With the ongoing debate over the therapeutic benefits of cannabis we could all be forgiven for thinking that its use as a medicine is a recent phenomenon.  In fact, a look back in history shows that cannabis was recorded as being used for medicinal purposes by ancient Chinese, Indian and Egyptian civilisations, to name a few, to treat a variety of conditions.

The earliest recorded use of cannabis as a medicine was in China in 2737 B.C. by the Chinese Emperor Shen Neng who wrote about its effectiveness for treating gout, malaria, beriberi and rheumatism.

Hua Tuo, (140-208 AD) was a pioneering Chinese surgeon who according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica was able to make his patients insensitive to pain using a preparation of hemp and wine.

The Shennong Bencaojing, a medical book researchers believe is a compilation of oral traditions and thought to have been written in the later part of the Han Dynasty, refers to cannabis as dama (da meaning great and ma meaning cannabis) and notes that the flowers, the seeds, and the leaves of the plant can be useful in medicine.  Hemp seeds are still used today by Chinese medicine doctors for the treatment of constipation as well as pain relief, nausea and nervous disorders.

In ancient India, it was believed that cannabis was sent from the gods out of compassion for the human race.  It reached India between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. and ancient texts reference the use of cannabis as a medicine in the form of the drink bhang, which amongst other ingredients, is made using cannabis flowers and leaves to treat conditions such as insomnia, headaches, digestive conditions and for clearing phlegm. Bhang is considered one of the five sacred plants of India, and even today it retains a strong cultural significance and is an important component of Ayurvedic medicine.  Although the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 prohibits the production, sale and consumption of certain parts of the cannabis plant, the leaves, which bhang is made from, are an exception.

The botanist Hui-lin-Li* wrote that in China, “The use of Cannabis in medicine was probably a very early development. Since ancient humans used hemp seed as food, it was quite natural for them to also discover the medicinal properties of the plant.”

The ancient Egyptians are yet another civilization who had discovered the medical benefits of cannabis and would appear to have used it extensively. The Ebers Papyrus, thought to have been written around 1550 B.C. mentions a number of formulas that use hemp to alleviate the pain and inflammation caused by a number of diseases.  The Ramesseum III Papyrus from 1700 B.C. contains a prescription on plate A26, where cannabis is used as a cure for glaucoma: ‘A treatment for the eyes: celery, cannabis is ground and left in the dew overnight.  Both eyes of the patient are to be washed with it in the morning.’  Written prescriptions for the use of cannabis were discovered all over Egypt with evidence of its consumption found in mummified remains.

One of the most surprising aspects of the ancient Egyptians use of cannabis as a medical therapy comes from the 2nd century Fayyum Medical Papyrus which is thought to contain the first ever recorded use of cannabis as a medicine for cancer. Little is known about its impact but the use of cannabis as a potential treatment for cancer is something that continues to generate interest today (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17712811)

Whilst we only have records of the treatment therapies and not the actual results what is clear is that cannabis was woven into the fabric of everyday life in ancient civilisations. And yet, it is ironic that thousands of years later, some of the medical conditions it was used to treat are the subject of so much global debate today.

*Li, Hui-Lin (1974). “An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China”, Economic Botany 28.4:437–448, p. 444.



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