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Science Uncovers the Ancient Roots of Hemp and Cannabis

Ancient Roots of Hemp and Cannabis

Uncovering the Historical Roots of Cannabis and Hemp

Cannabis is a popular topic on the internet these days, with everyone from legislators to politicians, detractors, and enthusiasts chiming in on anything and everything that is cannabis-related. That’s good and well for the present, but the roots of Hemp and Cannabis seem to be shrouded in the mists of time with reports pointing to the relationship between this ancient botanical species and human beings going back millennia. A recent study published in Science Advances explored the genetics of the Cannabis sativa plant to expose the ancient origins of the plant, revealing evidence suggesting that the relationship between humans and Cannabis–the cultivation of the plant–may have ultimately led to the extinction of the original ancestor strain of Cannabis.   

Cannabis was cultivated in China / East Asia as early as 12,000 years ago by primitive humans

Luca Fumagalli, one of the lead researchers in the study, has suggested that Cannabis was one of the first species of plant actively cultivated by human beings millennia ago. Using molecular analysis, his team analyzed and sequenced over one hundred C. sativa genomes in their study, which seems to indicate that Cannabis was cultivated in China / East Asia as early as 12,000 years ago by primitive humans. Four genetically discrete groups of the cannabis plant can be traced back through the genetic lineage to the original roots of hemp via this method:


Hemp is a cultivated variety of the Cannabis sativa plant originally bred for industry. It is characterized by its low levels of the cannabinoid THC and its utility in cheating fibers for ropes and textiles, to name a few of its uses. In the US, Hemp was recently made legal under the 2018 Farm Bill, which allowed farmers limited rights to farm hemp. 

Marijuana 1 (Cannabis for drug purposes, version 1)

This genetic group includes the wild versions of Cannabis with elevated levels of THC, which would make it useful as a recreational substance. These old, wild species include wild strains from eastern Asia, including India, Pakistan, and China.

Marijuana 2 (Cannabis for drug purposes, version 2)

The second group of “drug-use” cannabis species has been extensively cultivated for their psychotropic effects in every corner of the world, from Africa to Alaska.

Basal Cannabis 

This refers to human-cultivated hemp as well as human-cultivated marijuana plants (psychoactive Cannabis) from around the world. Here you would typically find the traditional cannabis landraces or original breeds found in China and originally thought to be the starting point prior to this research. It is this particular group which Fumagalli’s team uncovered in their research that had not yet been detected in previous research undertakings into the roots of hemp and cannabis.

Back to the Roots of Hemp

From the study of basal Cannabis, the research team has suggested that domesticated Cannabis has its roots in East Asia, shifting the location from Central Asia, which is where previous data had located it. At a point approximately 12,000 years ago, we can detect a split from the ancient basal varieties to the more modern cultivated species suggesting that Cannabis was one of the first crops to be effectively cultivated by human beings. Interestingly enough, the roots of these early versions of C. sativa only form separate genetic groups of Hemp plants (Cannabis used mainly for its fibers) and Marijuana plants (Cannabis used principally for its psychotropic effects) around 4,000 years ago. This date fits snugly into bronze age evidence concerning the discovery of the first fiber artifacts in eastern Asia from approximately the same time. 

As to the fate of psychoactive Cannabis–Marijuana as we know it today–the research suggests that it moved from east Asia through India around 3,000 years ago, moving from the subcontinent into Africa and as far as South America. 

With both Cannabis and hemp being such a versatile crop and humans having mastered its cultivation so long ago, it seems likely that we have had a significant impact on its genetic evolution. Humans have likely had a significant effect on the genetic history of C. sativa, effectively breeding in the traits we needed from it (fibers, impressive psychoactive performance) and breeding out traits that were not wanted. Ultimately this leaves the original roots of a hemp “mother” species somewhat lost and obscured by time–probably made extinct by the new ‘man-made’ varieties. Indeed, the researchers point to the modern practice of aggressive strain breeding as one of the limitations to discovering the ancient roots of this remarkable and highly versatile plant, first domesticated eons ago. 


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