Hemp has been used since ancient times for everything from clothes to paper and rope. It is a hardy plant that grows fast without human assistance and yields a significant amount of material. Here are six of the most interesting ancient uses.
Hemp, Hemp Everywhere
Many of the textiles found from ancient times were made of hemp, which is a testament to its widespread use and durability. Sites up to 10,000 years old have been found to contain various types of hemp articles and other clues pointing to its use. Only in the last century or so has hemp started to be squeezed out of various industries to make way for inferior materials such as cotton.
From a typical consumer’s economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to avoid using hemp. It’s far superior to most other materials and much more affordable over time—you’d have no reason to buy cotton jeans every couple years if hemp ones lasted you a lifetime. If you grew hemp yourself, you’d even be able to make clothes out of it on your own, just like many did in ancient times.
The majority of archeological sites with evidence of hemp use are in China, which was at one point nicknamed “the land of mulberry and hemp”, but there’s plenty of evidence pointing toward ancient uses of hemp found in Japan, Egypt and Iran.
Archeologists that unearth ancient sites have to carefully avoid exposing the finds to the elements, which can destroy what little remains from these ages past. Textiles that remain have to be immediately preserved from the elements in a sealed atmosphere or they can degrade very quickly. Only in a controlled environment can scientists safely take a closer look at the archeological clues.
#1 Hemp cloth
In the 16th century, Henry VIII introduced two acts regarding hemp, ordering landowners to sow at least a quarter of an acre with hemp or be fined. In this way, he wanted to prepare himself for any ensuing war efforts and strengthen the British Navy after numerous costly and failed wars. For this, Henry VIII needed hemp. Lots and lots of hemp.
Used in everything from sails to clothes to the Bibles sailors carried with them, hemp cloth quickly became indispensable, even entering the English vocabulary as a separate word—canvas—which we today define as “heavy fabric used for making sails”. The origin of the word canvas is the French “chanevaz”, meaning “made of hemp” and the Latin “cannabis”, which stems from Greek “kannabis” and again means “hemp”.
Ancient dig sites in Mesopotamia (today’s Iran and Iraq) from approximately 8000 BC have offered archeologists additional clues pointing towards ancient uses of hemp, including its use for clothes. In fact, there seem to have been entire factories where hemp was processed for cloth, with inscriptions and fragments of pottery telling the whole story. Hemp was also used by Scythians (ancient Iranians) as a burial tribute.
Sung dynasty texts from 500 AD reference emperor Shen Nung, who is thought to have lived in 2700 BC and may have taught his people how to make cloth out of hemp. For some archeologists, references to ancient uses of hemp are considered unsubstantiated, simply because it’s hard to find a matching dig site and enough remains to provide confirmation.
Another Chinese text from 2nd century BC references making mourning clothes out of hemp, which were worn to show respect to the spirits of the dead.
Hemp cloth has other properties that make it an excellent clothing material:
Retains color better than many other fabrics
Four times stronger than cotton
Blocks nearly all UV radiation it’s exposed to
Anti-bacterial by itself, preventing body odor
Becomes softer the more it’s used
#2 Hemp armor
One of the interesting ancient uses of hemp relates to warfare. When we think about an ancient soldier, we often imagine a sturdy figure in shining armor wielding a gleaming steel sword. Though fanciful, this image was very rare throughout history because steel and metals in general were precious and given only to the most loyal subjects. If you armed 10,000 soldiers with your finest metal weapons and armor, they could rebel, switch sides, or simply die and give up their equipment to the enemy. Also, many members of the army were famished peasant conscripts who could barely stand upright, let alone wear bear the weight of metal weapons and armor.
Metal was used sparingly in weapons and armor, with the main substitute being leather and hemp. In China, before The Warring States period (475–221 BC), armies would rarely fight to the death but rather try to intimidate one another, with soldiers quickly joining the ranks of the winning army as it became apparent who would win if a fight ensued. Emperors fielding armies would then want to equip them with the cheapest equipment meant to look intimidating, which by some legends included paper armor and might have conceivably included hemp armor. In Japan, the equipment was far from cheap and most often worn by the samurai, the officer caste in feudal Japan.
The iconic Japanese skirt-like samurai armor was in part made of hemp, especially the linings and other bits that had to be sturdy and flexible yet comfortable for long periods of wearing. Leather, iron, and other materials were used to create small scales that would be tied together using cordage to provide a sturdy and flexible set of armor called “O-Yoroi” (great armor) used between 11–14th century AD. The initial design of O-Yoroi was suited for horse-riding archers, who used bows with strings made of sinew, bamboo, or plant fibers such as hemp.
In China, archers also used bows with hemp strings, giving them a greater range than those with bamboo strings. Craftsmen would take six or eight long, thin, even strands of hemp, twisting them together to create a sturdy bowstring. This leads us to another popular ancient use of hemp: rope.
#3 Hemp rope
The earliest tools, weapons, and machines were made without any glue or nails, with only the most primitive materials available, which included plants. If one only has a bunch of plant stalks, the most efficient way to make a rope out of them is by crushing the plants and letting them sit in a pool of water, a process known as “retting”. Once the leaves and other plant material have rotted away, the fibers are hung to dry and can be used to create rope when they’re twisted together.
If you use the hemp rope to tie a rock to a stick you would now have a primitive axe, which could then be used to chop down more plants and produce more ropes for more axes. You would then have a nearly infinite supply of not just ropes but all sorts of useful gadgets made when tying two items together.
Hemp rope lets you create vehicles without any metal by simply tying the parts together. This was especially useful on boats; hemp rope for the anchor cord and boat’s rigging was favored by the seamen due to its high strength and resistance to mold and salt water.
A prolific Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, wrote in Book XIX of his Natural History that “there is hemp, a plant remarkably useful for making ropes” around 80 AD. As Romans spread north and started conquering Britain, they introduced hemp rope to the natives, who quickly adopted it.
#4 Hemp concrete
Romans were industrious people, often defeating their enemies through their disciplined ability to outbuild others. It’s no wonder then that the ancient Romans figured out how to build structures using hemp concrete, a regular concrete reinforced with hemp.
The Roman recipe for hemp concrete has been lost to time, but today we have something similar, known as “hempcrete”. Powdered limestone is mixed with the core of the hemp, which has a unique property of containing silica. When the two bind together, the result is a concrete-like material that is surprisingly lightweight. Hempcrete is best used as small bricks, and in non-load-bearing walls, due to its insulative properties.
Hempcrete is superior to traditional concrete in other ways, including:
Mold and pest resistance
Resistance to humidity
#5 Hemp paper
The oldest paper samples hail from China and are made of hemp. One Chinese tomb in the Shaanxi province, dated to around 140 BC, holds the record for the oldest piece of paper, which was naturally made from pure hemp. Cellulose paper was invented in China around 100 AD and was a mix of hemp and mulberry fibers. Before that, important records were often kept on slips of bamboo and clay tablets. The secret of paper was jealously kept but eventually leaked out into the rest of the world, which quickly adopted it.
Today, we use pure cellulose to produce paper, which is difficult to process. Pulp and paper mills use an astounding amount of chemicals to process cellulose, releasing the wastewater into waterways, impacting living beings inside the water and potentially ending up in our bodies as well. The trees used for cellulose take years to fully mature. As deforestation spreads, so does soil erosion.
Hemp is a viable substitute for cellulose and can be made using less chemicals. It is much easier to recycle and retains its properties far beyond the lifespan of cellulose. Hemp grows much faster and has relatively deep roots that prevent the erosion of soil.
#6 Hemp medicine
It’s impossible to mention hemp without mentioning its use as a medicine. Ancient Egyptians understood the benefits of hemp seed oil as eyewash, as well as for pain relief and curbing inflammation. Pliny the Elder mentions hemp being used to flush out insects from ears and as an analgesic. Around Pliny’s time, the Greek doctor Pedanius Dioscorides wrote in his medical encyclopedia about hemp being used for treatment of burns and upset stomach. There are also benefits of hemp protein powder extracted from the hemp plant.
Hemp has a wonderful and versatile history. Today, hemp is frowned upon throughout many parts of the modern world, but CBD products made of hemp are increasingly becoming legal. Find out about the differences between CBD oil and hemp oil here.