Herbs in History: Cannabis


Cannabis spp. L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | November 2022

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Cannabis sativa L.

Illustration 1: Cannabis sativa L. 

Althaea cannabina L.

Illustration 2: Althaea cannabina L.

The history of cannabis (Cannabis spp. L., Cannabaceae) has been abundantly narrated in the literature. It usually starts with the well-known description of cannabis’ uses among the population of Scythians made by Herodotus (5th cent. BCE) in the Histories.

An Immutable Corpus

Information about cannabis in the Western medical literature has mostly reproduced through the centuries the data found in the two major treatises on materia medica produced in antiquity: De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE) and De simplicium medicamentorum proprietatibus (On the properties of simple medicines) by Galen (2nd/3rd cent. CE).
Even though cannabis was known to the Greek world as early as the 5th century as the Histories by Herodotus indicate, the plant does not appear in the most ancient body of medical literature of Greek antiquity, the whole set of treatises ascribed to the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (5th/4th cent. BCE). It does not even appear in the Historia plantarum (Inquiry into Plants) and De causis plantarum (Physiology of Plants) by Theophrastus (4th/3rd cent. CE) credited with the flattering title of Father of Botany. It is first mentioned in Dioscorides’ De materia medica, with two species: a domesticated and a wild one.
For the domesticated species, Dioscorides provides scanty elements of description (Illustration 1): leaves similar to those of ash (Fraxinus L.) with a foul smell, long hollow stems, and a round fruit. These few elements, resulting in a pretty vague characterization more than in a complete botanical description, would be insufficient to allow for a precise botanical identification, be it at the genus or species level, hadn’t they been completed by two non-botanical information leading to a clear identification: the use of the plant to make ropes, and the impact of the excess of consumption of plant seeds on male fertility (Illustration 3).


Domesticated species of cannabis in the 10th-century manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica

Illustration 3: Domesticated species of cannabis in the 10th-century manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica copied in Constantinople, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M652, f. 86r.

Strangely enough, for the wild species, Dioscorides provides a more systematic description: stems similar to those of elm (Ulmus L.), but smaller and of a darker green color; leaves similar to those of the domesticated species, but scratchier and of darker color; flowers reddish similar to those of the rose campion (Silene coronaria (L.) Clairv. [Lychnis coronaria (L.) Desr.]); and the root and the seed similar to those of the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis L.). Contrary to what its ancient Greek name suggests, this plant is not the wild species of cannabis, but a species of Althea (actually A. cannabina L.) which is treated in De materia medica just before cannabis (Illustration 2).

Dealing with the therapeutic uses of both, Dioscorides is rather brief: the juice obtained from both the fresh domesticated species and the root of the wild species soothes inflammations and dissolves stones in the bladder when boiled and applied as a cataplasm.
Galen walked in the footsteps of Dioscorides, just adding that cannabis has a drying effect on the body and treats flatulence.
This information was transmitted to the Arabic World thanks to a vast enterprise of translation of earlier scientific texts (not only in Greek) started in the late 8th century and pursued in the 9th. It was then assimilated in the new treatises compiled by Arabic scientists, the most representative of which might be the Qanun (Canon) compiled by the omniscient ibn Sina (980-1037), best known in the West as Avicenna. To the uses provided by both Dioscorides and Galen, Avicenna clarified that sterility was provoked by the cortex of the stems, that the seed of cannabis is strongly warming, and that the plant is difficult to digest. He also introduced new therapeutic indications: erysipelas, indurations of the skin, and dandruff. Although cannabis was abundantly used as a relaxing agent in the Arabic World, nothing of this appears in the literature on materia medica, but in numerous, smaller, specific treatises devoted to the plant and its recreative use.

In the Western treatises compiled after the translation of the Arabic medical literature into Latin, we find cannabis with its two species, wild and domesticated. The wild species is credited with warming and humidifying properties at the second degree of intensity on the four-degree scale created in antiquity by Galen. It was prescribed to treat breast pain and inflammation, mature purulent swellings, and relieve the pain of gout in any part of the body. The domesticated species was credited with galactogen and anti-helminthic properties and was also prescribed for the treatment of cold in the chest and cough.

The combination of all these data formed the core of the knowledge of cannabis in the Western medical literature in the 16th century and later. The German Leonhart Fuchs translated the text of Dioscorides and Galen in his monumental Historia Stirpium (Inquiry in Medicinal Plants, 1542) and, later, the Flemish Dodoens did the same, adding, however, a better description of the domesticated species and a new use by the Belgian farmers: treating icterus.

The Creation of a Species

While repeating itself from one work to another without much transformation or new information and without either returning to the Scythian narrative of Herodotus, the scientific literature from antiquity to the Renaissance did not investigate the question of the origin of cannabis. It might be that Herodotus’ recounting of the Scythian rituals prevented from further inquiring the geography of cannabis and accredited the idea of an origin among a population at the edge of the Greek world. The Arabic World, where consumption of cannabis was a fact, did not delve either into the history of the plant, possibly because cannabis and its use pertained to esoteric groups, isolated in society, with their own literature. It was Linnaeus’ merit to address this topic.
After describing two species in the genus (male and female) in his Genera Plantarum of 1737 as the French botanist Jacques Dalechamps (1513-1588) already did before him, Linnaeus subsumed these two species in the genus sativa in his later Species Plantarum (1757), and he identified India as the place of native origin of the genus.
Whereas the taxonomy of cannabis seemed to be set, the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) revised it by formally defining a new species: Cannabis indica Lam. The idea was not totally new, however. The German botanist Georgius E. Rumphius (1627-1702) employed by the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia, had already described a species of cannabis that he identified in that way in his Herbarium Ambonense. In fact, Lamarck explicitly referred to Rumphius.

As per the short narrative included in his description of the C. indica species, Lamarck received plants from the French Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814). A nephew of the famous French explorer Pierre Poivre (1719-1786), Sonnerat was himself a naturalist and explorer. He extensively travelled in Southern Africa, Southern India, and Sri Lanka, in addition to being a colonial administrator in India. He took advantage of his stays in these regions to assemble a substantial collection of plants, many of which he described. Back to France in 1781, he made his herbarium available to Lamarck.

Cannabis indica

Illustration 4: Cannabis indica. Specimen collected by Pierre Sonnerat en Inde and now in the Lamarck Herbarium. Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris (France), Collection: Plantes vasculaires (P), Spécimen P00562707. 

Sonnerat’s herbarium included the individuals of cannabis that Lamarck identified as C. indica (Illustration 4). According to Lamarck, these individuals “seem to be a very distinct species” from the sativa one. Lamarck then went on describing these individuals, among which he distinguished a male and a female. Continuing, he reported the uses of the species which “disturbs the brain, generates a sort of ebriety which leads to forget sorrow, and procures, instead, a sort of joy”. 

Although Lamarck did not explicitly the source of this report, the whole structure of his text allows to conjecture it comes from Sonnerat’s information. However, a close look at available documentation reveals that Lamarck’s description recalls that by Rumphius. A comparative reading of Lamarck and Rumphius’ texts brings to light striking similarities, including the names of a preparation made of cannabis which is called Majuh among the Indian populations and Malach among the Turkish populations. Even the reference to Clusius appears in both texts. It is very tempting to suggest that Lamarck paraphrased Rumphius’ chapter, instead of reproducing a report by Sonnerat.

Going backward in time from one ancient text to another starting with Rumphius’ Herbarium, the most ancient text that establishes a link between India and the recreative use of cannabis that we can identify in currently available documentation is the Compendium on Simple Medicaments and Foods compiled by the Andalusian botanist and physician Ibn al-Baytar (1187-1248). This Compendium can aptly be compared to Dioscorides’ De materia medica thanks to its exhaustivity in the coverage of the field of materia medica. Just as in Dioscorides’ work, each materia medica is dealt with in a specific chapter, with the description of the plants, the parts to be used for therapeutic purposes, the ways to prepare these parts, their therapeutic properties, and the medical conditions for the treatment of which they are indicated.
Ibn al-Baytar’s chapter on cannabis must be cited literally as it provides the key to the understanding of the creation of the C. indica species:


There is another species of hemp, which is called Indian. I have seen it only in Egypt where is cultivated in gardens and where it is also called hasha’ish. It violently intoxicates those who take even a small quantity (1 or 2 drachms) at such a point that prolonged consumption leads to mindlessness. The people who use it have their mind altered, they end up crazy, and sometimes even die.

Arrived at the most ancient source of the information about an Indian species that can currently be identified, a revision of all the literature on cannabis from Ibn al-Baytar’s time (13th century) to Lamarck’s draws a clear lineage through which the description of the effects of a local production (cannabis from India) has been erected into a species (Cannabis indica).

End of a Species?

From antiquity to present day, particularly in the most recent decades, some species go extinct. A possible famous case is that of silphium, the panacea of antiquity. Cannabis sativa Lam. is different: the plant does not disappear; it is only the indica species that disappears from the current botanical taxonomy. John M. McPartland summarized this disappearance as follows:

… reconciling the vernacular and formal nomenclatures: ‘Sativa’ is really indica, ‘Indica’ is actually afghanica, and ‘Ruderalis’ is usually sativa. All three are varieties of one species, C. sativa L. ...

Nevertheless, according to the same:

… ‘Sativa’ plants produce more THC than CBD, and a terpenoid profile that smells ‘herbal’ or ‘sweet’. ‘Indica’ plants produce more CBD than ‘Sativa’, with a THC-to-CBD ratio closer to 1:1. ‘Indica’ terpenoids impart an acrid or ‘skunky’ aroma …

And, to conclude with McPartland:

… Categorizing cannabis as either ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ has become an exercise in futility. Ubiquitous interbreeding and hybridization render their distinction meaningless. The arbitrariness of these designations is illustrated by ‘AK-47’, a hybrid that won ‘Best Sativa’ in the 1999 Cannabis Cup, and won ‘Best Indica’ four years later.

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