The history and evolution of hemp cultivation

7 Minute Read

Hemp is one of the oldest and most versatile crops in the world. It has been cultivated for thousands of years for its fiber, seeds, oil, and medicinal properties. Hemp has also played a significant role in many cultures and religions throughout history. 

However, hemp cultivation has also faced many challenges and controversies over the years. In this article, we will explore the history and evolution of hemp cultivation from ancient times to the present day.

A brief history of Hemp

Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant that is grown for its fiber and seeds. It is different from marijuana, which is another variety of Cannabis sativa that is grown for its psychoactive effects. It has very low levels of THC, the compound that causes the high in marijuana.

The origin of hemp cultivation is not clear, but some evidence suggests that it may have originated in Central Asia or China. The earliest archaeological evidence of hemp cultivation dates back to 8000 BC in China, where hemp was used to make rope, cloth, and paper. Hemp was also used as food and medicine in ancient China.

Hemp cultivation spread to other parts of the world over time. It was introduced to India around 2800 BC, where it was used for religious and medicinal purposes. It was also cultivated in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used to make clothing and sails. It reached North America in the 1500s, where it was grown by European settlers and Native Americans.

Hemp cultivation reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was a major crop in many countries around the world. It was used to make a variety of products, including paper, textiles, canvas, rope, oil, soap, paint, and fuel. It was also a valuable source of protein and oil for human and animal consumption.

However, in the early 20th century, hemp cultivation began to decline due to a number of factors. One of them was the rise of synthetic fibers, such as nylon and rayon, which replaced hemp in many applications. Another factor was the passage of laws that made it illegal to grow hemp in many countries. These laws were influenced by the anti-marijuana movement, which associated hemp with marijuana and claimed that both were harmful and addictive substances.

As a result of these factors, hemp cultivation became almost extinct in many parts of the world by the mid-20th century. Only a few countries continued to grow hemp legally or illegally for industrial or medicinal purposes.

Hemp in Ancient China

China is considered to be one of the oldest and most important centers of hemp cultivation in the world. According to legend, hemp was discovered by Emperor Shen Nung around 2700 BC. Shen Nung was a mythical ruler who is credited with inventing agriculture, medicine, and writing. He is also said to have taught his people how to use hemp for making cloth, rope, paper, medicine, and food.

Hemp was an integral part of Chinese culture and civilization for thousands of years. It was used to make clothing for royalty and commoners alike. It was also used to make paper for writing and printing. The first paper ever made was from hemp fiber around 100 BC. Hemp paper was superior to other materials such as silk or bamboo because it was cheaper, stronger, more durable, and easier to produce.

Hemp was also used for medicinal purposes in ancient China. Hemp seeds were a source of oil and protein that were used to treat various ailments such as constipation, malaria, rheumatism, and gout. Hemp flowers and leaves were also used to make teas and decoctions that were used to treat pain, inflammation, fever, insomnia, and mental disorders.

Hemp cultivation continued to flourish in China until the 20th century when it faced competition from synthetic fibers and political pressure from anti-drug campaigns. Today, hemp cultivation is still legal in China but is strictly regulated by the government.

Hemp in Indian Vedas

India is another ancient center of hemp cultivation that has a rich history and tradition associated with the plant. The earliest mention of hemp is said to be in the Vedas, the sacred Hindu texts that date back to 4000-3000 BC. The Vedas contain many references to the use and consumption of hemp for medicinal and religious purposes.

One of the most prominent references to hemp is in the Atharvaveda, one of the four Vedas that deals with magic and medicine. The Atharvaveda praises hemp as one of the five sacred plants that can deliver humans from distress. It also describes how hemp can be used to treat various diseases such as diarrhea, epilepsy, and hemorrhoids.

Another reference to hemp is in the Rigveda, the oldest and most important of the four Vedas that deals with hymns and rituals. The Rigveda mentions a drink called soma, which was a sacred beverage that was consumed by priests and warriors to induce ecstasy and inspiration. Some scholars believe that soma was made from hemp or a related plant.

Hemp was also associated with Lord Shiva, one of the main deities in Hinduism. Shiva is known for having a strong affinity towards bhang, which is a preparation of hemp leaves and flowers that is consumed as a drink or a paste. Bhang is still widely used in India today for religious and recreational purposes.

Hemp cultivation was also widespread in India until the 20th century when it faced legal restrictions and social stigma. Today, hemp cultivation is illegal in India except for some states that allow it for industrial or medicinal purposes.

The discovery of Hemp Paper

One of the most important inventions in human history was the discovery of paper. Paper revolutionized the fields of writing, printing, communication, education, and art. It enabled the preservation and transmission of knowledge and culture across time and space.

The first paper ever made was from hemp fiber around 100 BC in China. Hemp paper was superior to other materials such as silk or bamboo because it was cheaper, stronger, more durable, and easier to produce. It was also resistant to insects, mold, and water.

Hemp paper was widely used in China for centuries for various purposes such as writing, printing, painting, calligraphy, and books. It was also exported to other countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet.

Hemp paper reached Europe around the 13th century through trade and cultural exchange. It was initially used for making money and documents. Later, it was also used for making books and newspapers. Hemp paper played a key role in the development of the printing press and the Renaissance in Europe.

Hemp paper remained the dominant form of paper until the 19th century when it was replaced by wood pulp paper. Wood pulp paper was cheaper and easier to produce than hemp paper but it also had many disadvantages such as being weaker, more brittle, more acidic, and more prone to deterioration.

Today, hemp paper is still produced in some countries but it is mostly used for specialty purposes such as art, crafts, stationery, and packaging. It is also gaining popularity among environmentalists who advocate for its ecological benefits over wood pulp paper.

The legality of Hemp in India

Hemp cultivation has a long history in India but it has also faced many legal challenges and controversies over the years. Hemp cultivation was legal in India until 1985 when it was banned by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act). The NDPS Act classified hemp as a narcotic drug along with marijuana and other substances. The NDPS Act prohibited the cultivation, possession, use, sale, and transport of hemp except for medical or scientific purposes.

However, the NDPS Act also allowed some exceptions for hemp cultivation in some states where it was traditionally grown or consumed. These states include Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, and Sikkim. These states have their own rules and regulations regarding hemp cultivation that vary from state to state.

In 2017, Uttarakhand became the first state in India to legalize industrial hemp cultivation. Industrial hemp is a variety of hemp that has very low levels of THC (less than 0.3%) and is grown for its fiber and seeds. Industrial hemp can be used to make a variety of products such as textiles, paper, plastics, cosmetics, food, and fuel.

In 2019, Uttar Pradesh also legalized industrial hemp cultivation with similar conditions as Uttarakhand. Other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu & Kashmir are also considering legalizing industrial hemp cultivation in the near future.

Challenges for hemp cultivation

Hemp cultivation still faces many challenges and barriers in India. Some of them include:

  • Lack of awareness and education about the benefits and uses of hemp
  • Lack of research and development on hemp varieties
  • Lack of infrastructure and technology for hemp processing
  • Lack of quality standards and certification for hemp products
  • Lack of market access and demand for hemp products
  • Lack of policy support and coordination among different stakeholders

Environmental benefits of Hemp

Despite these challenges, hemp cultivation has a lot of potential in India. Hemp cultivation can provide many economic, social, and environmental benefits for India such as:

  • Generating income and employment opportunities for farmers
  • Reducing dependence on imports of raw materials
  • Promoting rural development and empowerment
  • Enhancing soil health and biodiversity
  • Saving water and energy resources
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Improving health and wellness

Therefore, hemp cultivation should be encouraged and supported by the government, industry, academia, and the society.


The history and evolution of hemp cultivation are deeply intertwined with the development of human civilization. Today, with the growing awareness of the environmental benefits and versatility of hemp cultivation, there is a resurgence of interest in this valuable crop. As we embrace the history and potential of hemp cultivation, it is essential to continue exploring its uses, promoting sustainable practices, and ensuring responsible regulation to maximize the benefits of this versatile plant.

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