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The Ultimate History of Industrial Hemp Cultivation

  • by Alfonso Colasuonno

Hemp Cultivation's Earliest Beginnings

Scholars generally agree that the first complex civilizations emerged sometime between 4,000 and 3,000 BCE, yet humankind’s usage of hemp dates all the way back to 10,000 years before the common era. The first known instance of industrial hemp use was traced to a site in Yuang Shun, Taiwan, where a piece of pottery with a hempen cord was discovered.

2,000 years later, hemp was no longer used only in pottery, but also as food and medicine in both Taiwan and China. Around the same time in Mesopotamia, cloth made of hemp had started to be used, a discovery unearthed by archaeologists working at a site near the present-day Iraq-Iran border. These amazing recoveries signal that hemp has been utilized in various ways for at least six millennia before the beginning of recorded history.

Ultimate History of Industrial Hemp - Hemp Plants Growing - Goldleaf

Hemp and The Early Civilizations

Undoubtedly, China has one of the richest histories in regards to hemp. By 4,000 BCE, the Chinese had started using hemp as an alternative to silk for clothing. Twelve centuries later, Emperor Shennong taught his people how to cultivate cloth made from hemp, spreading this knowledge throughout China and leading to a tremendous expansion of hemp-based clothing. Hemp was so abundant in China that the Shu Ching, one of the earliest known books in human history, spoke extensively about its many uses. According to this book, hemp was used for military attire and weaponry, grown around every lord’s castle in Shantung Province, and frequently given as a gift by royals to peasants.

China was hardly the only ancient civilization to extol the virtues of hemp. In Egypt, hemp rope was used to assist in the construction of the pyramids. In Mongolia, the deceased were buried with an assortment of items made from hemp. After the Scythians introduced hemp into the subcontinent, Indians began to make use of hemp for medicine, food, and clothing. By 1,200 BCE, hemp made its first appearance in Europe. Four centuries later, hemp became widely used by the Punic people of North Africa for caulking.

Around the 8th century BCE, the first hemp paper mills began to appear in both the Middle East and China. Several centuries later, in 150 BCE, the Chinese produced the first paper made entirely of hemp. Further cementing their amazing advancements with hemp paper, around the 2nd or 3rd century of the common era, China produced the first known document written on any type of paper. This document was a Buddhist text written on paper chiefly made of hemp. A few centuries later, China’s neighbor Japan would make a significant hemp-based innovation. Hyakumantō Darani, a book of prayers created in the year 770, was the first religious book written entirely on hemp paper.

Shortly after the beginning of the common era, hemp began to solidify its place in the medical sphere. The year 79 marked hemp’s first appearance in a Roman pharmacopeia. 61 years later, a doctor in China named Hua Tuo began using hemp wine and hemp powder as anesthetics during surgeries. These medical associations continued for centuries. In the 10th century, Arab doctor Aqrabadhin of Al-Samarqandi wrote that hemp could treat certain cases of colic when used as an enema.

Hemp was integral to many early European civilizations. The Russians had used hemp rope as far back as 600 BCE. Greeks started using hemp rope on their ships around 200 BCE. The British began to use hemp ropes a century after the Greeks. Hemp was also a part of German society; archaeologists have found a jar of hemp seeds and leaves in Germany that date back to approximately 500 BCE. By the 6th century CE, hemp had started being associated with European royalty, with Queen Arnemunde of France buried in clothes made of hemp upon her death in 570. Hemp was also a significant part of the Viking culture of Northern Europe. The Vikings used hemp fibers for rope, sailcloth, caulking, and fishing lines; they also introduced hemp to Denmark and Iceland in around the year 800.

Hemp and the Pre- and Early Modern Era

The Age of Exploration coincided with a more formalized governmental embrace of hemp within Europe. Perhaps best exemplifying this shift was a law passed in 1535 by King Henry VIII of England; the notorious king required landowners to grow hemp on at least one fourth of an acre of their property or face financial penalties.

In 1545, the Spaniards successfully planted hemp in Chile. This was done because of the ease and value of making ropes and sailcloth out of hemp. In that same year, the Dutch began to use windmills to more effectively crush hemp for industrial purposes.

Over the last four centuries, perhaps no country has as richand bipolara history with hemp as the United States. In 1606, European settlers to the American colonies began growing hemp for lamp fuel, paper, and rope. The Jamestown Colony was particularly fond of hemp, growing it for rope, sails, and clothing. During the 18th century, both before and after America gained its independence, Americans living in certain colonies/states were legally required to grow hemp. It comes as no surprise that laws of this sort were common; Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote an early draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. In fact, both Jefferson and George Washington even grew hemp on their estates. The American tradition of hemp use across all segments of society continued deep into the 19th century; President Abraham Lincoln even used hemp seed oil to fuel his household lamps. Perhaps most astounding of all is the fact that the USS Constitution, the first ship ever built by the Navy, used a whopping 120 pounds of hemp for its lining, rope, and sailcloth.

Even into the 20th century, America was still praising hemp’s virtues. No less an institution than the United States Department of Agriculture published findings stating that hemp produced four times as much paper as trees. America’s impressive scientific portfolio was represented in hemp as well, with inventor George W. Schlichten filing a patent for a machine that simplified the process of separating hemp’s fibers from its internal core. While the United States led the way in industrial hemp use for much of the 17th to the early 20th century, use of hemp was also widespread throughout the globe during this time period. In fact, approximately 80 percent of clothing worldwide was made from hemp textiles until the 1920s.

Hemp and the Modern Era

Shortly before the start of World War II, the United States reversed course on its centuries-long embrace of the manifold uses of hemp. The Marihuana Tax Act, which was passed in 1937, saw hemp production become heavily taxed. Later in 1937, hemp production was banned. Shortly thereafter America’s neighbors to the north decided to tread a similar path; Canada banned hemp production in 1938 under an amendment to the Opium and Narcotics Drug Act.

In 1940, despite these draconian restrictions on hemp production, entrepreneur Henry Ford built a version of his revolutionary Model T car that ran on hemp seed oil. Not only was this Model T fueled by hemp, but it came equipped with hemp plastic panels that had an impact strength ten times greater than steel.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States entered World War II, bolstering the Allied cause; Canada was already a member of the Allies. In 1942, both the United States and Canada lifted their bans on hemp production to support their war efforts. Despite the immense benefits that hemp provided during World War II, the American and Canadian governments both decided to enforce their existing laws against hemp upon the war’s conclusion.

Although hemp production remained largely prohibited throughout the nation, the United States did allow hemp production to continue in small quantities until 1957, the year when the last legal commercial hemp fields were planted by farmers in Wisconsin. The passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 marked the height of hemp’s prohibition in the United States. This law classified hemp as a Schedule I narcotic and imposed strict penalties on any American who cultivated hemp.

The first thaw in the United States’ prohibitionist policies towards industrial hemp emerged in 1998, when the U.S. began to allow the importation of food-grade hemp seed and oil. Six years later, further protections for commercial uses of hemp were permitted; Hemp Industries Association v. DEA, a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, permanently protected the sale of hemp-based food and body care products. 2007 saw even greater gains, with two North Dakota farmers receiving the first commercial licenses to grow hemp given in more than 50 years. The 2014 Farm Bill further extended the re-legitimization of hemp, with research institutions now permitted to create hemp cultivation pilot programs for the purpose of agricultural or academic research.

And then everything came full circle. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 passed into law, removing the hemp plant, its seeds, and all derivatives from 1970’s Controlled Substances Act. Americans were once again fully free to engage in hemp production—that is unless they lived in one of four states (Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Dakota) that continued to ban cultivation of hemp within their borders.

Now in 2020, hemp is once again used for a myriad of products, both in the United States and throughout the globe. It is our hope that the U.S. will never again prohibit the cultivation of one of the most environmentally sound and multi-purposed substances known to humankind, the hemp plant.

Celebrate 12,000 years of hemp usage. Click here to purchase Goldleaf's majestic art print of the history of industrial hemp cultivation

[Disclaimer: The information in this article is believed to be as accurate as possible; however, exact dates for many historic uses of hemp are the best approximations of scholars, archaeologists, and researchers.]

Additional Research & Sources:

Hemp History. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

History of Hemp in the US: The Journey of Hemp, From Oldest Domesticated Crop in the World to its Rediscovery in the US. (2019, November). Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

Lehane, A. (n.d.). Hemp History Timeline - A Look At Hemp Through the Ages. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

The People's History. (2000). The Thistle, 13(2). Retrieved from

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