine

In the ancient world we see our ancestors slowly adopt the use of hemp and cannabis in a more personal context–from a versatile fabric crop to a respected tool of medicine, ritual, and ceremony. 

If our ancestors were already using hemp and cannabis as a painkiller, industrial crop, and food source–why has it taken us so long for modern people to readopt?

Roots in the Ancient World

While it is a challenge to outline the extent to which each ancient culture used hemp and cannabis, we do know that they at least used it for some things. Historians argue over this topic, with some suggesting that cannabis is the root of many cultural theological practices and writings, while others argue that such historical evidence is just coincidence.

What we do know is that hemp and cannabis played a powerful role in the human story, particularly at the turn of the millennium (500 BCE – 500 CE). We see words for ‘hemp’ popping up around the ancient world. 

Sanskrit – Ganja 

Language is a mirror. The words we use reflect the thoughts in our minds and the intentions in our hearts. In the ancient world, we know that hemp took on a prominent role in human history when we developed a common-use word for it: ‘Ganja’ in Sanskrit. 

Several modern Indo-Aryan cultures used this word as well, which means that hemp had become more than just a niche item–it was now a popular crop that was used in trade for many uses (History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet).

A Gift from the Gods?

In his work entitled, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances Richard Rudgley suggests that the ancient drug ‘Soma’ mentioned in the Vedas might have been a cannabis derived substance. 

The ancient Scythians, Thracians and Dacians also revered cannabis as a ceremonial tool. The shamans of these cultures burned cannabis to induce trance-like states. The famous Classical Greek historian, Herodotus (480BCE) wrote about the peoples of Scythia ingesting “hemp-seed smoke” both for ritualistic and recreational purposes (The Histories of Herodotus). 

Archeologists discovered ancient hemp and frankincense residue on the altars of Tel Arad, which they dated back to the Kingdom of Judah in around 400 BCE. As such, the conclusion drawn was that cannabis was a key ingredient of ritualistic practice in ancient Judaism. 

We also find that ancient Daoists burned cannabis in their rituals, which is further outlined in the Chinese medical text, Shennong Bencaojing. 

What is amazing about this, is that we see a coordinated adoption of hemp and cannabis into ritualistic practices around the world at about the same time. This suggests one of two narratives to scholars: 

i.) Either the effects of cannabis were so strong and culturally impactful that each of these cultures arrived at its significance independently. 

ii.) Or cannabis had become so ubiquitous that stories of its uses and applications traveled across the world, popularizing its use in various cultures. 

In either case, one narrative thread remains the same. Cannabis was one of the most revered plants of the ancient world, so much so that our ancient ancestors attributed mystical, even divine qualities to it. 

Hemp and CBD in the Modern World

Up to this point in the story of hemp and CBD in the ancient world, it is difficult to track exactly which cannabinoids were prioritized in its various use-cases throughout history, since it is currently impossible for researchers to know what cannabinoids were contained in ancient archeological samples. 

But in the historical story of hemp, we reach a turning point as we transition into the modern setting. In many ways, we see the cultural importance of hemp and cannabis reset, as cultures become more focused on values of science and morality. And this is where some of the controversy begins. 

As modern civilizations became more civilized and litigious, they also became more wary and resentful of the intoxicating effects of cannabis. And because the botanical sciences had not yet differentiated between industrial hemp and THC bearing cannabis, cultures around the world began opposing the crop. 

Associating Hemp with Lawlessness

Around the 12th century BCE, Arabian hashish–a powerful cannabis resin–was being traded around the world. Syrian mystics famously abandoned their worldly possessions to travel the world while exploring the offerings of the substance. 

Egyptian Sufis who were a famous mystical sect also built their ceremonial practices around the substance. But as these practices became more prolific, they became more opposed by conservative parts of the world. Bans have been placed on Cannabis since the Middle Ages in countries around the world.

England and Spain looked to focus on the utilitarian aspects of hemp without the risks of the intoxicating psychoactive components. The advanced botanical sciences of these countries led to a focus on the harvesting of industrial hemp–the male cannabis plant that contains only trace amounts of THC, which is not enough to induce the intoxicating effects. 

The famous Spanish fleet of trade ships enabled global trade, and brought industrial hemp to the western hemisphere. 

So by the early 1500’s, we see a total worldwide adoption of industrial hemp. 

Early Research on Hemp and Cannabis

One of the first major studies conducted on cannabis was the study conducted by the British Indian government in 1894. This study is considered a landmark event in the history of cannabis because it was the first medical study in which a well-respected entity claimed that there was very little risk associated with even excessive cannabis use. 

The most notable component of the study was that it reported cannabis to have very little–if any–risk to society. 

Despite this, more and more countries continued to ban cannabis over the last three-hundred years. Oftentimes these bans had little or no justification behind them. It seemed that it was simply popular at the time for governments to oppose cannabis. 

But the thought process is fairly simple to identify. Throughout history we see prominent mystical groups–who popularized psychoactive cannabis–detaching from society to pursue a theological journey. 

The major world powers of the early 1800s and 1900s were notoriously strict, religious, and litigious–with much of their functionality being structured around the health of the church. 

If a country’s citizens gave up the church and their 9-5 job, the cohesiveness of the country would then suffer. 

Hemp in the United States

Given the ebb and flow of legal philosophies surrounding hemp in the United States, it might be surprising for readers to learn that the crop was a crucial element in the founding of our country and in earning our independence. 

Hemp and Cross-Ocean Traveling 

Hemp is actually a crucial crop when it comes to ships and traveling across the ocean. Hemp fibers are twisted into a rope-like form and then pounded between the boards of a ship to provide an affordable waterproofing option.

Large naval operations were said to have ordered 50 tons of hemp fiber at a time for this process, making it a crucial component of the cross-ocean traveling which led to the colonization of the Americas. 

Hemp and America’s Independence

During America’s colonization period, colonies relied on imported fabrics from England for clothing and other fabric instruments. Once America started the process of secession these imports were cut-off.  

The American colonies relied almost exclusively on hemp farming operations for their clothing and fabric needs during this time. 

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington were Hemp Farmers 

While they each experienced varying levels of success (or failure) these formative figures of American history are confirmed to have owned hemp farms during their day. Scholars debate whether this fact suggests any of these men might have consumed the product for their own purposes. For now, all we can say is that they did, in fact, grow it. 

Fun Facts about Hemp in America

One of the most surprising elements about hemp is how integral it has been in the development of America and its economy. Considering it has been illegal several times in our country, these facts might surprise you.

  • Besty Ross’ prototype for the American Flag was made out of hemp. 
  • The paper used for the Declaration of Independence was made out of hemp fibers. 
  • There was a time where it was actually illegal to not grow hemp: the Jamestown Colony of 1619 required every man to grow Indian hemp seed or face jail time. 
  • Hemp can actually improve the soil it is grown in, leaving it better off than when it was first planted by restoring valuable nutrients and removing toxins such as heavy metals. 
  • The word canvas is actually derived from the word hemp: specifically, canvas comes from the latin adjective ‘cannapaceus’ which means ‘made from hemp.’
  • Today, hemp is reported to be used in more than 30,000 domestic products. 

One of the most surprising facts about hemp is that it was proclaimed to be a multibillion dollar cash-crop for the United States just before it was banned in 1937 in the Marijuana Tax Act. Despite being levied at the THC bearing crop specifically, the Act also inexplicably banned industrial hemp as well.

This move is so nonsensical that scholars still have no unified theory as to why this ban came to fruition, particularly given how much the country stood to gain from allowing the continued farming of industrial hemp at least. 

The Confusing Legality of Hemp in America

Just a few years after the Marijuana Tax Act, the events of World War II forced the United States to carefully consider all of its available resources. Specifically the United States had been cut off from one of its main suppliers of rope in Southeast Asia. 

As such, the US lifted the ban on hemp and actually reversed it entirely by instating a hemp stimulus to encourage farmers to grow and provide a domestic hemp source for the US navy, which relied on hemp for uniforms, ropes, and rigging. 

For the next 20 or so years, the United States produced billions of dollars worth of hemp and hemp products. Many domestic farming operations were built entirely on the foundation of growing hemp. 

And then came a man named RIchard Nixon and his war on drugs. 

The Hemp Ban of 1970

Richard introduced a new concept to Americans in his war on drugs. Whereas before drugs had been instruments of personal use and personal problems with no real threat to society–which was the prevailing view since the British Indian report of 1894–Richard Nixon introduced the idea that drugs were to blame for many of the country’s problems. 

And because marijuana was the sort of poster child for drugs in the 1970s, it bore the brunt of the ensuing propaganda war. 

And before long Cannabis was designated a Schedule I Controlled Substance, marking it as one of the most dangerous and illegal drugs in the country. And believe it or not, the Controlled Substance Act made no distinction between industrial hemp and THC-bearing cannabis. 

Scholars maintain that this oversight was a side-effect of the government’s near-psychotic war on drugs at the time. They had decided what was wrong and what was right, and they cared little about what anyone had to say about it. 

It took nearly 50 years for the United States to correct this mistake. 

The 2018 Farm Bill

With the 2018 Farm Bill, a distinction was finally made between marijuana associated with drug use and the industrial hemp which carried only trace amounts of THC. According to the Bill, so long as the hemp contains less than .3% THC it is legal for both sale and consumption.

Where the confusion continues to be an issue is in the case of extracts. While CBD products are largely considered to be wholly legal, products that contain multiple cannabinoid extracts are still in a legal grey area. 

So by and large, the hemp and cannabinoid extracts industry is focused on single-extract products. 

What products can you make from Hemp?

Now that the legality of industrial hemp and non-psychoactive cannabinoids is relatively secure, the future of CBD and similar products seems bright and promising. The technology in the producing, harvesting, and processing of hemp continues to evolve with there being a solid chance that we have not even begun to understand its full potential. 

To give an example, this man made an airplane entirely from hemp that flies on–you guessed it–hemp oil fuel.

So let’s break down some examples of some surprising products that can be made with hemp:

Hemp-based Fuel

The technology is new, but researchers are eager to improve their ability to convert hemp into usable and efficient fuel. 

Hemp Mulch

Hemp mulch provides value in a number of ways–mainly as thermal insulation for plants in either warm or cold temperatures, and also as a preventative measure against weed growth. 

Hemp Batteries 

One of the most amazing and promising hemp products to consider is hemp-made batteries. A prominent researcher presents his work in which hemp batteries out perform current energy storing technology by a significant margin, and perhaps even more importantly, he argues that hemp batteries provide a cheap alternative energy source at as much as 1/1,000th of current energy costs. 

Hemp Carpet 

One of the strongest characteristics of hemp has always been its fibrous structure, making it ideal for sturdy pieces of fabric like rugs, carpets, and other flooring. Amazingly, hemp carpet is also said to reduce levels of indoor pollution and is fully biodegradable. 

Hemp Insulation

Hemp fibers provide an excellent alternative for insulation products–and highly efficient in terms of thermal insulation and can even be made to be fully water resistant. 

Hemp Ink

Hemp oil acts as an excellent non-toxic carrier for ink and actually dries faster than traditional methods.

Hemp Plastic

One of the most promising uses of hemp may be to replace traditional plastics all together. Researchers suggest that hemp-plastic is up to five times stronger than polypropylene (PP) plastic. And perhaps even more surprising is the fact that hemp-plastic can be made to accommodate a variety of circumstances, and can be made to be both durable and 100% biodegradable. 

In a world that’s becoming quickly overrun by plastic waste, hemp might offer a surprising solution. 

Hemp Milk

When ground up in water, hemp seeds produce a creamy milk substance that is surprisingly rich in a wide array of vitamins and minerals. Researchers suggest that hemp milk offers a number of health benefits

  • Improved immune system
  • Healthy hair, skin, and nails 
  • Improved heart health
  • Improved mental clarity and capacities
  • Improved circulation 
  • Anti-inflammatory properties 

Hemp Lotion

Hemp lotion provides a healthy, non-toxic option to heavily processed lotion products. Additionally, hemp lotion is both renewable and sustainable–and so like many other products on this list provides a promising green-alternative to traditional options. 

Hemp Paper

As we take increased care to protect the remaining forests of the world, we may want to consider using hemp-paper as an alternative to wood-based paper. Hemp paper can be made to emulate varying levels of thickness and pliability, making it even more adaptable than wood-based paper. 

Hemp Flour 

While it is too dense to be used as a flour substitute by itself, the nutrient-dense hemp flour can be added to traditional flour products to give it a major boost in protein and amino acids, making it an excellent option for those looking to get more nutrition out of flour-based products.

Hemp Animal Food 

Hemp animal food provides some amazing benefits and might stand out as the superior alternative to corn-based animal food. The reason-being is that corn based animal food requires the animal to ingest antibiotics to avoid health risks. Hemp-based animal food is both nutritious and requires no additional antibiotics.

Hemp Shampoo

Hemp shampoo is great because it does not strip the hair of essential oils as is the case with many of the most common shampoo brands. 

Overall, hemp is one of the most dynamic botanicals on the planet earth and its potential uses are downright mind blowing at times. But this really shouldn’t be too surprising when we consider that hemp is potentially the oldest crop known to man. And all signs point to it continuing to take a role of importance in the human story as we move into the future. 

The health benefits of hemp seed oil

While there are countless hemp products that demonstrate its amazing versatility as a crop, we should not forget the amazing benefits offered by hemp seed oil. Hemp seed oil is an extraction created from industrial hemp which contains little or no THC. The process is completed through a process of cold-pressing, much in the same way olives are cold-pressed to make olive oil.

Instead, hemp seed oil is high in cannabidiol (CBD) which is a popular cannabinoid used in the treatment of various conditions such as stress, anxiety, and epilepsy. 

According to WebMD, the health benefits of hemp seed oil are as follows:

  • Combats stress and anxiety 
  • Reduces inflammation–muscular and neuronic 
  • An ideal ratio of fatty acids: omega-6 (linoleic acid) to omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) fatty acids is measured at a 3 to 1 ratio
  • Improves symptoms of dermatitis 
  • Treats skin conditions such as cradle cap, acne, and psoriasis. 
  • Helps to reduce hypertension and symptoms of high blood pressure 
  • Helps to balance cholesterol levels and improves heart health–thus lowering risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart disease
  • Provides pain-relief and can be applied directly to a problematic area
  • Supports a healthy pregnancy process 

While this does list some of the most well-known and heavily researched benefits of cannabidiol oil, be sure to check out our full guide on the science of CBD  if you want to dive deep into what it can do and why.