Cannabis in the Stone Age, the beginnings of the hatchery 🌍

We know that the history of cannabis goes back millennia, but when and where was it first domesticated? Today we travel in time


List of contents 🔻

  • Stone Age, birth of agriculture
  • First samples of cannabis found
  • Indications of domestication of cannabis
  • The first breeders: cultivation and selection of cannabis in the Stone Age
  • Conclusions on the domestication of cannabis

Studies on the origins of cannabis are becoming more frequent, as global interest in this plant has only skyrocketed in recent decades. Whether we talk about the place of origin, the date of domestication or the samples with the oldest dates found, the curiosity about our relationship with this ancient plant grows every day, thanks in part to the process of legalization and normalization that we are seeing in many countries. .

Today we want to go back to the beginning of this relationship, and for this we are going to have to take you on a journey through time to the Stone Age, when the human being established his first settlements and began a key activity for his development, agriculture. . And how could it be otherwise... guess what was one of the first plants cultivated by mankind? Cannabis, of course!


During the Neolithic, not only dolmens were built, but cannabis was also cultivated

Stone Age, birth of agriculture

The Stone Age is a broad period of History - in fact, it is considered the first period of prehistory - that includes a vast space of time, approximately from 3 million years ago (first tools) and until the year 4,000 BC, when metals were discovered and the Copper Age began. During this long period the first stone tools were made and activities such as agriculture, crafts or the preparation of food such as bread and cheese began.

In turn, this period is usually divided into three others, Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic; it is in the last two that we are going to focus today, from approximately 12,000 BC and until the discovery of metals. And it is precisely during these two periods that humanity became sedentary, settling in certain areas to prosper thanks to hunting, plant cultivation and the manufacture of tools and supplies such as baskets, fabrics or ceramics. We would therefore speak of authentic settlements within the first agrarian societies in our history.

First samples of cannabis found

If we talk about the first physical evidence of the use of cannabis, the sample of hemp rope obtained from a site in China is probably the oldest, with a date that points to approximately 12,000 BC. We emphasize that this is evidence of its use, not the first sample of cannabis obtained, which would be pollen grains with an age of about 19.6 million years. Based on studies on pollen grains identified as belonging to cannabis, a group of researchers propose an area of the Tibetan Plateau as the place of origin of cannabis, in the vicinity of Lake Qinghai.


Cannabis could have originated in the foothills of Lake Qinghai, in Tibet

The research points to the idea that cannabis remained isolated in the highlands of Asia for millions of years, before spreading to other territories and beginning to be cultivated for its many applications, from making ropes to obtaining seeds as food and, of course, also for its psychoactive properties.


Indications of domestication of cannabis

Although there is debate among leading researchers as to how cannabis spread and was domesticated as far afield as East Asia and Europe, it seems clear that the origins of the plant are Eurasian. However, this leaves us with an extremely wide geographical area, so efforts to narrow down the area where the plant originated continue unabated. Until recently, it seemed clear that cannabis had originated somewhere in Central Asia and from there the predecessor tribes of European cultures would have domesticated it and dispersed it to the East.

However, the latest studies point to the idea that cannabis would have been domesticated in Asia around 11,000 BC, but also, and almost simultaneously, in other territories such as Japan or Eastern Europe. According to these investigations, the use of cannabis would be much more regular in areas of East Asia than in Central Asia or Eastern Europe, although the evidence found in the studied sites seems to demonstrate this domestication in several areas and almost simultaneously (between 11,500 BC and 10,200 BC). It would not be until practically the Bronze Age, when the use would have intensified in other areas of Asia, perhaps taking advantage of the first sketches of the future Silk Road, and it seems that thanks in part to its psychoactive properties.


Ancient paintings with cannabis leaves found in a cave on the island of Kyushu, Japan

However, seed remains have been found in European Neolithic sites as far away from East Asia as Italy, Romania and even Spain, which would indicate that at some point in this period there would indeed have been a westward expansion of the plant and largely part of the territory that we now call Europe or, alternatively, that there was already indigenous cannabis in Europe at that time. Some investigations point to the Hexi Corridor as the geographical passage through which this expansion towards European lands would have occurred during the Neolithic, while others suggest that this expansion would have occurred somewhat later, already beginning the Bronze Age. The debate is still open.


The first breeders: cultivation and selection of cannabis in the Stone Age

That the cannabis strains we know today come from centuries of selection for certain traits by man is something that is clear to us today. However, when did this selection process begin? When did cannabis start to be bred for fiber or psychoactive purposes? Well, according to a 2021 study published in Science Advances, this process would have begun at the beginning of the Neolithic period in the area where we have already seen that its use was most intensive, East Asia.

According to the researchers, cannabis would have been domesticated at this time from the landrace varieties of China. In addition, the genes responsible for the production of fiber (hemp) and psychoactive plants were compared, observing that it was during this period when both types of plants begin to clearly differentiate, which indicates a process of trait selection by the growers. Thus, these first Neolithic cannabis growers would have been responsible for separating both types of plants, crossing them with each other to strengthen the desired characteristics in future offspring.


Some areas of the Hexi Corridor in China are truly spectacular

Undoubtedly, these investigations would be much simpler if the wild ancestor of cannabis were available, although unfortunately it is extinct. In this way, the studies must be carried out with the varieties that we have today (hemp, psychoactive varieties and landraces), which complicates things quite a bit. What does seem clear is that, at a genetic level, landrace varieties from China are the most similar to this extinct ancestor, which points to this area as a possible origin of domesticated cannabis and, therefore, of the varieties we know today. today.

Conclusions on the domestication of cannabis

We see that as more and more studies on the origins of cannabis and its domestication come to light, both the period and the area where these phenomena occurred are limited. Even so, and as often happens, some studies seem to contradict each other, pointing to different areas or proposing different theories about their domestication and expansion.

As we have seen, there is still debate today between Central Asia or East Asia as the "cradles" of cannabis, as well as the way in which the plant spread to distant territories. In addition, the latest research on the first samples of cannabis in Europe deserves careful study, as they could turn many theories upside down.

Undoubtedly, as scientific research advances, we will have more data and it will be easier to draw conclusions, although always bearing in mind that... archeology is not like mathematics!



  • Cannabis in Eurasia: origin of human use and Bronze Age trans-continental connections, Tengwen Long, Mayke Wagner, Dieter Demske, Christian Leipe, Pavel E. Tarasov
  • Large-scale whole-genome resequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa, Guangpeng Ren, Xu Zhang, Ying Li, Kate Ridout, Martha L Serrano-Serrano, Yongzhi Yang, Ai Liu, Gudasalamani Ravikanth, Muhammad Ali Nawaz, Abdul Samad Mumtaz, Nicolas Salamin, Luca Fumagalli
  • An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China, Hui-Lin Li
  • Cannabis utilization and diffusion patterns in prehistoric Europe: a critical analysis of archaeological evidence, John McPartland, William Hegman
  • Cannabis is indigenous to Europe and cultivation began during the Copper or Bronze age: a probabilistic synthesis of fossil pollen studies, John McPartland, Geoffrey W Guy, William Hegman
  • Origin, early expansion, domestication and anthropogenic diffusion of Cannabis, with emphasis on Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, Valentí Rull

Happy farming!

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